Hong Kong's Little League heading to Manila for shot at world title
Despite being the underdog, Hong Kong's Little League is competing again for championship glory, writes Vanessa Ko
Titouan Delorme wants to play Major League Baseball in the United States some day. If he achieves that goal, it would make him one of very few French players to join the league in its nearly 150-year history.
But right now, the 14-year-old is setting his sights on a mission closer at hand: the Little League World Series. From June 30 to July 8, top teams from 15 Asian and Middle Eastern countries will compete in Manila to determine the regional winner, which will advance to the championships in the US.
Between batting drills at a Saturday practice session, Titouan describes his excitement at the upcoming tournament: "It's my first time representing a country."
The statement might seem like a paradox coming from a French boy playing on a Hong Kong team. But of the 54 all-stars representing Hong Kong at the tournament, a minority are local Chinese.
About half of the players are Japanese. Titouan aside, the rest are American. This international mix sets Hong Kong's all-star teams apart the other Asian leagues.
And despite the lack of popularity of baseball here and inferior resources, the league has managed to put together teams in four divisions - descending age groups of senior, junior, intermediate and major teams - to compete in an international tournament, with the youngest team bearing the greatest hope of winning its division.
The league, which began four decades ago, now has about 350 players and is predominantly made up of expats. Among the local Japanese community, in particular, baseball is a significant fixture, a result of the sport's prominence in Japan.
After the regular season, which runs from August to April, all-star teams are formed to enter the regional tournament. The winning country in each division gets to go to the US. The winner of the youngest, major division, will head to hallowed ground: Williamsport, Pennsylvania, considered the Mecca of Little League baseball.
But in the Manila tournament, Hong Kong's players face baseball powerhouses like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, places where most schools have their own teams and might practise every weekday.
In Japan, "they play baseball as an extracurricular activity. Here, it is only a weekend activity", says Tsunenori Hamatani, a senior team coach, who continues to volunteer even though his son has graduated from Little League.
Ahead of the tournament, the Hong Kong teams practise every Saturday and Sunday. Of course, the strong baseball culture in Japan also explains the make-up of the teams in Hong Kong.
However, Yasuko Mak, whose son is in one of the teams, says being based in Hong Kong has advantages for young baseball players. They can play in more relaxed atmosphere because the Little League culture is less fanatical than in Japan.
"It's much more liberal and free, and the coaches are more approachable. In Japan, the coaches seem untouchable," she says.
The less competitive nature also means there is more opportunity for children to make it on to teams, Mak says. The diversity can be a good learning experience, too.
Several of the coaches are Japanese who aren't fluent English or Cantonese speakers, so much of the communication among teammates and coaches comes down to co-operative translation, the players say.
Maintaining strong teams has its challenges. Baseball is not a big sport here, so it's hard to attract players. Then there is the lack of practice space. The two older all-star teams, senior and junior, sometimes train on a HK$1,000-per-hour field in Tai Tam.
Coupled with practise sessions typically lasting nine hours, in intense heat and heavy air pollution, playing baseball here is a challenge, says Matthew Burlage, co-vice-president of the league and head coach of the Senior all-star team. "Hong Kong and baseball, they're not completely in sync," he says.
The league does not receive any government subvention. About half its funds are derived from dues paid by players' parents, with the rest coming from corporate sponsorship.
But the weak baseball culture presents a hurdle in securing sponsors; most funds go to more popular sports like rugby, Burlage says.
This year is the first time in about a decade that the league has formed a senior all-star team. It is simply too difficult to retain enough players in that age group. Each year, the league gives recognition awards to players who have been in the little league for seven years, and usually only about 10 players qualify for the honour, says Dick Mak, Yasuko's husband and the league's other vice-president.
Children seldom stay with the sport despite showing early promise. Exams start to take precedence, and other interests arise and some children do not develop a good physique. Moreover, many Japanese teenagers leave to finish their secondary studies in Japan, an exodus that weakens the teams at the higher divisions, Mak says.
But the lack of a professional baseball presence is another factor for the attrition. "The kids can't see their future in it after the Little League," Mak says.
Most of the senior all-stars say they have not seriously considered turning professional some day. Fifteen-year-old Leon Wong Ho-fung received some encouragement when a Taiwanese coach asked if he would be interested in studying and playing ball in Taiwan.
"So, it has crossed my mind, but I haven't given it too much thought," he says. "Maybe after the exams."
But while senior-division players concede that their team isn't particularly strong, the major division is seen as a real contender. Last year, they came within one victory of going to Williamsport.
This year's group is determined to do well again. Under the brim of every player and coach's cap is written in black marker: "Go to America."
"That's every 12-year-old's dream - to go to Williamsport. Manila is just a stop," says Dozier Taylor, a former US college player now working in China, whom the major team hired to coach on the weekends.
Taylor, who played in the Williamsport championships as a youngster, says children in the youngest Hong Kong division do not quite grasp the magnitude of the opportunity.
In the US, it takes winning dozens of games for teams from each region to make it to the championships, Taylor says, whereas the Asian and Middle Eastern all-star teams only have to win the one big tournament to get to Williamsport, where games are broadcast live on ESPN. "They're like rock-star status. Twelve years old. How cool is that?" he asks.
And while the older players have a more sober perspective of their sporting future, the younger ones are still dreaming big. On a list of player profiles, save for one aspiring engineer, everyone scrawled as their career goal: baseball player.