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Hoffman among Padres to visit Great Wall of China

BADALING, China -- Building the Great Wall took centuries.

Major League Baseball hopes creating its foundation in China won't take that long.

Baseball's first big pitch began Thursday, an outing by the San Diego Padres to a twisting, hilly stretch of the country's most famous monument just north of Beijing. The Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers practice Friday in Beijing's Olympic baseball venue, with MLB's historic first two games in China on Saturday and Sunday.

It's all part of trying to give baseball a profile in China, cracking the sports market and -- maybe -- eventually finding the baseball version of basketball's Yao Ming.

"The popularity of basketball here just went off the charts when Yao Ming got to the NBA," Padres manager Bud Black said. "That's what baseball is looking for."

Baseball's main pitchman Thursday was Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, who hiked up the Great Wall alongside Chinese tourists who had no idea who he was. He mugged for TV, stretched his arms wide as if he were about to soar off the wall, and answered questions from local reporters with a faint grasp of the game, which is called "bangqiu" -- stick ball -- in Chinese.

"Look at the view," Hoffman said. "Take a look. It's unbelievable, isn't it? I think I'd feel pretty safe on this wall in the day when Mongolia was coming after em."

Selling baseball will be tough in China, where the game has few roots and players. However, MLB can see the potential in a country with 1.3 billion people, where incomes are rising and the NBA and European soccer teams have already shown the way.

"One day we'll look back on this -- maybe a landmark event -- and say it was the start of many great years of baseball history in China," Hoffman said. "You think of all the emperors and dynasties they've had. This had a beginning. I'm sure building the wall felt equally daunting when they started."

Getting attention was easy. Chinese tourists snapped photos of some of the unknown players, and young girls ran by giggling "hello" and "xie, xie," -- Chinese for "thank you." Save for their larger stature, players like Hoffman, Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Kouzmanoff would have been largely ignored.

The star was the Padres mascot -- "The Swinging Friar." Hundreds mugged for photos. Some thought it was a promotion for McDonald's restaurants.

"Here they don't know anything about baseball, they don't know who is who," said Michael Grace, who donned the mascot's garb. "The friar looks friendly, it's an oddity."

A bit like baseball, which is hoping to draw crowds in Beijing over the weekend. The game has been dropped from the 2012 Olympics in London, but could be reinstated for 2016.

Chinese tourist Cen Wei was asked what he knew about the American pastime, and the 24-year-old waved a rolled up newspaper he was carrying -- more like swinging an ax than a bat -- and said he'd like to see a game.

"It's good for eyesight, flexibility, speed and teamwork," he said. "I'm interested, but I don't think I can see it on TV."

Hang Ziaohong, a young woman standing nearby, was asked the same question.

"Absolutely nothing. I have no idea," she said.

The games are important promotions, although both teams have brought just a handful of starters, leaving most of their top pitchers in the United States.

Traipsing to the apex of the twisting wall was a test of fitness. Becky Moores, the wife to Padres team owner John, made it to the highest rampart. She arrived several days ago in the polluted air of Beijing, welcoming the clean air of the countryside.

"Now I can breathe, my chest is open," she said.

Betsy Gonzalez, the wife of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, managed to get three-quarters up the wall wearing 3-inch high heels.

"I'm always in high heels so I'm used to it," she said.

Replied her husband: "It would be like me going three times as far as I went. That's incredible to climb all the way up there in high heels."

Kouzmanoff said he tried to keep the sun off his shaved head with a straw hat -- the conical-shaped types worn by rice farmers in southern China.

"I wore one for a while but it just kept blowing off my head," Kouzmanoff said. "Too much trouble."

Sandy Alderson, the Padres CEO, predicted a China-born player might make the major leagues in the three years, but he said it was more likely a "six to eight year project."

"The games will put us on the map a little bit but, look, it's a big photo op," he said.

"This is really going to take time, money and personnel. You can't develop the sport over night when we have three or four people in China compared to the NBA with several hundred."