This article was written by Ryan Hutzler
This article was published in the Fall 2010 Baseball Research Journal
MLB officials are confident baseball’s popularity will spread throughout China, and they have 1.3 billion reasons to believe China will be a significant part of baseball’s future.
MLB officials are confident baseball’s popularity will spread throughout China, and they have 1.3 billion reasons to believe China will be a significant part of baseball’s future. OPENING DAY
Vendors sold peanuts, popcorn, and hot dogs, but tea and ramen noodles were favorites among the fans in the stands. Tickets ranged in price from $7 to $180 and a 12-ounce beer cost $1.50. Cheerleaders performed in foul territory and elderly fans practiced tai chi near the stadium entrance before the game. During the seventh-inning stretch, the only individual singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was the public-address announcer. The big screen in center field quizzed spectators and, after showing a player cross first base, asked fans if it was (a) a single, (b) a double, or (c) a triple.[fn]Juliet Macur, “Playing in China, Chipping at a Wall,” New York Times, 16 March 2008.[/fn] Baseball had officially arrived—in Beijing.
Saturday, March 15, 2008, marked opening day for Major League Baseball in China. There was no winner that day, as the contest between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres ended in a 3–3 tie, but the score was trivial. Similarly, on Sunday, March 16, when the Padres defeated the Dodgers 6–3 to conclude the two-game series, the result did not concern either the fans or MLB. The sellout crowd of 12,224 at Wukesong Stadium had witnessed history, the first game between major-league teams on Chinese soil.
According to MLB.com reporter Corey Brock, the games appeared less as an actual professional competition than as a novelty, “complete with understandable hiccups and an overall sentiment of newness for the sport.”[fn]Corey Brock, “Fine China: Dodgers, Padres Shine,” MLB.com, 15 March 2008.[/fn] Many of the Chinese fans had never seen professional baseball and found the game complicated during the early innings. “I don’t really understand a lot of the rules,” one youth baseball coach admitted, “but I’ve tried to study on the Internet.”[fn]Mark Magnier, “Baseball Makes a Pitch for China’s Masses,” Miami Herald, 16 March 2008.[/fn] Yet, by the middle innings of the game, Padres manager Bud Black “could tell that the crowd was following the game. And like all baseball fans, they appreciate a hard-hit ball, a ball that goes a long way.”[fn]Corey Brock, “Padres Right at Home in China,” MLB.com, 15 March 2008.[/fn]
“To see this . . . takes my breath away,” Commissioner Bud Selig said. “If we do as well as I think, people will say this is how it all started.”[fn]Corey Brock, “Fine China: Dodgers, Padres Shine,” MLB.com, 15 March 2008.[/fn] Black agreed with Selig and said, “Hopefully this is the start of more baseball in China. The seeds are planted and we can continue to grow the game. Hopefully the Chinese people will embrace the game and have a passion for it over time like we do in America.”[fn]Corey Brock, “Second Helpings in Beijing Sweet,” MLB.com, 16 March 2008.[/fn]
MLB’s first-ever journey to China was a mission of goodwill. Members of the Dodgers and Padres met Chinese students and taught them basic fundamentals to increase their understanding of and interest in the sport. The players, coaches, and executives who represented the Padres, Dodgers, and MLB in China were ambassadors for the future development of baseball. In addition to their baseball obligations, they participated in a reciprocal cultural exchange and immersed themselves in Chinese culture and society during the five-day trip. They visited the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. Padres vice president Dave Winfield commented on the importance of the trip, explaining, “This isn’t like going across the border to Mexico or even the Caribbean. It’ll be good for the young guys. I talked to some of them on the way over. It’s a new experience for them, something they ordinarily wouldn’t get to do.”[fn]Mark Zeigler, “Smog in Beijing May Give Dodgers Home-Field Advantage,” San Diego Union-Tribune 13 March 2008.[/fn] Mets GM and former CEO of the Padres, Sandy Alderson added, “Anytime you get outside the United States and kids get a chance to see a different culture, it’s a terrific and broadening experience. I see that kind of thing at the Olympics. I think it helps to mature players a little bit and gives them a better perspective on things.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Although several professional organizations have actively promoted MLB’s international expansion in years past, the Padres remain at the forefront of furthering this mission. As early as 1996, the Padres were advancing MLB’s international interests by participating in the first regular-season games outside the United States or Canada—a three-game series against the Mets in Monterrey, Mexico. The team’s playing regular-season games in foreign nations, Alderson hoped, would increase the Padres’ visibility overseas. He explained:
