With the letters "U.S.A." emblazoned on the front of his white jersey, James Im resembles an Olympic track and field competitor more than a baseball player. Assuming an unusual stance -- his body coiled like a spring -- he might be a decathlon athlete preparing to hurl the javelin.
But this is not an Olympic trial. The 19-year-old High Point High School graduate is a member of the United States Asian-American all-star baseball team, preparing for a Friday departure to the Orient. During a two-week tour of China, the team will play seven exhibition games, facing some of the best amateur teams in the People's Republic.
None of this is in Im's mind now, however. In this scrimmage against the Burtonsville Senior League team at Paint Branch High School, Im is concentrating solely on the pitcher's delivery. He waits in the batter's box, taking a few pitches before hitting a fastball that easily clears the left field fence.
Next up is 15-year-old Byron Chow. A sophomore at Park View High School in Sterling, Va., Chow is the team's youngest player. Not to be outdone, he connects on a fastball, landing a home run less than 20 feet from Im's.
Im and Chow are two of 16 players who have been selected to the all-star team. They joined their brothers, Robert Im and Ben Chow, as well as Henry Choi, Steve Chung and Jason Pak of the District, and 10 ballplayers nationwide on a trip that will provide, at the least, a rare opportunity to face diverse competition.
The idea to have a team of Asian-Americans tour China was introduced at a meeting four years ago between Robert Smith, president of the U.S. Baseball Federation, and Wei Ming, president of the Chinese Baseball Association. Duck Lee, a resident of the District who is president of the Industrial League and the Korean Amateur Baseball Association in America, attended that meeting in China.
"It was the first time that the baseball leaders of the two nations had met," Lee said. "From there, we discussed future plans, how America could help them -- because America is, after all, a baseball country, while China is still getting started."
Last winter, Ming approved the proposal. Lee quickly assembled a team of players ranging from 15 to 41 years of age and arranged for transportation and visas through the Chinese embassy. The trip's focus, Lee stated in a newsletter to players, was twofold: to convey good will to the people of China and to put on skillful baseball exhibitions that will help further promote the American game.
For many of the players, the trip takes on added significance: the opportunity to return to their homeland, or that of their forebears. Many will spend extra time in the Orient, visiting friends or relatives.
Henry Choi, a student at Rockville's Wootton High School, has not been to Korea since he was7, when he visited his father's brother-in-law. He eagerly awaits the chance to return, to see where his father was raised, to see China for the first time.
Ben and Byron Chow lived in Tokyo two years before returning to the United States last summer. They will spend a few days in Japan after the trip to visit friends.
The U.S. team will play its share of baseball. It is scheduled to face several teams from the Beijing area. Other teams will be flown in from throughout China for an opportunity to challenge this team from the West.
Lee has imposed a dress code on the U.S. players while they travel and tour and has briefed them on matters of etiquette.
"That's something that Mr. Lee is very concerned about -- our behavior -- since we're representing a country," said Chung, a Maryland graduate. "Everywhere we go, we're going to be scrutinized. Anything that comes over from the United States, they're going to be curious; they're going to put us on the table and dissect us, on and off the field."
Team members have been made aware of several differences in lifestyle they will encounter, and the subject of communism was brought up frequently in the discussions. They know a learning experience awaits them, and are going with an open mind, hoping to teach the Chinese a little about our ways and to learn from theirs.
"I want to show them how Americans are, how Americans play baseball," says Jason Pak, a junior at Maryland. "I don't really care about the politics.
"We are all the same people, you know. We just live in the United States, and they live in China."