Baseball in China, Part 2: Dodgers, Padres Settle Into Beijing

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Baseball in China, Part 2: Dodgers, Padres Settle Into Beijing

Five Pine Trees

After the opening of the new No. 5 subway line in Beijing, the city decided to lower ticket prices in an effort to get some cars off the roads. The new price is 2RMB (about 30 cents) no matter how far you ride any of the subway lines.

The result: Same amount of cars on the road—and a subway system that couldn't get any more saturated with cheap commuters.  But it also has instructional videos of baseball rules.

Wukesong Stadium—Wukesong means “Five Pine Trees” in English—is on line No. 1. Coming from the east side of Beijing, I rode past Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and through the crowds to Wukesong station. 

The Olympic baseball venue isn't hard to spot. It's actually three ballparks—two competition fields and a practice field. The giant “MLB Series 2008” banners hanging from the outside of the main stadium make it stick out quite obviously.

Sadly, all three temporary stadiums will be torn down after the Olympics. 

In front of the stadium, the setting is not unlike that at any typical Chinese sporting complex. A group of elderly women dances with drums, another group practices Tai Qi, and a couple of old men are sitting with their caged birds.

When asked if they know what this weekends' events are all about, the old men say confidently, “bangqiu”, the Chinese word for baseball, and then continue discussing their birds.

 

Keep your head down

From Wukesong stadium, some of the reporters took the 10-minute trip to Fengtai Shiyan Elementary School, where a group of Padres would be teaching Chinese schoolchildren the ways of America's pastime.

As part of MLB's agreement with the Chinese Baseball Association, a program called “Play Ball” was started last year. According to Jeff Brueggemann of China's MLB Envoy, the goal of the Play Ball program is to train Chinese baseball coaches and students, and to spread the culture of baseball to the world's biggest untapped market.

The program reportedly aims to reach 100,000 Chinese kids in its first stage. Bruggemann said that last year program participants trained 40 coaches across Chinese cities, and this year they hope to train another 40 or so.  

After a slight delay in the Padres schedule, they finally made it to the school, where a group of about 20 kids had already begun their training with Play Ball coaches. Adrian Gonzalez came down the stairs to the basement gym with a camcorder in is hand, filming his own version of the China Series. With him came pitchers Heath Bell and Justin Germano—but although the kids looked excited, they wouldn't know the difference between Trevor Hoffman and Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

After being introduced, the Padres stars began their sessions. Despite the fact that the children only got about a half-hour with them, the players were genuinely involved. Bell and Germano taught pitching mechanics to kids throwing to the Padres' Friar mascot behind the plate, and one of them noted, “I think we've found the next Trevor Hoffman.”

On the other side of the room, Gonzalez gave individual lessons to kids on a hitting tee.

“Keep your head down”, he said. “Keep your eye on the ball and bring your power arm through”.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brueggemann answered questions about the Play Ball program and baseball in China.

“Is there a Yao Ming of baseball?” one reporter asked.

Having helped coach the Chinese National Team and having visited a handful of training sites, Brueggemann has seen his share of the good, the bad, and the ugly in Chinese baseball.

“I haven't seen any players wit A+ tools", he said, “but I've seen lots of B's, and those guys are draftable.  It's a little early to be asking for a Yao of baseball, but programs like Play Ball are pushing China in the right direction to cultivate new baseball stars. These kids are growing up as the first generation to play this game, but it has to start with the youth."

“I played baseball with my brother and dad growing up,” said Brueggemann. “Most Chinese kids don't even have siblings.”  

 

A Baseball field in Beijing?

After the Play Ball clinic, I headed back to the stadium to watch the Dodgers and Padres work out and take batting practice. I told my cab driver to go to Wukesong, also the name of the area where the ballpark is.

“Where exactly?” he asked. I told him to take me to the baseball field. He stared at me blankly and asked, “There's a baseball field here?” 

Though he was a very nice guy, Sun Chun Sheng, the cab driver, was not very well informed about the goings on of this weekend.

I told him that two American baseball teams were in town to play a couple games, and that the Chinese national team was there too, and then I asked if he liked baseball.

“I don't get it,” he said. “Some of us like it, and some of us don't really.”

Profound.  

Back at Wukesong, the Dodgers were taking batting practice with a hip-hop soundtrack on the loudspeakers, while the Chinese National Team watched patiently in seats along the first base line. After telling me that they weren't allowed to do interviews with reporters, I got one of the Chinese Olympians to give me a bit of insight into baseball in China.

Though he wouldn't give me his full name, Guo is a pitcher who has played baseball since he was “young.” According to Guo, baseball is much bigger than it was when he grew up, and he sees a bright future for the kids who are learning the sport in China now.

I asked him about Wang Wei, the star catcher drafted by the Mariners, who also hit the first ever World Baseball Classic home run.

“Oh, you mean the Yao Ming of our sport?” I think he was tired of hearing about the search for baseball's Yao. “He is on our team, but he is in America now.” 

 

There are no Asians on your team

At the Padres press conference, we were graced with the presences of Trevor Hoffman, Bud Black, and CEO Sandy Alderson.

Though grateful for the Chinese Baseball Association’s welcome, Hoffman was unable to tell us what it was like for the Chinese National Team to meet the Padres, since they hadn't yet been introduced.  He did, however, seem confident that the country will be able to produce MLB talent down the road.

“The opportunity for us to play ball here is a big first step,” he said. “For the kids to start at a young age would really help.” 

One Chinese reporter noted the fact that the Dodgers brought Chan Ho Park from South Korea and Kuo Hong-Chih from Taiwan to China for this event, but that the Padres didn't bring any Asians.

“Do you think the Beijing audience will support the Dodgers more this weekend since they have Asians and you do not?” he asked bluntly.

Bud Black explained that there are no guys from “the Far East” in the Padres system, then conceded  that Beijing probably would, indeed, cheer for the Dodgers.  

On a more serious note, Alderson made a good point about the development of baseball in China. He explained that both the Dodgers and the Padres have guys from all over the world on their rosters—and many of those foreign players come from countries in which baseball is less widespread than it is in China. So, by his account, it might not be long before we start seeing Chinese players show up on MLB rosters.

Maybe it will be a while before someone like Yao makes a splash in the big leagues, but Alderson is probably right.

After the press conference, I kicked back in the bleachers and watched the Padres take batting practice. Of all the things I thought I’d see in China, this wasn’t one of them.

I relished the moment—and I'll be back tomorrow for game one of the China Series.

Check out Part I of Jeff's Baseball in China series 

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