We want to promote the Padres as an organization and as a brand if you will and anything we can do [that] is of a historic nature adds to that and helps us grow our history. It’s easy for the Yankees and Red Sox who already have name recognition and the connotation of excellence and success. For us, we need to keep working at it. This is one of those events that could contribute to our reputation.[fn]John Schlegel, “NL West Meets Far East in Historic Trip,” MLB.com, 12 March 2008.[/fn]
The Dodgers have played a similar role in shaping MLB’s international development. The franchise was proud to represent MLB in China and build bridges which extend beyond the borders of the United States. Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who believes that promoting baseball in China is “in the Dodgers’ DNA,”[fn]Ken Gurnick, “Torre Sees Bright Future for MLB, China,” MLB.com, 14 March 2008.[/fn] spoke about their involvement with MLB’s mission of globalization:
If China puts its mind to it and decides to embrace professional baseball, we know it will be a success. To be part of that and to build a bridge from America to China, I think is very consistent with the history of this ballclub. It’s done the same in Japan, in Taiwan, in Latin America.
Part of what makes the Dodgers a worldwide brand is this organization has always embraced bringing baseball all over the world because of the love of the game. It’s a very proud part of our heritage and something that is incumbent upon us to continue.[fn]John Schlegel, “NL West Meets Far East in Historic Trip,” MLB.com, 12 March 2008.[/fn]
The China Series indicated MLB’s strong commitment to its November 2003 “development agreement”— which was extended for another four years in 2010— with the Chinese Baseball Association (CBA), the governmental organization overseeing baseball events, development, and national team activities in the country. The agreement between MLB and the CBA allowed MLB teams to train and sign players from China, assigned former MLB players Jim Lefebvre and Bruce Hurst as manager and coach of China’s National Team, and sanctioned the establishment of MLB youth and community efforts in China. The China Series cemented MLB’s belief that China is a fertile ground for the growth and expansion of baseball in the future. “You need a genesis; you need a starting point,” Commissioner Selig explained. “And this is a great way to start.”[fn]Associated Press, “China Gets Taste of Pastime,” Charlotte Observer, 16 March 2008.[/fn] Playing MLB games in China is “quite an experience, to say the least,” Selig continued. “I’m thrilled with it. . . . This is history in the making.”[fn]John Schlegel, “NL West Meets Far East in Historic Trip,” MLB.com, 12 March 2008.[/fn]
A HUNDRED YEARS OF BASEBALL IN CHINA
MLB’s China Series was not the first established baseball event played in the country, as baseball has been in China a decade longer than in Japan or any other Asian nation. Dating back to 1863, when American medical missionary Henry William Boone formed the Shanghai Baseball Club, bangqiu, or “stickball,” flourished in China. National interest in the sport grew rapidly, and in the 1870s the Qing Dynasty sent young scholars to the United States to study America’s national pastime in its original setting, as part of the “self-strengthening movement.” The students returned to China with a true love for the game. The Chinese proved their baseball talent in 1911 in an exhibition game in San Francisco, where the Chinese Overseas Baseball Club—a team organized in Hawaii—defeated the New York Giants. In 1913, the Chinese competed in their first international baseball tournament, the inaugural Far East Games, and finished third. China placed second to the Philippines in 1915 in a greater-Asia baseball tournament held in Shanghai. Baseball flourished across China for the next half century in Chinese colleges and provincial capitals. In 1934, major-league All-Stars led by Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig, having completed a Japan tour, traveled to China to play the Shanghai Pandas.[fn]“Baseball Has Deep Roots in China,” MLB.com, 12 March 2008, 16 March 2008.[/fn]
