The field took just four months to build amid the high-rise apartment blocks on the outskirts of Changzhou, an anonymous second-tier city about 100 miles west of Shanghai in eastern China. Then, in this Chinese version of Field of Dreams, came the players, each with a nickname bestowed by their American coach, Rick Dell: V.B., or Volleyball Boy, a lanky 14-year-old from Jiangsu province whose mother was a volleyball player; Xiao (Little) Baby Ruth, the pudgy catcher and joker of the team; and Tony, who Dell says "looks like a little Italian guy" from far away.
If all goes according to plan, Xiao Baby Ruth or Tony may one day be playing for the Red Sox or Yankees in major league baseball. It may sound far-fetched, but watching these middle and high school kids make running catches in the outfield and throw fastballs upwards of 82 m.p.h., it's not totally inconceivable. The Changzhou development center, which opened in September, is MLB's second training school in China that aims to produce players who might one day have a shot at the majors or, more realistically, China's national baseball league. But finding the Yao Ming of baseball isn't the only objective. MLB is also desperate to bring back a sport that was wiped out during the Cultural Revolution and make it as popular in China today as it is in Japan and Korea.
This may be difficult, given that America's favorite pastime is still relatively unknown in China, with only about 4 million players, compared with the estimated 300 million who play basketball. But MLB officials are optimistic, largely because of the success of the sport across Asia, particularly in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Baseball has a long history in China too. The game was introduced to the country over a century ago by Chinese students returning home from Yale University. Mao Zedong banned it during the Cultural Revolution unlike his beloved basketball but it re-emerged after his death, eventually leading to the formation of the professional China Baseball League in 2002. In recent years, China has also made steady progress on the international stage, getting a hugely gratifying and high-profile victory over rival Taiwan at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Jim Small, the Tokyo-based vice president of MLB Asia, believes baseball is well suited to Chinese culture. An official once told him that, were he around, Confucius himself might be a fan. "There's a lot of Confucian ideas in the game of baseball. It's the only real team sport where there's no clock. It's about sacrifice. It's one of the few times where you actually sacrifice yourself for the better of the team," Small says. China also takes immense pride in excelling in sports it's not supposed to. Remember Li Na's victory at the French Open? "Ten years ago, people thought you're not going to have Chinese sprinters or Chinese swimmers, and now they're the best of the world in those (sports), so why not baseball?" Small says.
Still, MLB officials admit it will take time to increase the visibility of a sport as nuanced as baseball. The long-term strategy has been a grassroots approach. MLB has introduced baseball to 120 elementary schools in five cities through a program called Play Ball!, with an annual nationwide tournament for the best schools in the spring. It also started a traveling baseball theme park that toured 20 cities this year, attracting some 2.5 million visitors. And a Mandarin-language version of This Week in Baseball, a weekly MLB-highlights show in the U.S., is now broadcast on eight regional Chinese networks.
But bolstering the sport's popularity may ultimately depend upon producing a Chinese star, says Leon Xie, managing director of MLB China. "It's called the Yao Ming effect," he says. "You get your superstar, then you get your fan base, and then that will get us closer to our ultimate goal to get baseball back to the country." This is why the MLB training center in Changzhou and another in nearby Wuxi, which was set up in 2009, are so important.
When MLB opened its Wuxi center, it recruited players locally and had to start with the basics. "The first time most kids had been on a baseball field was the first day we had practice," says Dell, who was head baseball coach at the College of New Jersey for 27 years before moving to China to oversee the development program. Two years later, officials were able to travel the country to scout talent for the Changzhou center, recruiting youngsters from as far away as Qinghai province in the west, where the game is popular among Tibetans, to Guangdong province in the south and Beijing in the north. "There are independent pockets of baseball that are popping up ... that are being initiated by interested individuals who might be Korean or Chinese Americans or Americans," Dell says. "What we've started to do is connect the dots."
The progress in Changzhou has been quick and the players' enthusiasm is palpable. After class on a recent weekday, the 20 boys in the program hit the field wearing bright blue and red jerseys, black Nike cleats and caps from different MLB teams for their weekly in-house game. The red team strikes first, scoring two runs on an overthrown ball to first, but the blue team rallies in its final at bat. After one batter safely reaches base prompting his teammate to yell "Safe!" in English Bama, a 14-year-old Tibetan player from Qinghai, steps to the plate. He cracks the ball to the outfield and sprints to first as his teammates go nuts in the dugout. The comeback is short-lived, though. The light is fading, and Dell calls the game.
Bama, whose nickname sounds like his Tibetan name, Huadan Banma, says afterward that he started playing only three years ago and that his dream is to one day make it to MLB like his idol, Alex Rodriguez. "If I can succeed, I want to earn lots of money that I can use to help others," he says quietly. But even if there aren't any future major leaguers on the field today, Dell says, baseball is making inroads. "We've done things slowly and deliberately," he says. "We wanted to do real things. What you see here is a real thing."