The Emergence of Baseball in China: Part I

Jeff SwirynCorrespondent IFebruary 28, 2008

A sport-loving nation

Open almost any magazine or newspaper today, and China is sure to be mentioned, if not featured. Since reopening to the rest of the world in the late 1970s, China has developed at a rate unmatched by the history of any other nation.

I live in Shenzhen, a city in the south of China, just an hour north of Hong Kong. Twenty-five years ago, this city was a small fishing village. Fast-forward to 2008, and it has become China’s richest city, not to mention a production hub for many of China’s countless mass-produced goods, from fashion bags to digital cameras and LCD TVs.

In the world of sports, the race to catch the West is becoming more evident. It is hard to flip through the Chinese TV channels these days and not catch a glimpse of a Rockets or Bucks game, or at least some NBA highlights.

And the Olympics…well, people can debate all day about whether Beijing deserves the honor of hosting the 2008 Olympic Games. The facts are, Chinese love the Olympics, and Beijing is the perfect place to host the Games.

When I first came to China in the summer of 2004, the first thing I did was walk into a restaurant in Beijing, only to be ignored by the waiters who were all gathered around the restaurant’s 20-inch TV with the rest of the patrons intently watching an Olympic game of badminton like it was the Super Bowl.

When was the last time any patriotic group of Americans gathered around to watch an Olympic competition all night? Unfortunately, the excitement of the Olympics has passed many of us by. But in China, the Games are hotter than Yao Ming himself.

So we know that basketball and the Olympics are huge in China. Even the World Cup was a big deal in China two years ago—and they didn't even have a team.

But what about baseball?

China is not exactly known for its up-and-coming MLB prospects. Will baseball get picked up in the whirlwind of adopting foreign pastimes as China’s own? The fact that the first ever MLB game in China is just around the corner is an indication that China is ready for baseball. And with the new Wukesong Stadium built for the Olympics, Beijing is gearing up for America’s favorite pastime.

The man who killed baseball

With a history about 20 times longer than that of the U.S., it is not surprising that many worldly phenomena are deeply rooted in China. On numerous occasions, China has claimed, often with reason, to be the inventor of things like the toilet and even soccer. Baseball is not one of these things. But surprisingly, the beginnings of baseball in China trace back farther than most would think.

Its roots are in Shanghai, where in 1863, the Shanghai Baseball Club was formed. National interest in the sport picked up quickly, and in 1915, China placed second to the Philippines in a Greater Asia baseball tournament held in Shanghai.

Forty years later, baseball was as big as it would ever be.

In 1959, teams from 30 regions came together in a national competition. The same year, under Chairman Mao’s leadership, a “Baseball in the New China” seminar took place for the benefit of military and civilian teams. Unfortunately, this was on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.  So, like most other foreign creations, baseball was labeled an evil Western influence and banned by Mao. (Side note: One reason basketball has developed so much in China is because Mao loved the sport and encouraged talented young athletes to pursue this one Western game.)

Mao's Cultural Revolution all but killed baseball in China, and it wasn’t until his death in 1976 that it began to slowly resurface.

In 1986, the west began to take up an official interest in baseball in China. That year, L.A. Dodgers’ Peter O’Malley helped to construct the first modern baseball stadium in China. It was built in Tianjin, about an hour from Beijing, and named “Dodger Stadium.” Two years later, the first Little League championship took place. Baseball finally had a future in China.

To the Chinese people, baseball remained a bizarre, complicated sport for a couple of decades. It still is to most. But with the turn of the century came a second—or perhaps third—wind for baseball in China.

In 2002, the first official professional baseball league was formed, aptly named the China Baseball League. The first season lasted about a month, and consisted of four teams—the Beijing Tigers, the Tianjin Lions, the Shanghai Eagles, and the Guangzhou Leopards.

Once again, interest sparked rapidly, and in 2005, the CBL—not to be confused with the Chinese Basketball League, a minor league basketball association—experienced its first expansion.

The two new teams were the Sichuan Dragons and the China Hope Stars, a team of under-21 prospects. In 2007, the CBL partnered with Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, with both parties agreeing to allow Japanese clubs to send coaches and players to China and Chinese players to train at Japanese facilities.

The CBL continues to add games to each season's schedule, and despite the fact that most ball players make about $300 USD per month (about double the average person’s salary), China has a full-blown professional baseball league.

The bat-drain

No matter how you look at it, baseball in mainland China is still in its infant stage.

China is not Japan. No Sadaharu Oh, no Matusi, and definitely no Tom Selleck. But, thanks to the MLB’s desire to help baseball develop in China, and the country's self-induced pressure to succeed in the Olympics, baseball is growing.

Frankly, this massive country of more than one billion people lacks baseball talent. China’s performance in the 2006 World Baseball Classic could have been a little worse, to be fair. The team was outscored 30-6, and lost all three of its games—including a 12-3 blowout against its rival, Chinese Taipei.

There is also the short-term problem with developing baseball in China—the bat-drain, if you will, or the Yao Ming syndrome.

Talented athletes will be pursued by major league teams in the U.S., leaving the developing Chinese league with its own leftovers. The Yankees have already signed an agreement with the CBL to help develop baseball in China, which includes setting up baseball academies across China and sending trainers and coaches to work with the Chinese athletes.

Sixth months after signing this deal, the Yankees inked two 19-year-old Chinese prospects to minor league contracts. It's pretty clear, especially with a Taiwanese star already on their mound, that the Yankees want to be the first to develop and scoop up Chinese talent. They have also paved the way for other MLB teams to explore the Chinese market.

The next possible Chinese star, Wang Wei, has already been drafted by the Seattle Mariners. Wei is a catcher who drove in four of China’s six runs in the WBC. A Chinese baseball league without the likes of Wang Wei is a less impressive league, to say the least.

Too many men on the field

I remember vividly a cab ride I took in Nanjing during the 2006 World Cup. The driver was listening to a game on the radio, and I asked him if he was disappointed that China didn’t have a soccer team in ’06. He laughed at me and said, “We Chinese are terrible at team sports.”

“What about basketball?” I replied.

“Well,” he laughed again, “there are only five guys on the court in a basketball game—and we can barely handle that.”

I started to get his drift.

“We are great at ping-pong and badminton because there are two on a team at most. But soccer,” he exclaimed, “Forget it! With that many people on the field at once, we’ll never be able to compete with the other countries.”

Maybe baseball, with its poetic combination of individual attention and strategic teamwork and communication, will be the perfect sport for China to excel in.

We can at least be excited now for the MLB’s debut in China and for the CBL to continue to grow and produce talented young ball players. Only time will tell if the Yao syndrome takes root in the world of baseball. The first thing we can do is see how Beijing takes to a NL West rivalry. I'm heading north in two weeks to find out.

Stay tuned March 15 for the next installment, after game one of the China Series between the Padres and Dodgers.

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