This article was written by Eric Robinson
This article was published in The National Pastime: A Bird’s-Eye View of Baltimore (2020)
A group of boys hung over their dorm’s balcony railing, hardly believing that their hero was playing catch in the courtyard below with some of their schoolmates. The tall, rangy man throwing the ball to some of the older students was barely in his twenties, moving with the strong but casual grace common to athletes.1 His name is Xu Guiyan (pronounced “shoo GEE-win”). To the students at the MLB baseball academies in China he is a star, but to sports fans in America, he was just another unknown name on the Baltimore Orioles rookie league team roster.
In July 2015, 19-year-old Xu was signed by scouts Brett Ward and Mike Snyder of the Baltimore Orioles. This signing made him the first player signed out of the MLB academies in China by an MLB team.2 He was born January 29, 1996, and grew up in Shenzhen, China, a large city in the country’s southeast that shares a border with Hong Kong.3 He began playing baseball at the age of 10, joining his older brother on their school team. His skills quickly developed, and four years later he was invited to enroll at an MLB development center in Wuxi. This meant a move of over a thousand miles for the teenager, but it provided him with the best opportunity in the nation to improve his baseball skills.4
The MLB development centers, or academies, were first opened in 2009 in the cities of Nanjing and Wuxi. They were created to both increase the profile of baseball in the country of 1.4 billion people and to develop baseball talent.5 The development centers behave like typical schools during the day, following a standard Chinese curriculum. Once classes end, the students then head to the baseball fields for hours of specialized practice. The coaches at these development centers include former major league managers, coaches, and ex-players from the professional and college ranks.6
Xu was fourteen years old when he reported to the development center in Wuxi in 2010 as a left-handed pitcher. After arriving, a coach asked the teenager what name he preferred to be called. He replied “Ichiro” after Ichiro Suzuki, his favorite player. The coach informed him that there were already too many students calling themselves Ichiro and asked if instead, he wanted to be called “Itchy.” Xu replied yes and only later found out what the English word itchy means. The nickname stuck, and that is still what his friends and those in the baseball world call him.7
To observers in Wuxi, Itchy stood out as a hard worker, dedicated to improving his skills.8 As he spent time practicing under the guidance of the staff, they noticed that he had more ability to make contact and hit for power than the other students, and he converted to playing elsewhere than the mound. While he played multiple positions, his skills as a first baseman emerged. The players at the academy did more than just play against each other year after year: They traveled and played against other teams in Asia, and the Chinese National Team.9 During this time Xu established himself as the best player in the Chinese development pipeline and the scouts from MLB teams began to consider signing him.10
In 2015 this happened when the Baltimore Orioles scouts Mike Snyder and Brett Ward visited the Development Center in Wuxi as part of their travels in Asia and the Pacific Rim. They were curious about the talent they would find there. A player had not been signed from the country in eight years, despite the fact that MLB and the Chinese government were increasing resources into player development.11 They had seen videos of some of the talented players, but one thing that stood out to them was Xu’s swing. Snyder felt “Xu had a beautiful swing that was capable of power.”12
Their optimism was tempered by the fact Xu had started baseball later than most US prospects and had faced a lower level of competition. They saw he was “raw, but with skills that had a chance for a quick progression.”13
Once the pair of scouts saw the players in person, Snyder felt that “it was clear that he was the one and while we had some interest in others that he was definitely the one.”14 Xu was put through a series of workouts, in which he performed well. Next, they wanted to see how he handled game at-bats, so a game was scheduled. As Snyder recalled:
It was around the 4th or 5th inning — he’d had 3 at-bats but had walked each time. Clearly, he had good plate discipline and could get on base, but we needed to see if he could actually hit. It was a scrimmage that was put on for our benefit, so we asked if Itchy could just lead off each half inning. We pulled him aside and explained the new arrangement through the interpreter. Brett then pointed to an apartment building, 500 or 600 feet away, and only half-jokingly told Xu we wanted him to hit it there — an impossible task. Itchy went up to bat and, I swear this is true, on his second pitch he hit a deep home run out towards the apartment building, easily clearing the fences though clearly not coming close to the building. As he crossed the plate, Brett feigned disappointment, saying, “we told you to HIT the building!” Without missing a beat, Itchy shot back in perfect English, “Next time!”15
Snyder and Ward had seen what they needed to and on July 20, 2015, the Orioles announced they had signed Xu, making him the first player from the MLB Development Centers to be signed by an MLB team. At the time of the signing, he received a $10,000 bonus.16 The following March he reported to Sarasota, Florida, home of the Orioles spring training facility and rookie league team.
