James Badas on China’s baseball scene.

The perfect game is one of the most improbable feats in baseball, let alone all of sports. 204,931 games have been completed in Major League Baseball dating back to 1876. Over this period, only 23 perfect games have been tossed.

With the 2014 season underway, the MLB is seeking to accomplish a feat even rarer than a perfect game – a feat that has yet to be achieved in its illustrious 137-year history. The feat in question? A Chinese-born player taking the field in the MLB.
Baseball’s Roots In China
Baseball has a history in China that dates back very nearly to the origins of the game. Exchange students from China who attended Yale University over a century ago introduced America’s pastime to their native country. The Chinese people embraced the sport and bangqiu 棒球, which literally translates to “stick-ball” in Mandarin, appeared to have a bright future in China.That hope and promise was extinguished in the 1960s, thanks to the Cultrual Revolution’s sweeping impact on the country. Mao Zedong banned the sport for its Western roots and influence, leaving a once loved sport to go unrecognized by an entire nation of Chinese people.

Even when the sport was reinstated after Mao’s death in 1976, baseball was fighting an uphill battle. Basketball had taken flight thanks to Mao’s love of the fast-paced game – a love that reignited in China as recent as this past decade when 7’6” Chinese superstar Yao Ming shone in the National Basketball Association.

With basketball at the forefront of Chinese sporting culture, along with soccer and table-tennis, the unfamiliar and somewhat strange game of baseball lagged behind in the background. As recently as 2011, an estimated 300 million Chinese were playing basketball compared to a measly four million who were grabbing their gloves and taking the diamond.

Confucius Would Love Baseball
Whatever uphill battle the MLB faces in developing the sport in China, Jim Small, the Vice President of MLB Asia, points out that the league has some cultural advantages that cannot be overlooked. Small is well-versed not only in Confucianism, but in how Confucianism may be baseball’s best chance for success in China.

“You think about all the things that make baseball great: there’s no clock, everything’s in threes, the idea of sacrifice, the timelessness,” says Small from his office in Tokyo. “It all fits perfectly with Chinese culture. I think Confucius would have been a great baseball fan.”

Whereas the National Football League finds it especially difficult to pitch an almost-exclusively American game to the Chinese, Small points out that baseball has yet another leg up. The Chinese do not view baseball as America’s favorite pastime. When they think of baseball, they imagine it as an Asian sport that is not only rich in Chinese history, but also gaining in popularity in neighboring Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

While these advantages can be seen simply as nice talking points that do not necessarily translate to world-class talent on the field, they have been helping with one of Small’s main objectives of bringing context to the game. Since the start of the new year, Small has received some confirmation that the league is in the midst of making great strides – an undisclosed sponsor recently chose the MLB over the NBA in a contractual battle.

Play Ball!
Small appears confident that the MLB will be able to gain further traction in China. But how exactly will the league go about doing this? According to Small, the ultimate goal is to establish baseball as a popular commodity and not as a foreign concept. And yet, in a country of 1.35 billion people, where virtually no one knows what the game of baseball is, where do you start? You start from the bottom-up, bringing baseball education to China’s youth.

Play Ball! is a grassroots initiative the MLB instituted in the fall of 2007. Incorporated into the physical education programs of over 150 schools across five top-tier cities, the program introduces baseball to eight to twelve year old students. In building the ever-important brand of MLB in China, Small says, the best players in these schools can play on intra-scholastic teams. The students are decked out head-to-toe in attire fit for a Major League ballplayer, and learn about the team and the region the team is from. A middle-school student in Hangzhou would for example study the Rangers as well as Texan history.

Furthermore, the MLB television program, This Week In Baseball, was aired weekly in Mandarin on about 13 stations across the country, with a potential audience of 450 million people. The World Series and All-Star Game were broadcasted annually to an equally large audience. At the end of the 2011 Major League Baseball season, the show was replaced by a new program – the MLB Player Poll.

The MLB employs a final tactic called the Road Show, a portable complex of blow-up batting cages and miniature fields. Since 2010, the Road Show has helped 2.5 million people across 20 Chinese cities feel the seams of a baseball in their hands and know what it is like to crack a pitch right at the sweet spot of the bat.

Not to mention, baseball received a helpful boost from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. To demonstrate itself as a true superpower capable of Olympic grandeur, China built facilities worthy of Olympic competition such as the Wukesong Baseball Field. Equipped with an appropriate venue, the MLB hosted its first set of games in China in March 2008 – the MLB China Series. The two spring training games between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres in were extremely popular, and welcomed near-full capacity crowds.

Where Are You Taking My Son?
“So when are you going to get your Yao Ming?”