Baseball became the unofficial sport of the People’s Liberation Army during the nation’s civil war from 1947 to 1949 and became known as junqiu, or “army ball.” During the 1950s, baseball helped train soldiers, as it did during Sun Yat-sen’s revolution in 1911. Chinese officers believed the sport made better soldiers, who learned to throw a grenade faster, farther, and with curve on it. After the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, baseball surged in popularity. The game was recognized as an official sport at the first National Games in 1959, which featured teams from thirty regions across China. The Cultural Revolution, though, soon followed. From 1966 through 1976, Mao Zedong banned baseball and persecuted, tortured, and killed coaches, as the sport was viewed as a symbol of Western decadence. This effectively eliminated all interest in baseball, and the sport did not resurface until after Mao’s death in 1976, when anti-Western sentiment began to subside and baseball was officially “rehabilitated” by Communist-party leaders. The Chinese government adopted the policy of “friendship first, competition second” with respect to baseball and other sports, including ping-pong, soccer, and basketball. The nation hoped to demonstrate the government’s interest in tightening the relationship between sport, politics, and diplomacy. The “friendship first, competition second” policy allowed the Chinese government to preserve the image of the newly developing socialist country while establishing international relationships.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Sensing a growing enthusiasm for baseball in the country, Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley traveled to China in 1986 and began investing in the game’s future there to support its reemergence. O’Malley helped construct the first modern baseball stadium in Tianjin, approximately 75 miles southeast of Beijing, and named the venue “Dodger Stadium.” In 1988, China hosted its first international baseball tournament, the Beijing International, a Little League championship for 11- and 12-year-olds, which established baseball’s future in the nation.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
THE CHINESE GET ORGANIZED
Building on O’Malley’s success and seeing China’s growing interest in baseball, Positive Baseball Limited, a sports investment company founded by Tom McCarthy, an American, assembled a five-week, trial-run baseball tournament in April and May of 2002. Four teams competed, the Beijing Tigers, Tianjin Lions, Shanghai Golden Eagles, and Guangzhou Leopards, which further generated Chinese interest in baseball. Several months later, a partnership company, Dynamic Sports Marketing, inked a six-year, $5-million deal with the Chinese Baseball Association to own the marketing and advertisement rights of a three-month-long Chinese Baseball League (CBL) season. Further, the deal included advertising the China national baseball team, junior baseball team, and a youth baseball program called “Swing for the Wall.”[fn]“Organized, Tournament Baseball in China,” MLB.com, 12 March 2008.[/fn]
Since the inaugural season in 2002, during which teams played only 12 games, the CBL has expanded to seven teams, adding the Sichuan Dragons and China Hope Stars, a team of under-21 prospects, in 2005, and the Henan Elephants in 2009. The league features two divisions with 14 game days, and each team hosts the remaining six squads over a three-day weekend, with the top two teams from each division qualifying for the playoffs. The best teams play a maximum of only 11 games.[fn]“China Baseball League Facing Obstacles,” USA Today, 23 May 2009.[/fn] Further, although CBL games are typically free to the public, the average CBL game attracts a few hundred spectators, with the largest crowds approaching 1,000 in Tianjin.[fn]“Organized, Tournament Baseball in China,” MLB.com, 12 March 2008.[/fn]
COMPETING AGAINST THE ASIAN POWERHOUSES
