Partnership gives MLB unique visibility

Updated: November 23, 2003, 3:00 PM ET
Associated Press

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.


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press