The baseball gods were smiling on Beijing on March 15.
The skies were clear and blue, which is a lot to ask from China’s capital city. Besides running out of hot dogs in the bottom of the second inning, the first game of the China Series went off without a hitch.
Fans witnessed the first MLB home run, pickle, and broken bat in Chinese history as the Dodgers and Padres battled to a 3-3 tie.
The Gwynn twins
While Matt Kemp and Andruw Jones launched batting practice balls over the right field bleachers, fans started to file into the park as early as possible. The line outside the gate bent down the street—and in a clear effort to practice for the Summer Olympics, a time-consuming security check caused hundreds of fans to miss the first inning after an hour wait.
Frank and Barbara Glenski have been to every Padres game since 1978. As they entered Wukesong Stadium in matching Tony Gwynn jerseys, it was clear that a trip to Beijing wasn't going to stop the streak.
But they seemed less concerned with the historic significance of the first MLB game in China than just seeing their Padres play baseball.
In addition to these San Diego diehards, fans ranged from Japanese and South Korean baseball enthusiasts to Beijing Little League and high school teams in full uniform, plus a number of Americans wearing an array of NL and AL caps.
Chinese people are great baseball fans. When the American ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, accompanied by the VP of the Beijing Olympic Committee, threw out the first pitch, the crowd went crazy. When Padres right fielder Drew Macias threw a ball into the bleachers between innings, they cheered. The first ball lifted into the air was a sky-high pop foul down the left field line—and they cheered louder.
Chinese fans might not understand all the intricate rules of baseball yet, but for the most part, they watch every pitch and applaud, well, everything.
Plus, they have fun translations for baseball lingo, including “double murder,” meaning double play.
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Bud Black was right when he admitted that Beijing might favor the Dodgers because of their three Asian players. Every time Taiwanese shortstop Chin-Lung Hu came to bat, he received hearty support from the bleachers.
He also committed the first-ever MLB error in China and lined into a bases-loaded double play—but Beijing was proud to have a Taiwanese brother on the field with the mighty Dodgers.
In the top of the third inning, fans were given a real opportunity to cheer. Justin Germano surrendered a solo bomb to George Lombard that sailed into the right field bleachers—where it was caught by the same guy who caught the ball tossed by Macias earlier in the game.
Of the 12,000 people in attendance, he was one of a handful who'd brought a glove—and it paid off for him. The crowd loved it.
In the top of the fourth inning, a foreigner-induced wave overtook most of the stadium. That's when you knew baseball had truly arrived in China.
After five innings, "Hell's Bells" rang loudly over the loudspeaker, and Beijing welcomed baseball's all-time saves leader to his first Chinese mound.
Trevor Hoffman made fairly quick work of the Dodgers in the top of the sixth.
An inning later, the announcer came on the PA system to lead the stadium in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Before the singing started, he welcomed all who didn’t know the words to "turn to page 16 of your programs, where you’ll find the lyrics to a traditional American baseball song."
The Dodgers and Padres traded runs to leave the score tied at three heading into the top of the ninth. With Chin-Lung Hu due up again, the fans were up out of their seats.
Sitting in the right field bleachers was a local man who obviously knew the intricacies of the game, as his cheering was on point and his yelling at the Taiwanese shortstop seemed like second nature.
His name was Wu Ling. I decided to ask him the question of the weekend: “Are you cheering for the Dodgers because this Taiwanese guy is on their team?”
“I was,” he said, “but he seems to commit double murder more often than he gets on base.”
Mr. Wu has been a baseball fan since he was in middle school. Though he didn’t really understand the game until high school, he explained that baseball had always intrigued him as a kid—an interesting fact given the lack of baseball in China when Mr. Wu was a boy.
Sitting next to him was his son, and the duo reminded me of a typical father-son fan combo in the bleachers at any American game.
As Mr. Wu seemed to be about the closest thing to diehard a baseball fan I was going to find in Beijing, I asked him a few more questions.
“To tell you the truth, I think Beijing will have a hard time accepting baseball anytime soon,” he said when asked about the game's future in China. “There are not enough fans, it’s hard to watch a game here, and it’s rarely on TV.”
Bummer, I thought.
Mr. Wu went on to talk about the lack of Chinese talent, and then pointed to the crowd, which was beginning to thin out.
“Look around,” he said. “Maybe a third of these fans are Chinese. It will be a while before we can fill a stadium with Chinese people.”
I guess the instructional video on the subway trains about the rules of baseball hadn’t quite reached the masses yet. But even though nobody won the first MLB game in China, it happened.
Baseball was here. It was historic.
And it beat the NFL to Beijing.
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