With the support of MLB and the signing of the “development agreement” in 2003, the China national team has slowly become more competitive against international competition. The team, which consists of top players from provincial teams, has long been ranked fourth in Asia, but it improved under the tutelage of MLB coaches Jim Lefebvre and Bruce Hurst. While coaching the China national team from 2003 through the 2008 Olympic Games—before becoming the San Diego Padres’ hitting coach—Lefebvre witnessed exceptional growth both in the players’ skill and in the nation’s interest in baseball. Lefebvre explained: “There are some people who are skeptical about what this is all about; I’m not. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen what happened in Japan, I’ve seen what happened in Korea, I’ve seen what happened in Australia. Look at it now. . . . Just give baseball time.”[fn]Corey Brock, “Ready to Play Ball in China,” MLB.com, 14 March 2008.[/fn] Dodgers manager Joe Torre echoed Lefebvre’s opinion: “You don’t get instant success in baseball—it’s a game you grow into. But if we make sure kids learn to play the game the right way, once they start blossoming we’ll see a number of players make an impact in Major League Baseball.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Lefebvre understood how to develop and advance baseball talent and had a rich baseball career both on and off the diamond. In 1965, he was the National League Rookie of the Year with the Los Angeles Dodgers. His eight-year playing career was followed by managerial stints with the Seattle Mariners (1989– 91), the Chicago Cubs (1992–93), and the Milwaukee Brewers (1999); he was a coach for the San Diego Padres in 2009. Lefebvre has served as a major-league coach with six different organizations and is experienced in evaluating talent. Of his China national team, he said:
These are not college-level players . . . they’re above that. They are professional-level players right now. Collectively, we might struggle, but we have players on our team right now who are high A, Double-A and possibly Triple-A. We have some guys who, in the right situation, could make it to the big leagues.[fn]Corey Brock, “Lefebvre Discusses Baseball in China,” MLB.com, 14 March 2008.[/fn]
Lefebvre emphasized teaching baseball fundamentals to Chinese prospects and witnessed a dramatic improvement in their ability. Many Chinese players lack the upper-body strength of many American and Latino ballplayers—stealing bases is common, as most catchers lack the arm strength needed to throw out advancing runners. Lefebvre worked to develop pitchers’ arm strength and hitters’ power by putting a bat and ball in their hands at a younger age. Lefebvre said, “These kids are very smart, they’re very bright and they have great intuitiveness. They retain it. They have an endless work ethic. What more can you ask for? They see now what they need to do to be successful.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Although the China national team failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics and in the 2006 World Baseball Classic lost all three games—against Japan, South Korea, and, in a 12–3 blowout loss, rival Chinese Taipei—by a combined score of 40–6, the squad continued to progress. Despite the defeats in the WBC, several scouts saw promise in the Chinese team. “For five or six innings, China held its own,” observed Paul Archey, senior vice president of Major League Baseball International. “They just didn’t have the depth or the experience. China even [tied the game] against Japan. It gave you a glimpse of what could happen.”[fn]Jim Caple, “Good Showing in ’08 Olympics Will Spur Interest,” ESPN.com, 1 March 2007.[/fn]
Despite MLB’s optimism, several factors continue to limit baseball’s growth in China, including the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to remove the sport from competition in both the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and the 2016 Games. The IOC’s decision has made baseball a low priority in China’s Soviet-style system, which funnels promising youngsters into special camps where they are trained specifically to win gold medals and attain national glory. Harvey Schiller, president of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), had indicated that baseball might be reinstated in the 2016 Summer Olympics if the Europe-dominated IOC voted it back into competition. However, the IOC may ask for the participation of professional players. Dodgers manager Joe Torre echoed the sentiments of most MLB managers when he commented, “I don’t want to give any of my players up for the Games, much as I respect them.”[fn]Nick Mulvenney, “Baseball Still Hopeful of Spot at London 2012,” Reuters, 16 March 2008. [/fn]
