Baseball in China: scaling a high wall
Vail, CO Colroado
NEW YORK ” The Yankees and Mariners have become the first major league teams to sign Chinese players, so could baseball’s version of NBA superstar Yao Ming be on deck?
Unlikely, for reasons that are varied and complicated.
Jim Lefebvre, manager of the Chinese team that will play in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, believes a lot of it is because China, unlike the United States, doesn’t yet teach its youngsters the intricacies of baseball.
Chinese dads don’t play backyard catch with their young sons. Chinese boys don’t play stickball and there are no neighborhood diamonds for impromptu pickup games.
“China has no Little League, no high school, no college,” Lefebvre, a former major league player and manager, said during a recent telephone interview. “Baseball is a very young sport in China and has no grassroots programs like we see for the kids from Latin America, the U.S., everywhere. Even Europe has better programs.”
The country does boast the professional Chinese Baseball League, which was founded in 2002 by an American and fields six teams for a 30-game season. There’s also the occasional major league game on ESPN. But, by and by, there’s little exposure to America’s pastime and scant interest in the sport in a country enchanted with ping pong, soccer and the NBA.
Rong Lan, a teacher in Tianjin, a city of more than 10 million people about 90 miles southeast of Beijing and home to the CBL’s Tianjin Lions, said the Chinese just don’t get baseball. She said most people, including her husband, would rather watch a good soccer match or check out Yao’s latest accomplishments in the NBA.
She said she had never heard of her hometown Lions, even though the team won league titles in 2002, 2005 and 2006. And she wasn’t aware that one of its stars was among the two players the Yankees added to their minor league roster.
“I don’t think people in China understand baseball very much,” Rong said via e-mail. “It’s not included in physical education at school. It’s not popular here.”
It doesn’t help, either, that the CBL plays only on weekends and draws just a few hundred fans per game.
The players, paid about $300 a month, don’t endure the year-round training common in other parts of the world. Each player might get to the plate 120 times during the CBL’s short season, while many major leaguers see five times as many at-bats.
“Baseball has to be played day in and day out,” said Lefebvre, who also played pro ball in Japan. “When we play four or five games in a row, the players break down and get hurt. If China wants to compete, they have to play day in and day out and realize who they are competing with.”
Besides the lack of at bats, Chinese players don’t have much experience throwing a baseball. As a result, their arms are not especially strong.
Pitchers generally throw in the mid-70s mph and stealing bases is common because most catchers don’t possess the arm needed to gun down advancing runners.
The subtleties of baseball are sometimes lost on the Chinese players as well. They have to be taught basic skills such as throwing to the cutoff man or playing in when the other team is threatening to score.
“The players are very intelligent but they do make a lot of mistakes. They don’t understand the score, how to play the game, strategies,” Lefebvre said. “When they get a guy on first with no outs, they bunt him to second and then bunt him to third and hope something happens after that.”
China lags far behind Asian neighbors Japan, South Korea and Taiwan at the international level. But that’s expected to change in the coming years as it and Major League Baseball gear up their effort to bring the sport known to the Chinese as bangqui (bahng-chee-oh) to the masses.
That effort took a giant leap forward when the Yankees became the first major league club to enter into a sponsorship deal with a company from China, agreeing with that nation’s largest dairy company, the Yili Group, to advertise at Yankee Stadium and in Yankees Magazine.
Earlier this year, the Yankees and the Chinese Baseball Association entered into a working agreement. On July 6, the Yankees will introduce left-handed pitcher Kai Liu and catcher Zhenwang Zhang, who last month became the first Chinese players to sign with a major league organization. Seattle later added two more CBL players, both from the Beijing Tigers.
Lefebvre likes what he has seen of Liu, who played for the CBL’s Guangdong Leopards and is on the Chinese national team, and thinks the 19-year-old shows big league potential.
“He’s got a nice delivery. Nice arm action. For China, he has a live ball,” he said. “He seems a little more advanced than the other Chinese players. He’s developed a faster pitch, about 83 mph, and has a little better than normal arm strength but no breaking ball.”
Still, Lefebvre thinks it will be awhile before any CBL players are ready for the big leagues, even though Major League Baseball is eager to expand its sport to the estimated 1.4 billion Chinese, much more familiar with Yao than Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez.
Baseball, Lefebvre believes, will be a learning process for the Chinese. It will be the next generation of players that stands a better chance of challenging Yao for fame in China, the manager says.
“You’re not going to see Chinese players in the bigs for a long time,” Lefebvre said. “What they will do is go back and show the younger players what they learned with the Yankees and other teams.”