Why it's all about the big pitcher
Huadeng Danzeng and Wang Zhelun are as different as junior high school students can be on the mainland.
Huadeng speaks Tibetan, Wang Putonghua. Huadeng comes from a small tribe on Qinghai's steppe, Wang from the bustling downtown of Shijiazhuang, Hebei. Huadeng's parents ride horses, Wang's drive an Audi. Huadeng likes painting, Wang is writing a novel.
What they do have in common, though, is that they are fresh recruits of the Major League Baseball Development Centre in Wuxi, Jiangsu. All the boys here, aged 14 and 15, were chosen for their abilities to pitch a ball with explosive power, or hit the ball a long, long way.
'I want to get a ticket to the United States to play in the major leagues, to become a superstar,' Wang said. 'But if I fail, I will pass the ball to my son.'
Major League Baseball is the sport's top professional league in the United States, and the development centre, located at Dongbeitang Junior High School, is part of an effort to generate interest in the sport among the mainland's 1.3 billion citizens; help schools build baseball fields, obtain equipment and train coaches ... and create future superstars.
Elsewhere in Asia, like Japan and South Korea, Major League Baseball only needs to convince headmasters, parents and students that baseball is educational, healthy and fun. But on the mainland it must first deal with the Chinese government. And that may be a hard sell considering baseball was dropped as an Olympic sport after the 2008 Games in Beijing for being 'too American'.
Even so, there is reason for optimism. One survey by a Beijing-based market research firm last year showed that more than 20 per cent of the mainland's urban population aged 15 to 54 is interested in baseball, and another by TNS Sport Asia in 2008 said 16 per cent of the mainland was interested in the sport.
If that's true, then more than 220 million people are ready to swing a bat or pitch a ball - more than the populations of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan combined.
Baseball has a long but mostly forgotten history on the mainland, according to Joseph Reaves, co-author of the 2006 book Baseball Without Borders: an International Pastime. Baseball was played at the Shanghai Base Ball Club as early as 1863, a decade earlier than in Japan.
After Zhan Tianyou, a train driver who became a star pitcher for Yale University, established the first Chinese baseball team in 1887, the Orientals, the sport immediately caught on among the Chinese upper class.
The imperial court of the Qing dynasty played baseball with foreign diplomats, and Dr Sun Yat-sen used university baseball clubs as a cover for his revolutionaries to overthrow the last emperor. After the People's Republic was established, generals of the People's Liberation Army, such as Marshal He Long , used the game to train their soldiers to throw hand grenades. When He later became China's sport minister, baseball was included in the first National Games in 1956, and more than 30 provincial, military and city teams played in the first New China Baseball Tournament, according to Reaves.
Premier Wen Jiabao, who played baseball with students during his first visit to Japan in 2007, said he had played in high school in the '50s and loved the sport.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) banished baseball from the mainland. Then, in 2001, sports authorities invited Major League Baseball to help put together a national team for the Beijing Olympics. MLB, realising the possibilities, sent its best coaches to help screen and train players, and then flew them to the US to play with some of the best teams in the world.
Still, no one was surprised when the Chinese team came bottom in 2008.
With government support tending to run in line with China's chances of winning a medal in the Olympics, that was one serious setback.
Then came the 'you're out' message the International Olympic Committee delivered to baseball and softball in 2005.
However, MLB was not going to let Chinese officials forget the sport, said Jim Small, MLB vice-president for Asia.
In 2007, it quietly started a series of programmes to show that baseball could bring greater benefits than a few Olympic medals: it could help produce a healthier, more disciplined, more teamwork-orientated younger generation.
And at the heart of this campaign is the development centre in Wuxi.
Small said the centre also demonstrates that students can pursue both their academic studies and their sporting talent.
There are approximately 40 recruits at the centre from all over the mainland. They attend the same classes, eat at the same tables and share dormitories with the other students at Dongbeitang.
Guo Ziliang, headmaster of Dongbeitang, said he was surprised by these baseball trainees.
'Their academic performance is better than that of the ordinary students, particularly their English. One of them won first prize in the city's English competition - the first time for our school,' Guo said.
'So now I am encouraging every student to play baseball. We have four teams already. Other schools are envious.'
Guo said the Ministry of Education had asked him to file a report on whether it would be possible to integrate baseball into the national 'Sunshine Sports' programme, a central government campaign to increase students' sport activities.
He said the report was almost done. 'It is not whether it is possible. It is whether it is a must. My conclusion is yes,' he said.
With the popularity of the game increasing on the mainland, Leon Xie, managing director of MLB's China office in Beijing, said that it had made agreements with mainland TV sports channels. A telecast of last year's All-Star Game, played annually in the US in July, has now been watched by more than 20 million mainlanders.
Renowned universities such as Beijing Normal have set up baseball teams and are now desperately seeking players and coaches, which gives a further incentive for high schools to promote the sport.
But most schools face a big problem - the lack of fields. Baseball fields require outfield fences to define a home run, a backstop to separate the spectators from the area around the home plate and a pitcher's mound.
Xie said that they had come up with several innovative ways to help schools turn a soccer field into a decent baseball field in less than an hour at a cost of a few thousand yuan (or about HK$3,500).
'The key is to make things mobile,' Xie said. The outfield fence, for instance, could be a rubber barrier inflated by an air pump, and the pitcher's mound, which is a permanent mound of earth on a regular field, was replaced by a movable mound made of wood.
Baseball equipment is scarce and, therefore, expensive on the mainland. A set of bat, protective helmet, catcher's mitt and boots costs from a few hundred to a few thousand yuan. Parents would need to spend thousands of yuan on equipment, more than many families' monthly incomes.
But Ma Jing, Wang Zhelun's mother, said mainland parents were willing to invest in their children's future, particularly if there was a chance to play in the US and become a star.
Small said MLB had been closely following the development of the National Basketball Association on the mainland. More than 300 million people there play basketball, making the mainland the NBA's largest foreign merchandise market. When NBA China was established in 2008, Goldman Sachs estimated its value at US$2.3 billion.
Small said the NBA's success on the mainland could be summarised in two words: Yao Ming.
The NBA had been trying to make a profit on the mainland for decades, but that only happened when Yao left China to play for the Houston Rockets.
MBA China is now hoping for its own Yao. The chances appear good. Unlike basketball and American football, height and muscle are not important in baseball so China's vast population gives it a great head start in finding a star, said Rick Dell, MLB director of baseball development in Asia.
'Our kids in the 14- to 15-year-old range are doing at least as great as their US counterparts,' he said.
Still, that means there could be at least a decade to go before the mainland's first baseball superstar, as most professionals don't make their debuts in the major leagues until the age of 25 or 26. It could even be Huadeng or Wang.
The mainland has a second advantage. 'All good baseball players are extremely smart, and I think nobody doubts that the Chinese are extremely smart,' Small said. 'Our biggest challenge is patience.'