Additionally, Wukesong Stadium, which hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, was demolished in December 2008, as it generated little revenue. The government plans to build a sports and entertainment center and shopping mall at the site.[fn]“The Wukesong Baseball Complex Will Be the First Olympic Venue Demolished,” Reuters, 14 January 2009.[/fn] Although construction of a new baseball stadium is expected in Xiamen, Fujian province in 2011, China’s capital is without a respectable baseball venue, which may impede the sport’s sustained development.[fn]Zhang Hui, “Baseball in China Has a Long Way To Go, Despite MLB Interest,” Global Times, 2 April 2010.[/fn]
As Joseph Reaves, a historian of Asian baseball, observed, the game in China “can look so similar and yet somehow feel so different.”[fn]Joseph A. Reaves, Taking in a Game: A History of Baseball in Asia (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 6.[/fn] Despite Major League Baseball’s best efforts to integrate the sport into Chinese culture, baseball will take form in its own, unique manner in China. Regardless of MLB intervention in China, Japan is the keeper and guiding light of baseball in Asia, and China will adapt a Japanese style of baseball, which can coexist with Chinese cultural norms and tendencies. Japanese baseball celebrates “little ball,” which is consistent with the Confucian value system and emphasizes team harmony, discipline, and the collective good. Japanese baseball supports sacrifice bunts, sacrifice flies, and slap hits, all of which are assumed to benefit the team as a whole as opposed to boosting personal achievement, whereas American baseball favors “big ball” and mirrors the value Americans place on physicality and individualism. Chinese society not only follows Japanese principles but also takes from Japan its inspiration for playing baseball.[fn]Ibid., 3–6.[/fn]
The Chinese word for baseball, bangqiu, translates to “bat ball” or “stick ball,” but during World War II the sport was known as yeqiu, or “field ball,” a word closely associated to the Japanese and Korean words for baseball, yakyu and yagoo respectively.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] This parallel is no accident. Baseball’s American origins and MLB’s involvement in Chinese baseball notwithstanding, the game in China incorporates Asian values. Baseball will conform to the prevailing culture and societal norms in China, and the sport—the strategy, style of play, and reaction of fans and players—will reflect Chinese values, which are closer to Japanese principles than to American customs. MLB should not interfere with the assimilation process, because Chinese fans and players will reject the sport if it possesses a distinctly American feel. Chinese culture will accept baseball only if it is markedly theirs. It appears MLB understands this notion. “Our goal,” according to Jim Small, MLB vice president for Asia, “is not to have a foreign coach; it is [for baseball in China] to be played by the Chinese, coached by the Chinese and umpired by the Chinese.”[fn]Yang Xinwei, “Small Thinks Big About Baseball in China,” China Daily, 2 April 2010.[/fn]
After visiting the Great Wall of China before the 2008 China Series, Commissioner Bud Selig passed a local university and noticed Chinese students playing baseball and softball. During his tenure as commissioner of baseball, he has been dedicated to developing baseball globally. As an emerging market of 1.3 billion people, China shows promise as a potential revenue stream of enormous magnitude. MLB has already invested heavily to promote baseball’s emergence in China. “We’re making inroads,” Selig said. He explained:
We will continue to do what we can to accelerate the process. In fact, I feel so good about it, I have no doubt in my mind that in a decade, baseball will be big in China. We’re watching CNN this morning and our series was the lead story on the sports segment. We’re getting positive coverage in a world where there isn’t much positive coverage. . . . Given what we’ve tried to accomplish in this series, it’s exceeded anything we could have hoped for.[fn]Ken Gurnick, “Selig: ‘This Is Where It Started,’” MLB.com, 16 March 2008.[/fn]
In sending its product overseas, MLB intends to forge a long-lasting relationship with China, which will help market the sport more effectively and efficiently. Commissioner Selig and MLB officials recognize that China is a growing global economic force and that playing MLB games in China presents an opportunity to take the game’s internationalization to a new level.
