In China, mining for baseball diamonds
Sunday, August 29, 2010; 9:54 PM
IN WUXI, CHINA It's five minutes to game time and Li Jiajie is still tinkering with his pitch, hurling ball after ball into a teammate's mitt, trying to achieve pinpoint accuracy.
Few 13-year-old players in the world have as much invested in their adolescent frames as Li. The new baseball field he will pitch on was built with hard-fought public funding from this working-class town. His uniform and equipment are gifts from Major League Baseball. So is his 72-mph fastball - pieced together by a pitching coach with more than 38 years of experience.
For almost a decade, baseball has been struggling to break into the Chinese market, and much of its strategy now rests on the slender shoulders of Li and a few dozen other adolescent players. In these boys, at this school, lies the future of baseball in China.
To the major league executives who set up this program in the city of Wuxi last year, the boys represent an entire generation of future coaches, sports ministers and players in China's nascent national league. But the biggest dream is that one day a player from this school will finally make it to the majors in United States and bring with him some of this country's 1.3 billion potential fans.
The story by now has become almost cliche: Big company sees huge market in China. Big company tries to capture that market before anyone else. But in terms of professional sports, that boat set sail long ago. It was called the National Basketball Association, and, as anyone in here will tell you, its champion was 7-foot-6 Chinese star Yao Ming.
An estimated 300 million Chinese now play basketball - roughly the size of the entire U.S. population. This country is the NBA's largest foreign merchandise market. And when the league launched a separate entity called "NBA China" two years ago, Goldman Sachs estimated its value at $2.3 billion.
That success has left other sports salivating. The National Football League has flown in players (and attractive cheerleaders) to make its case. Professional golf is also making a push. Even World Wrestling Entertainment is trying to sell its spandex-clad, muscle-bound act here.
Far behind the NBA, but somewhere at the head of this second wave, is Major League Baseball. Its officials have adopted a guerrilla warfare-type strategy - identifying areas where baseball can gain ground at minimal cost and settling in for the long haul. In charge of MLB's operation is Leon Xie, a former marketing executive.
"We're at China Central Place. You know where that is?" asks Xie over the phone, trying to direct a reporter to his office. He tries a few more landmarks, then finally gives up: "Just tell the driver we're in the same building as NBA; everyone knows where they are."
Later, in a Beijing office seven floors above the NBA but several times smaller, Xie lays out the plight of his sport. Baseball in China stretches back to the late Qing dynasty when students dispatched to American universities by the emperor returned with the game. But baseball was purged during the Cultural Revolution, along with most things associated with the West (except for basketball, which Mao Zedong embraced).
It wasn't until 2002 - after Beijing won its bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games - that MLB finally got serious about China. As host, China was guaranteed a spot in the Games, and MLB saw its chance to introduce the country to bang qiu, or stickball, as baseball is called in China.
The biggest push, however, has come in the past three years with the establishment of the organization's Beijing office. Since then, the MLB has created and sent a traveling baseball amusement park around the country. It negotiated a deal to have the sport's fundamentals taught to more than 150,000 kids at 120 primary schools. And when Chinese parents expressed concerns about their children getting hurt, Xie and his subordinates secured rubber bats and squeeze balls, personally testing them by hitting one another.