Everyone working to expand baseball in China has no doubt heard, and will continue to hear this line over and again. Nothing sparked greater Chinese interest for an American sport than the arrival of Yao, the monstrous basketball player from Shanghai in 2002.

The executives of the MLB understand that if they could identify a baseball player of even half Yao’s caliber, all efforts to promoting baseball at the grassroots level would be no longer be necessary – the game would instantly skyrocket in popularity.

However, in a sport where 90 percent of minor league players–from the top colleges and high schools and baseball-crazed countries–are unable to crack the Major League Baseball, Small and his crew are aware that this task will not be easy.

This is where Rick Dell comes in. Dell, who was head coach of the College of New Jersey for almost three decades years, resigned from his post in 2007 and boarded a plane to China, where he currently serves as the Director of Game Development for the MLB in China. Dell’s job is to develop the talent base necessary for a Chinese player to break into the big leagues.

In 2009, Dell introduced the MLB Development Centers in China, starting with one in Changzhou and another in Wuxi. The centers are effectively baseball boarding schools for talented student-athletes who could potentially be shaped into world class players, providing the best sporting resources and rigorous academics.

These centers, however, teach more than just baseball. The program makes three promises to anxious parents of potential student-athletes: by the end of their stay, their children will be able to speak English proficiently, have received a world-class education, and become highly talented athletes.

“The Chinese value education and we make sure that we mainstream our student-athletes into the education of the host institution,” says Dell. “[Academics] is not the side bar. It’s the main course.”

Without promising high-level academics, there is no doubt that the MLB’s efforts would flop miserably in a land where parents are intent on making the absolute best decisions for their only children.

“These players are lining themselves up to go to universities in the United States, possibly Taiwan, and certainly China,” Dell adds. “If you went out there saying we’re just going to sell baseball, I don’t think we’d be very popular at all.”

According to Dell, the process is similar to his days of college recruiting in New Jersey. “The first couple of years are difficult,” he says. “But once you begin building that history, it gets easier. People start looking for you.”

How long will it take to reach that point? When will the program come to fruition in terms of producing MLB-level talents? The Development Center’s first class is now at the seventeen to eighteen year old range and Small fully expects to have players heading to America to play in the minor leagues within 12 to 18 months. Will they be hitting the home runs though?

“Are these guys going to play in the Major Leagues? It’s hard to say,” says Small. “The failure rate in baseball, you know you fail seven out of ten times as a hitter and you go to the Hall of Fame. It’s just a sport built around failure.”

“If things go right, you can see some of those [minor leaguers] in the major leagues within four to five years,” Small prophesizes. “I guess our horizon would be somewhere between six and ten years to see someone in the Major Leagues.”

Already Paying Dividends
The Chinese have already noticed an uptick in performance on an international level.

The World Baseball Classic, an MLB-created international baseball competition that is contested every four years, has grown in importance, especially after baseball’s current omission from the Olympics.

Despite China’s medal-driven ambition associated with the Olympics, the Chinese national team has shown marked improvement over the three World Baseball Classics to date. The inaugural WBC saw China lose all three games in pool play in lopsided fashion – in aggregate, China was outscored 40–6. In 2009, however, under current New York Mets’ manager Terry Collins, the Chinese stunned Chinese Taipei 4-1.

This victory over its neighbor sparked discussion on how baseball could provide another avenue for the Chinese to prove themselves. Current manager John McLaren, who held the reins at the Seattle Mariners and the Washington Nationals, and has coached some of the world’s biggest names from Alex Rodriguez to Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki, witnessed yet another triumph in the most recent WBC.

McLaren says that few moments could rival his emotions during the 2013 competition. McLaren watched first-hand as his rag-tag group, led by third baseman Ray Chang defeated Brazil 5-2 before falling to Japan 5-2.

This win, with a foreign team and customs, meant to the all-American baseball traditionalist, just as much as any of the games that he has coached in the past.

“It was quite a ride, I’ll tell you. You don’t forget memories,” says McLaren. “My memories with the Toronto Blue Jays, the Seattle Mariners, Ichiro, Griffey, A-Rod, all them guys…this is right up there with all that in how much it meant to me.”

Baseball may never become the number one sport in China. But for those who play it, what baseball has already provided is the unity that can only be derived from being together on that sacred field of dreams.

It’s what makes an American manager from Texas, who has coached at the very highest levels of the game, proud to refer to himself and his Chinese players as “us.”

It’s what makes teammates cry together over a victory that did not earn them a trophy or even save them from elimination.

It’s what makes baseball China’s perfect game.

James Badas is a freshman at Yale University. Contact him at james.badas@yale.edu.

This article appears in the April 2014 issue of China Hands.