Selig maintains the China Series was a goodwill mission first and not an economic venture. The commissioner and MLB officials remain steadfast on developing the relationship-building component between MLB and the Chinese people. ”The revenue will take care of itself,” Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said. “If we focus on revenue first and forget the importance of the relationship, we may be disappointed.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Charles Steinberg, executive vice president of marketing for the Dodgers, agreed, saying he hopes to “light a fire that starts burning passion for baseball. If that happens, those that count the money will have their day.”[fn]Mark Magnier, “Baseball Makes a Pitch for China’s Masses,” Miami Herald, 16 March 2008.[/fn]
Chinese citizens are only beginning to understand the concepts of leisure, disposable income, and the middle class. China is “a country on the move. The timing for baseball couldn’t be better,” said McCourt. “We want baseball to be one of the options for entertainment. We want kids to play it in school and for families to be spectators. We are limited only by our imagination.”[fn]Ken Gurnick, “Selig: ‘This Is Where It Started,’” MLB.com, 16 March 2008.[/fn] MLB has already established its brand in China and has opened 48 stores across the country. MLB officials were impressed by the enthusiasm Chinese youths already have for baseball. After Game 1 of the China Series, children were throwing baseballs and swinging baseball bats, like children in America. “They were having fun without even knowing all the rules and nuances of the game,” McCourt observed. “It is an awesome achievement for everyone involved to pull it off. When the Chinese people become familiar with the game, it will be even better. I think this country will fall in love with baseball.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] He continued:
We brought the game of baseball and we can see the joy it brings. We’ve made an impact here and the Chinese people have made an impact on the American side. They’ve opened our eyes. We are so impressed with the people here, the history of this country and the architecture of this capital. You can’t help but be impressed with the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and now the Bird’s Nest stadium [the spectacular venue for opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Olympics]. In August, the rest of the world will see what is happening here in China.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Until baseball flourishes in China independent of MLB’s guidance and support, MLB must remain patient, help build baseball diamonds, train coaches and players, and provide equipment. Baseball is considered an elite sport in China because, as China’s national team captain Zhang Yufeng explained, “It requires special equipment and fields. You pay that much for a bat and you can break it so easy. And the clothes and gloves are also expensive. So it’s difficult to get a team together. China’s national sport is ping-pong, no doubt. All you need is a ball and a paddle.”[fn]Stephen Wade, “Selling Game in China Costly, Rewarding,” Associated Press, 11 March 2008.[/fn]
Between MLB’s desire to sell its products and merchandise and the ability of Chinese citizens to afford them, there is an inherent tension. MLB must determine how to best balance these two sets of competing interests, its own economic interests and those of Chinese citizens. “We need not worry about the money,” McCourt explained. “This country grows wealthier by the moment. They don’t need our money, they need our help and friendship. We need to be a good partner with the Chinese people and send a clear message that this game can be their game too.”[fn]Ken Gurnick, “Selig: ‘This Is Where It Started,’” MLB.com, 16 March 2008, 17 March 2008. [/fn]
Baseball remains in its infancy in China. Unlike Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, China lacks prominent baseball names, household names like Sadaharu Oh, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Still, MLB continues to invest in the sport in China. Jim Small explained: “The future for baseball in China is very bright. Sports have become increasingly important in Chinese society. As baseball is not only a global sport but also a sport that is hugely popular in Asia, I think it is quite natural for it to take hold in the Chinese sports culture.”[fn]Eric Green, “First Chinese Baseball Players Signed to Play in United States,” USINFO, 26 June 2007.[/fn]
