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Baseball in Shanghai? Another American Sport Exported to China

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Basenall in Shanghai, China
As an athlete (or at least having been an athlete in the past) and a sports fan, one of the difficult things about finding myself on an extended stay in Shanghai, China (setting up sporting goods manufacturing and other business contacts) is the near isolation from most American sports. Although basketball, over the past ten or so years, has become popular among the Chinese people, baseball has yet to find its way into the sports culture here. While at every school or playground it’s likely you’ll find some kid aspiring to become the next Yao Ming, mention the term “baseball” to most Chinese, even ones who speak pretty good English, and you’ll likely find yourself having to search through a phrasebook to find the Chinese phrase for baseball: “bangqiu” (pronounced bong chi-o).

I had heard from some of the expatriates living in Shanghai that there was some sort of baseball team playing in the city, so I did some Google searches to see whether I could find information about the team. I found a few articles on the Internet about the Shanghai Eagles’ spring trip to the U.S. to compete against junior college teams. The game summaries, published by the news people at a few of the U.S. schools against which the Eagles played, described a team that had decent pitching, but not much hitting. As can happen with that kind of team chemistry, the Shanghai club lost all seven of its exhibition games in the U.S.

I didn’t expect much when I went to watch the team play, but I was excited to actually see a baseball field again, having been in China for awhile, and I wanted to experience the baseball environment here. A Chinese friend of mine hunted down information about where the Shanghai Eagles played and at what time, so I took my wife out for a Friday afternoon at the baseball field.

The old ball game didn’t have any peanuts or Cracker-Jacks, or hot dogs, or drinks, or very many spectators. There was a mascot dressed in a chicken suit, and, although we had to search behind some buildings to find it, surprisingly the field looked pretty standard. There was a total of probably fifty people in attendance when the game began. People came and went as the game progressed. Something that struck me was the feeling that many there were obviously hard-core baseball fans, the kind you would expect to find catching foul balls at a MLB park. After quickly being spotted as one of the only white guys in attendance, I was approached by Dan Washburn, a news consultant doing a story for Baseball America. During my conversation with him, he told me that he met some older Chinese men at one of the games he’d attended. He mentioned that when he asked them what brought them out to the event, they told him they played ball when they were much younger, being forced to leave the game behind when Mao Zedong did away with the American influence during the Cultural Revolution. As for the group of boisterous, college-aged enthusiasts, I was told that a group of them attended the local baseball college, and they were being trained to later become professionals. (In China, many children who express a particular athletic skill are guided down a specialized path devoted largely to the ultimate fulfillment of their athletic capabilities.) There were some younger T-ball aged kids at the game who were introduced to me by the uncle of one of the boys. He wanted them to practice English with me and my wife, and later the two boys asked me to play catch with them using the homemade-looking, well-used baseball one of the boys brought to the game.

The area we used to play catch was the same grass area outside the stadium used by the professional teams to warm up their bullpen pitchers. I used the opportunity to get a feel for how well a professional pitcher in China throws. The one I saw was probably throwing in the high-70’s to low 80’s. I watched him throw curve balls with some good movement and change ups as well. His control was comparable to an average to good college pitcher.

The particular game we watched went into extra innings as the Eagles dropped a large lead late in the game. Being distracted by people attempting to practice English during the tenth and eleventh innings, it wasn’t until the twelfth that I noticed a strange twist to baseball as the Chinese play it. Probably for the sake of ending the game as soon as possible, they allow both teams to start extra innings with a runner on second base. One problem I saw with this approach is that it made the game boring, as the apparent lack of confidence in hitting on the part of both teams turned the extra innings into a bunt-fest. Finally Tianjin broke open and went on to win 9-5 in 12 innings.

During the game, I met some college baseball players who had become interested in baseball when they came to college. They don’t attend the designated baseball college, so their educational involvement baseball is only extra-curricular. They invited me to play with them, and I have participated in some of their practices and scrimmages.

On a Wednesday afternoon in May I followed the directions given to me to meet the team at the Shanghai Teacher’s University on Guilin Road. The field where the team practiced wasn’t actually a baseball field. It was a general-purpose field used mainly for soccer and track exercises. I have quickly come to understand that the space limitations in Shanghai, similar to most parts of China, make it so that facilities have to double up on their usage. It was amusing to me to watch as we set up for a scrimmage. The areas where right and center field should be was filled with a mix of people, including a few of our people playing those positions, and soccer players who were not in the least interested in what we were doing, especially since they were fully engaged in their own game. As fly balls dropped among them, some of the soccer players would pick the balls up and toss them back, while others would, with a demonstration of irritation, kick them out of the way. Fortunately for the soccer players, none of them were hit.

Many of the baseball players were not so lucky. A healthy fear of hard baseballs traveling at high speeds seems to be second nature for most Americans, as if we are born with an understanding that if a ball is fouled off into someone’s face, it’s going to hurt like heck at best. Although most of them didn’t understand what I was saying, I attempted many times to tell those watching the action to back away from the batter and catcher. During one ten-minute interval, I saw three people get hit hard in the face or head by baseballs. Throughout the whole practice there were constant near-misses as well.

On-deck hitters kept with the Chinese custom for preserving one’s place in line by crowding behind the person in front. That approach is okay for the local McDonald’s. In fact, if you don’t push your way up in line, you will find yourself standing in the same place for a long time, with person after person jumping in front of you. However, when the person at the front of the line is swinging a bat, a different set of rules should apply.

During the first practice with the college players, I was invited to pitch to the team as they scrimmaged. It soon became apparent that there were various skill levels represented at the plate. I was reminded of something I saw in Little League (where kids are usually just beginning to learn how to react to balls thrown towards them) when a particularly nervous batter accidentally stepped in front of the plate, opening up towards the ball so that it hit him directly in the stomach. Fortunately I was only throwing about 70 mph, so no major damage was done, except that the player was likely quickly cured of any interest he had in the new American sport. After that incident the other players warned me when I was pitching to someone who was new, so I could slow it down enough for them to take some solid cuts.

In a country where the sport hasn’t really caught on yet, it amazes me that these players respond so well to the difficulties of learning baseball. It is obvious that many of these people, girls and guys alike, have developed a love and even a passion for the game. Before their season started in June, they practiced on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Most practice sessions last five hours or longer. During the time I have participated with them, I have seen their skills improve, with arm strength increasing and fielding and batting capabilities doing the same.

So when the Olympics come to Beijing in 2008, what can we expect from the Chinese team? Will it be somewhat of an embarrassment, like the Greek team’s performance in 2004? Or will the home team have a chance to compete? My personal opinion is that the competition level doesn’t exist in China now for the national team to compete with the likes of Japan, Taiwan, the U.S., or Cuba. However, if they can get enough exposure by playing outside of China, they might just pull off a medal. As for the long-term outlook on baseball in China, comments made by someone who has more experience with the system, as an investor and active baseball supporter in China, give a pretty good take on the subject. When I mentioned to him that I was considering opening a baseball retail store or batting cage in Shanghai, one of the founders of the CBL told me that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if I didn’t mind starving for a couple of years. A few years from now however, he said, a much different scenario is likely to exist, with baseball possibly becoming what it is in Taiwan.