A film crew lead by Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker, and filmmakers Kenneth Eng and Mark Hyman, who had been working on a documentary about Chinese baseball, was waiting for Xu at the airport to document his first days in America. This was just part of what made him stand out compared to the other long-shot prospects in the Gulf Coast League. Xu was not only far from his home and family, but he was the only Chinese player in American professional baseball at the time. He would have to learn how to get by in a new culture while trying to succeed in the competitive environment of professional baseball. Xu’s situation was isolating but the team took steps to ease his adjustment, including hiring a trainer that could speak Chinese as well as using someone from the area that was born in China to help on occasion.17
Team officials knew from the beginning that Xu’s development lagged behind others his age, expecting him to be rawer and less polished given his background, but they were quickly impressed with his desire to improve and his work ethic. His first GCL game was on June 25, 2016, and he began his career with a hot bat, getting 15 hits in his first 11 games. However, he soon began to have problems at the plate. The cold streak weighed on the young player. Barker noted, “Itchy was not only frustrated with his own performance but he felt a lot of pressure as the only player from China and as a representative of the MLB academies.”
He experienced reduced playing time in games as a result of these problems, hindering the development that needed to occur through game at-bats. Still, Orioles’ coaches and scouts continued to appreciate his grit and focus.18 Following his initial hot streak, Xu only had 5 more hits over the remaining 22 games of the season. He finished with a slash line of .247/.271/.284 in 85 plate appearances.
Off the field, Xu would Skype his parents frequently, and while his English was good when he arrived, he worked to improve it. He also missed having regular Chinese food but did fall in love with one American restaurant, Chipotle Mexican Grill. The documentary crew was able to catch many moments of Xu joking around and having fun with his teammates, just like any 20-year-old would.
In March 2017, Xu played in front of the largest crowds he had seen when he represented China in the World Baseball Classic. He was excited to play for the national team on such a large stage. “I was just so proud to play for Team China. Before, I played for the province or city. Now, I play for China, for the country. It’s very different.”19
China played three games at the Tokyo Dome against Japan, Australia, and Cuba. The team lost all three games, scoring one total run in the process. The on-field highlight for Xu came in front of 40,053 fans as he hit a single in their third game against host country Japan. He was then picked off first base. After the series, team manager John McLaren, former skipper of the Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals, said about Xu, “He had only played a few games in rookie league, and to jump up on the world stage like that is a little overwhelming for anybody.” He continued, “Being there in Japan in front of [40,000] people, that’s pretty overwhelming. But he did fine. He didn’t get excited. He was well-grounded.”20
Xu returned to Sarasota in 2017, still putting pressure on himself to perform at a high level to meet not just his own expectations, but to serve as an inspiration to the baseball community in China. Unfortunately, he was still dealing with confidence issues in finding his swing.
The team had Xu split his time between the outfield and designated hitter rather than first base, where he got most of his innings in 2016. He made 45 plate appearances over 15 games and finished the season with a slash line of .179/.267/.256. During his second season, GCL Orioles hitting coach Milt May said about Xu and his struggles, “The speed of the game is something that he has improved on. It’s still a work in progress, but he’s made great strides along those lines.”21
The Orioles promoted Xu to the Aberdeen IronBirds, the team’s Class A affiliate for his third professional season in 2018. The team played in the New York Penn League with 13 other teams including Brooklyn, Staten Island, Connecticut, and Vermont. Xu enjoyed the change and said “All the new cities and the bigger crowds are exciting for me, especially New York, where we play in Brooklyn. I really like the night games, too. Some of the bus rides are very long, but I love to talk to my teammates to improve my English. Sometimes I have a beer with them, but American beer is much too bland for me.”22
Despite his excitement for the step up and the getting to travel to new cities, his problems at the plate continued. IronBirds manager Kyle Moore spoke of Xu’s difficulty adjusting to the new, harder-throwing pitchers he was not used to seeing. “Making the adjustment to better pitching is his biggest challenge, but he’s definitely going in the right direction…He’s facing some big college kids who can throw 95 miles per hour, and when you’ve never seen that kind of speed before, it can be pretty intimidating.”23
The 2018 season produced similar results to Xu’s 2017 numbers. He finished the year .167/.250/.222. It would be his final season with the Orioles. That winter, he played in the Australian Professional Baseball League with the Auckland Tuatara, a team based in New Zealand.24 Xu appeared in all but five of Auckland’s 40 games and had his best professional season to date. He finished with a line of .264/.343/.319, and the second best batting average on his team among hitters with more than 11 at-bats.