MLB hopes to find and develop a prominent Chinese baseball player in the upcoming years to spur national interest in the sport. Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6-inch Chinese center, signed with the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association in 2002 and became an all-star-caliber player, stoking China’s interest in basketball. China is now the NBA’s largest international market. According to Hu Jiashi, vice president of the China Basketball Association, “Basketball used to be behind soccer, but now it’s pulling level.”[fn]Calum MacLeod, “China Embraces Basketball,” USA Today, 7 August 2006.[/fn] To increase its popularity in China, the NBA is supporting the construction of 12 new basketball arenas. The NBA is currently the most popular sports league in China— more than 300 million people play basketball regularly, and 83 percent of males between the ages of 15 and 61 are interested in the game, and the numbers are rising.[fn]Asia Pulse, “NBA to Open First Overseas Store in China,” Asia Times Online, 1 December 2006.[/fn]
MLB believes it can duplicate the NBA’s good fortune by signing a standout Chinese ballplayer, hoping he will make it to the big leagues and generate interest back home. “Look what Yao Ming has done to basketball in China,” Lefebvre observed. “It is played everywhere. . . . We want to catch lightning in a bottle. We want to create the Yao Ming effect for baseball.”[fn]Jack Etkin, “Pro Baseball Takes First Step in Scaling Great Wall in China,” Rocky Mountain News, 12 March 2008.[/fn] Alderson agreed: “The key to the growth and popularity of baseball in China is the introduction of a Chinese player into Major League Baseball. I don’t think that anyone can predict how long that will take. But it’s important that Major League Baseball and all its clubs are taking the process of finding and developing players who can play in the Major Leagues.”[fn]Corey Brock, “Ready to Play Ball in China,” MLB.com, 14 March 2008.[/fn]
The Chinese are still more familiar with and prefer to participate in soccer, basketball, and ping-pong. Baseball is not yet embedded in China’s social fabric. City blocks are devoted to public athletic facilities, artificial-turf soccer fields, and basketball courts but not many baseball diamonds. The scope of the challenge faced by MLB as it strives for brand-name recognition was suggested by Ying Huaong, a construction worker, when he conveyed the common Chinese attitude toward baseball: “I don’t know the game, and we don’t see it much [on television] but . . . I want to learn more about it. I’m a basketball fan. I like that.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
MLB officials are confident baseball’s popularity will spread throughout China, and they have 1.3 billion reasons to believe China will be a significant part of baseball’s future. The country boasts a huge population and strong athletes in gymnastics and basketball. But baseball is still a new sport here, and MLB officials will not find professional-ready ballplayers in the near future. Regardless, early investment in China’s baseball future could prove to be a nice long-term investment for MLB.
MLB’s efforts may already be paying dividends. The Chinese Baseball Association claims that more than four million people play baseball in China, and more than 60 Chinese colleges and universities and 1,000 high schools and primary schools support their own teams. A 2008 TNS Sports Asia survey concluded that 16.2 percent of the Chinese population are interested in baseball, although only 1 percent consider themselves true baseball fans. Further, the study reported that approximately 26 percent of Chinese citizens are interested in MLB and its merchandise, a majority of whom are young, highly educated, and earn high incomes.[fn]“MLB Remains Upbeat on China Project,” China Daily, 27 January 2010.[/fn]
In addition to MLB, the New York Yankees have actively invested in China’s baseball future. In 2007, the team signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Baseball Association. Besides enabling the Yankees to increase their international brand recognition, the agreement, the first of its kind between an MLB club and the CBA, permitted the club to send coaches, scouts, and training personnel to China to help the CBA instruct baseball players and coaches. The partnership will also allow CBA officials to visit the Yankees’ facilities in the United States to further their development.[fn]“New York Yankees and Chinese Baseball Association Reach Landmark Agreement,” MLB.com, 30 January 2007.[/fn]
Since 2001, five Chinese players have signed contracts with MLB clubs, and teams believe more Chinese nationals will join MLB in the future. The Seattle Mariners signed the first Chinese player, right-handed pitcher Chao Wang, in 2001. He compiled a record of 0–2 with a 5.14 ERA in 13 games during the 2002 season in the Arizona Rookie League before returning to China. The Mariners also signed catcher Wei Wang and infielder/outfielder Yu Bingjia in 2007. Scouts believe Wang Wei, who hit the first home run in the 2006 WBC, may be the first Chinese star in MLB. However, he has yet to make the Mariners’ big-league roster. The Yankees also signed two 19-year-old Chinese prospects, catcher Zhang Zhenwang and left-handed pitcher Liu Kai, to minor-league contracts in 2007.[fn]Op. cit. 9.[/fn]
