The Diplomat Of the Diamond
Saturday, November 3, 2007
SHANGHAI, Nov. 2
Liu Kaitian, 9, a second-grader at Da Hu Shan No. 1 Elementary School, had never played baseball and never heard of Cal Ripken Jr. But there he was, along with dozens of classmates, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Ripken's No. 8, swinging a bat and dashing around the bases to Ripken's cheers.
"In America, this is very familiar, isn't it?" asked the amused school principal, Ban Songquan, as "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" floated out of the speakers and Kaitian got his first taste of the great American pastime. "Kind of like ping-pong for us, I guess, right?"
Ripken's Hall of Fame status didn't mean much to the 150 youngsters who turned out to see him Friday in a Shanghai neighborhood, nor did his consecutive-games record with the Baltimore Orioles. Still, "the Iron Man" had been sent courtesy of the U.S. State Department, which had named him a public diplomacy envoy in the hope that, by sharing his enthusiasm for the sport that made him famous, he could spread a little goodwill.
If the boys and girls chosen to experience his pitch had little idea what the sport was about, it was because only about 50,000 of China's 1.3 billion people have played the game, according to the China Baseball Association. There are 20 baseball diamonds in the entire country.
A half-dozen homegrown professional teams have tried to attract interest, but with little success. While a Chinese baseball team has been organized for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, public attention remains focused on sports at which the Chinese have traditionally been able to compete at the Games: basketball and individual contests, including diving and gymnastics.
"I have never played baseball before, and I never watched it on television," proclaimed Jiang Xiao, 10, a fourth-grader at Da Hu Shan who nevertheless stepped up to bat minutes later.
Major League Baseball, mindful of the National Basketball Association's success here, has set out to raise its sport's profile. This year, the New York Yankees and the Seattle Mariners signed two Chinese players each, and a Chinese sports channel broadcast the World Series for the first time. Major League Baseball International recently started a program designed to usher 100,000 elementary school pupils into the sport.
So far, Beijing schools have been the most receptive. Twenty teams participated last month in the Tengfei Cup Baseball Tournament. Gan Beilin, an official at the Beijing Education Committee, said the committee has decided to encourage more students to play baseball in the capital's elementary and secondary schools.
But Zhao Qiong, who works at the Foreign Affairs Office of Shanghai's Yangpu District, said most Chinese sports fans do not watch baseball at stadiums or on TV because they do not understand the rules. She did not mention another factor: Baseball was frowned upon by the Communist Party during the days of Mao Zedong, who regarded it as tainted by an association with European missionaries and colonialists early in the 20th century.
"I suppose baseball is a part of American culture," Zhao said.