In 2019 Xu continued his pursuit of a career in baseball with the Kochi Fighting Dogs of Japan’s Shikoku Island League Plus, a team best known to fans in the US for signing a 45-year-old Manny Ramirez. Xu was excited to play in the home country of his hero, Ichiro Suzuki. “After learning the American way, I think Japanese baseball can provide great benefits for me. Ichiro is my idol and playing in his homeland only doubles my inspiration.”25
Even though Itchy may never make it to the major leagues, Mike Snyder feels like he will have a productive career in baseball. “He has grit and good make-up,” the head of the Orioles director of professional scouting said, “he will have a future in the game.”26
ERIC ROBINSON has been a member of SABR since 2013 and is currently co-chair of the Asian Baseball Committee. In that time he has given presentations at SABR 44, regional SABR meetings, public schools, NPR and Nerd Nite. He has also written articles that have appeared in various SABR journals and The Hardball Times. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas and for more information check out www.lyndonbaseballjohnson.com.
Baseball-Reference.com, www.baseballreference.com, all statistical and game information.
Photos: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles.
1 Jeff Barker, Mark Hyman, Kenneth Eng, “The Great China Baseball Hunt,” Vimeo video, 2:42, posted by The Great China Baseball Hunt, https://chinabaseballfilm.com/.
2 Kirstie Chiappelli, “Orioles Sign ‘Itchy’ Xu, First Player from Chinese Development Program,” The Sporting News, https://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/orioles-free-agent-trades-signings-chinese-development-itchy-xu/3pl9rofouki31i5h3d1ag16ax. Date accessed January 31, 2020.
3 Thomas Neuman, “Xu Guiyuan is Itching to be a Trailblazer as MLB’s first Chinese Player,” ESPN, https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/17350633/xu-guiyuan-baltimore-orioles-prospect-china-itching-mlb-trailblazer, Accessed January 12, 2020.
4 Neuman, “Itching to be a Trailblazer.”
6 Jimmy Johnson, in person interview, July 2018.
7 Neuman, “Itching to be a Trailblazer.”
8 Jeff Barker, telephone interview, February 7, 2020.
9 Brett Snyder, telephone interview, February 15, 2020.
10 Barker, interview.
11 Snyder, interview.
12 Snyder, interview.
13 Snyder, interview.
14 Snyder, interview.
15 Snyder, interview.
16 Chiappelli, “Orioles Sign ‘Itchy’ Xu,” The Sporting News.
17 Snyder, interview.
18 Snyder, interview.
19 Thomas Neuman, “Orioles Prospect Xu Guiyuan Resumes MLB Quest after WBC,” ESPN, https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/19026455/after-playing-china-wbc-stage-baltimore-orioles-prospect-xu-guiyuan-resumes-mlb-quest, Accessed February 16, 2020.
20 Neuman, “Orioles Prospect Xu Guiyuan Resumes MLB Quest.”
21 Neuman, “Orioles Prospect Xu Guiyuan Resumes MLB Quest.”
22 Mo Hong’e, “Xu’s road to glory has speed bumps,” ECNS.com, http://www.ecns.cn/news/feature/2018-07-20/detail-ifywhfmh2714628.shtml, Accessed February 17, 2020.
23 “Xu’s road to glory.”
24 Christopher Reive, “Auckland Tuatara sign Baltimore Orioles prospect Xu Guiyuan,” NZ Herald, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=12152753, Accessed February 17, 2020.
25 Yang Xinwei,” Whole new ball game for ‘Itchy’,” China Daily, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201905/29/WS5cedde8da3104842260be621.html, Accessed February 17, 2020.
26 Snyder, interview.