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Partnership gives MLB unique visibility

11/23/2003

BEIJING -- When Jim Small eyes China, he dreams big:
seventh-inning stretches in Shanghai, home runs in Harbin, scouts
scouring Suzhou for the new Sammy Sosa. In short, baseball -- pure,
old-fashioned American baseball -- barnstorming its way across the
land of Mao.

Small is Major League Baseball's vice president of international
market development. And there's no international market larger than
China, where it's estimated the number of school-age athletes is
larger than the entire population of the United States.

On Sunday, MLB and its fledgling counterpart, the China Baseball
Association, announced they would formally team up to promote
baseball in every corner of the communist nation ahead of the 2008
Beijing Olympics. It's a decision both romantic and lucrative.

"Baseball was born in America. Now it belongs to the world,"
Small said Sunday. "But if baseball is truly to be considered a
global sport, it needs to be played in some key countries -- and
China is at the top of that list."

Now, professional and collegiate coaches will stream into China
to work with young prospects. Top Chinese coaches will travel to
America for stints with major-league clubs. Chinese umpires will
receive training. Youth development programs -- including possibly
the famed Pitch, Hit and Run that so many American youngsters have
competed in -- will flourish.

Most significantly, MLB will start scouting in China, finding
the country's top players and grooming them for big-league play. No
details were given.

While Japanese have reached stardom in America, a Chinese has
never played in the major leagues even though more than half of
today's big-league players were born outside the United States. The
only Chinese in the system, Wang Chao, plays for Seattle's farm
system.

"We want to develop stars. Baseball in China could use its own
Yao Ming," said Shen Wei, secretary-general of the China Baseball
Association.

Though America's national pastime has a sporadic history in
China, this increased attention by the major leagues reflects the
country's dramatic opening to the world -- economically and socially
-- since Mao Zedong's death in 1976. Mao, who scorned all things
imperialist, would have considered baseball a bourgeois
distraction.

In 1979, the first year the United States established relations
with communist China, baseball was utterly absent, and few Chinese
had heard of it. The handful of Americans living in Beijing that
fall had to power up bulky shortwave radios at dawn to hear the
Pittsburgh Pirates defeat the Baltimore Orioles in the World
Series.

Baseball has achieved more renown in recent years, partially
because a fashion accessory for young Chinese is a New York Yankees
cap -- not for the baseball team, necessarily, but because it's a
readily available distillation of Americanness.

About five dozen Chinese universities have varsity teams, and
the four-team China Baseball Association -- the Beijing Tigers, the
Tianjin Lions, the Shanghai Eagles and the Guangdong Leopards -- is
trying to draw bigger crowds with local sponsorships and outreaches
to children.

But this is a land dominated by soccer and, more recently,
basketball. Yao, the Houston Rockets' center, has become a folk
hero across China and generated a spike in interest in the NBA,
which is talking about holding exhibition games here.

That's the challenge for baseball. "We need to make it part of
the culture here, so kids are playing in the streets," said Tom
McCarthy, a New Englander and Red Sox fan who helps run the Chinese
league.

Players and coaches with big-league experience are already
working with China's national team, and former Milwaukee Brewers
and Seattle Mariners manager Jim Lefebvre spent three months this
year managing it through the Asian championship in Sapporo, Japan.
China fell to Taiwan in its final game, 3-1.

The national team also spent a month in Arizona this fall
training at the Mariners' facility and playing minor-leaguers from
the fall instructional league -- and, once, defeating the San Diego
Padres' Class A team.

Still, a spot check of five sporting-goods stores in the Chinese
capital hints at the road ahead. The first four had no baseball
equipment. The fifth, Li Sheng Sports on Wangfujing, Beijing's
premier shopping street, said it carried a bat and a glove.