Baseball season opens in China |

Baseball season opens in China

AP PhotoA Beijing Leopards batter gets ready for a game as the China Baseball League opened play Friday at Lucheng Stadium on the southwest edge of Beijing.

BEIJING ” Wang Wei dreams of becoming the first Chinese player to crack the major leagues, but the power-hitting catcher for the Beijing Tigers knows he’s not quite ready.

“I think I’m good enough right now to be in the minor leagues,” said Wang, who missed Friday’s 9-8 victory over the Sichuan Dragons, the opening game of the six-team China Baseball League season.

“But I know I’m not good enough for the major leagues at this stage,” added Wang, who is nursing an elbow injury and just returned from training with China’s national team in the United States under manager Jim Lefebvre.

Wang already has made history. A year ago, he hit the first home run in the World Baseball Classic ” playing for China against archrival Japan.

“We certainly have our eyes on a player like that,” said Jim Small, major league baseball’s vice president for Asia, who added that China is “four or five” years away from producing a top player.

The major leagues plan to stage their first game in China next year ” either a spring training or regular-season contest in Beijing’s Olympic baseball stadium.

But Friday’s game didn’t hint at that pending breakthrough. The infield was red clay instead of grass, and barely 300 fans were scattered around Lucheng Stadium on the southwest edge of Beijing. The game was a lot slower, and the wood bats gave off dull pops rather than crisp cracks.

“There’s no heckling the umpires, that’s the biggest difference,” said Darrell Smith, an American from Mobile, Ala., one of the few foreigners watching from the dark green bleachers.

“To be honest, I really didn’t know there was baseball in China,” Smith added. “But everything is pretty conventional. Pitchers throw the fastball when they are behind on the count, and save the curve ball until they are ahead.”

Fans were curious rather than knowledgeable, and a few almost were injured by foul balls sprayed into the stands.

By coincidence, the opener was played the same day that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao ” on a goodwill trip to Japan ” tossed a baseball around with students from Japan’s Ritsumeikan University. The premier wore No. 35 ” symbolic of 35 years of China-Japan diplomatic relations. His baseball debut was shown nationally on state-run CCTV, and he looked awkward playing catch.

Sun Lingfang, a center fielder with the Tigers and the Chinese national team, said baseball should follow the lead of China’s economy.

“I wish it would develop that fast,” he said.

Wang said he’s had informal talks with the Seattle Mariners.

“If we get a Chinese player in the major leagues, it would accelerate the development here by 10 or 15 years,” Small said. “The time frame exponentially decreases.”

American Tom McCarthy, who calls himself a “sports developer,” founded the China Baseball League in 2002, and sold his interest a year ago. McCarthy has dabbled in baseball and basketball in China ” and now he’s promoting tennis. He was on hand for Friday’s opener.

“Talent wise, they just don’t play enough games here,” McCarthy said. “And the biggest problem is the development of facilities.”

McCarthy said players earn about $300 monthly, and said equipment was hard to buy in the country.

“Certainly, a top Chinese player would jump start the game in this country,” he added. “Like the Japanese or Koreans, the Chinese are quick, have quick hands and the guys work and train like dogs all year round.”

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