MLB opened an office in Beijing in 2007 and in 2008 launched a new website to increase its visibility in China. The website, www.major.tv/china, allows baseball fans in China to view highlights, scores, and some games. In 2010, for the first time in its history, MLB televised a regular-season game—the openingday game between the Red Sox and Yankees—live across China, reaching nearly 300 million fans. Also in 2010, to make games more accessible to viewers across China, MLB signed new agreements with two Chinese broadcast partners, Chongqing TV and Shaanxi TV, to supplement its existing contracts with Guangdong TV, Jiangsu TV, and Shenzhen TV.[fn]Jerry Milani, “MLB Opener to Be Shown in China,” Baseball Digest, 2 April 2010.[/fn]
Believing grassroots instruction to be vital to baseball’s long-term success, MLB has regularly sponsored clinics for Chinese youth. It launched several important initiatives in 2007. In September, MLB established the Play Ball! program in five cities, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Wuxi. Play Ball! has also entered the physical-education curriculum in 120 elementary schools across China, including 30 in Beijing for players from ages 8 through 18. Students learn the rules of the game and receive fundamental instruction to develop baseball skills. Earlier that year, in August, MLB conducted its first China Baseball Academy, a three-week session in Wuxi for 60 of the top-rated 12- through 15-year-olds. Major League Baseball International and the CBA selected the academy’s participants from existing provincial baseball organizations in Beijing, Chengdu, Dalian, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tianjin, and Wuxi.[fn]“MLB International to Launch Inaugural China Baseball Academy,” MLB.com, 7 August 2007.[/fn]
MLB hosted the China national baseball team for Spring Training in the United States and provided an opportunity for China’s players to train with MLB teams and players. Later that year, Cal Ripken Jr. accompanied MLB officials as part of an envoy for the U.S. Department of State. The delegation visited Beijing, Shanghai, Wuxi, and Guangzhou. In each city, Ripken introduced baseball to Chinese youths in a cross-cultural exchange. He visited schools and youth clubs, ran baseball clinics, and shared personal life stories and experiences to build enthusiasm for the sport. At the outset of the trip, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commented on the envoy and Ripken’s involvement:
Public diplomacy must be a dialogue with people from around the world and sought out and conducted not only by people like us in government, but by committed Americans from all walks of life. Cal Ripken embodies the best that sports have to offer and we are thrilled that he will be working for our country on this trip and other trips in the future.[fn]Xinhua, “Envoy Cal Ripken Embarks to Introduce Baseball in China,” People’s Daily Online, 17 October 2007, 21 December 2007.[/fn]
In 2009, MLB established its MLB Baseball Park initiative, the first baseball-themed entertainment tour in China. According to MLB sources, 400,000 Chinese citizens attended these programs in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Wuxi. MLB toured ten more cities in 2010, bringing the total to 15. In April 2010, MLB and the CBA signed a contract to promote baseball in China; Chinese officials were quick to point out the paucity of fields and the need for more to be built.[fn]Zhang Hui, “Baseball in China Has a Long Way to Go, Despite MLB Interest,” Global Times, 2 April 2010.[/fn] Also, in September of 2009, MLB developed its first MLB Baseball Development Center (MBDC) at Dongbeitang high school in Wuxi, Jiangsu province. This baseball academy hosts 16 select school-aged ballplayers and provides standard academic and English-language classes, in addition to exceptional baseball training led by an international team of instructors.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Jeff Brueggemann, who played in the Minnesota Twins organization, is now in his third year of teaching baseball in China, as part of MLB’s Play Ball! initiative. “Three years ago,’ he said, “I could say bangqiu and people on the street wouldn’t know what I was talking about. Now I can talk to anyone and they know what baseball is. They might not know the game, but they know what it is. And they want to learn the game.”[fn]Corey Brock, “Ready to Play Ball in China,” MLB.com, 14 March 2008.[/fn]
RYAN HUTZLER, who has received academic awards for his scholarship on baseball and Chinese culture and society, works for a law firm in Washington, D.C.