IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Baseball tries to hithome run in China

Baseball, America's favorite pastime,  is trying to get a foothold in China, despite a former ban by Mao Zedong as cultural pollution, NBC News' Catherine Rampell reports from Beijing.
Wang Chao, a pitcher from Beijing, holds up his jersey while talking to the media. Wang is the first and only Chinese player to sign with a Major League Baseball organization in the U.S.Anthony Bolante / Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

Tom McCarthy immediately apologized for his language, even though none of the players in the nearby dugout responded to his delicate Bostonian expletive, “Jesus Crunchabunch." After all, they speak only Chinese.

McCarthy, the Vice Chairman of the Professional Baseball Commission of the China Baseball Association (CBA), began promoting centerfielders in the Middle Kingdom three years ago. He is the only American sitting on any Chinese government sports board. And with his help, China hopes to impress the world with a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in America’s favorite pastime, once banned by Mao Zedong as cultural pollution.

He has his work cut out for him -- baseball has been utterly absent since the 1960s.

In a country of 1.3 billion citizens, whose number of school-age athletes is higher than the entire population of the United States, only about 161,000 people play organized baseball, McCarthy said.

It doesn’t help that China didn’t qualify for Athens this year. But then again, neither did America, as Beijing Morning Post sports reporter Wang Haipeng points out.

“The difference is that it was not big news when we lost,” said Wang, who notes that the Post doesn’t even have a baseball reporter.

Proven Asian appeal in Japan and Korea
Already a fixture in Japan and Korea, baseball has proven itself capable of Asian appeal. McCarthy and his parent company Dynasty Sports Marketing hope to also charm Chinese sports enthusiasts and critics like Wang, who complain that baseball is too confusing and too slow.

Team players visit malls and other high traffic areas to generate interest in the sport. At children’s clinics and public throwing competitions, they hand out raffle tickets, schedule cards, and explanatory rulebooks. The CBA has even held national competitions for poster designs, essays on “The Beautiful Game of Baseball,” and national anthem singers.  

Where Chinese spectators call baseball confusing, McCarthy pitches it to middle-class Chinese families as “the most intellectual sport.” And to appear more international, each team’s home uniforms have their names stitched in English rather than Chinese.

Yet even free admission -- revenue comes from government subsidies, private investment, and corporate sponsors such as Canon and Northwest Airlines -- is not enough to entice more than several hundred fans to watch a game.

Looking for a face to launch the game
Businessmen and fans alike seek a baseball version of Yao Ming, China’s beloved NBA superstar and spokesperson for everything from Pepsi to McDonalds.

For now, the chances are slim. The only Chinese-born player in American Major League Baseball (MLB), Wang Chao, plays for Seattle’s farm system. And although giddy exclamation points riddle the league’s message boards, no player is yet skilled enough to receive widespread recognition, let alone a product endorsement.

“You have to realize that in the end endorsements are a personal achievement, not a team achievement,” says McCarthy. Coaches are more interested in rounding out the team than cultivating the skills (and celebrity) of top players.

League MVP Sun Ling Feng (BA .382) often warms the bench so that inexperienced teammates can get more playtime. But just last November, the China Baseball Association signed an agreement with the MLB to allow North American scouts from thirty major league clubs to recruit Chinese baseball talents, provided signed players return for China’s 2008 Olympic team. 

Other East Asian countries are sowing seeds in China as well. Hiroshima Carp, a Japanese Central League team, is setting up an academy in Guangzhou province to condition promising local pitchers.

Trades within the league are unheard of, says McCarthy. “Once you’re signed with one of the teams, you’re a lifetime player. It’s an unwritten rule,” he explains.

The league also has several players from Japan, the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, though teams are allowed only three foreign players each.

Getting beyond bunting
The teams’ fieldwork is still a little rough around the edges and batters are overly reliant on bunting, according to China Daily sports writer Murray Greig.

“Pitching is their strength,” Greig said, “but there’s a real disparity between the best and worst pitchers.”

Providing players with the experience they need to improve is difficult in a sparsely-watched three-month-long season, with games on weekends only.

Off-season the teams have trained in Australia and Taiwan, where McCarthy maintains no political rivalries have yet reared their ugly heads.

The CBA has also arranged a biennial Friendship Series with Team USA comprised of National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association all-stars. This year’s series was held two weeks ago in Beijing and Tianjin. The Tianjin Lions and the Beijing Tigers lost the series 1-4 to Team USA, which had a dozen MLB draft picks and played with aluminum bats. (Chinese professional teams, like American professional teams, always use less homer-friendly wood bats.)

“[The Team USA] players have played more games this season than the Chinese guys have played in their whole lives,” said McCarthy, “so this was a great opportunity for game experience.”

Harry Tholen, NJCAA Baseball President and head of the Team USA delegation, called the cultural exchange invaluable as well.

“Sure, the boys are American, so they were excited about winning a few games,” he said. “But all they could talk about on the plane ride home was China and the culture and the differences.”

Salaries still a bargain
Among the ranks of the Tianjin Lions, Guangdong Leopards, Shanghai Eagles, and league champions Beijing Tigers you won’t find any of the chaw-spewing, highly-paid cowboy-types of the MLB.

China Baseball League players typically earn $600 to $1,000 per month. Though significantly higher than the average national income of $316 per year, salaries are a bargain compared to what American players can fetch, sometimes topping a quarter billion dollars.

In anticipation of greater media exposure, next year the China Baseball League will be the first Chinese athletic league to proffer players a course that grooms their public relations and financial skills.

The innocence of game -- no hot-dogs
Meanwhile, broadcasts on the coveted state-own CCTV airwaves and promotional events have attracted a few diehard fans that scurry between dugouts during games seeking autographs.

“The Chinese can’t yet tell the difference between good baseball and bad baseball,” Greig jokes. “There’s a real innocence in the relationship between fans and players. It’s refreshing…hopefully it’ll be a while before China warms up to the fact that professional sports are run like a business.”

McCarthy says only about 20 percent of the stadium spectators are foreigners, typically from the embassy or American companies.

And Greig, whose English-language sports column often covers baseball games, says about half of his reader responses come from Chinese requesting explanations of “hit and run,” “infield fly rule,” and the like.

It seems Chinese baseball spectators might need some gastronomic footnotes as well, according to Greig.

“I’ve been here when they’ve tossed crackerjacks into the stands before,” he said, mourning the dearth of traditional baseball cuisine in the stadium. “People didn’t know what to do with the stuff.”