Friday was opening day for the China Baseball League, but as the Shanghai Eagles and Tianjin Lions battled it out in the ironically named Shanghai Sports Palace, a dusty field northwest of the city centre, there was more life at a bustling fish market nearby than there was at the stadium. About 75 people - some fans, some curious onlookers - were scattered throughout the stadium's 800 or so seats, and they were treated to a rather exciting game. Shanghai, last in the league in wins and attendance since the CBL launched in 2002, squandered a 4-0 lead in the ninth inning and ended up losing to Tianjin, 9-5, in 12 innings. But most of the cheering during the game came from the players in the teams' dugouts. Attracting fans in a country that knows little about baseball, and cares even less, remains a critical challenge for the fledgling pro league, admits CBL director and founder Tom McCarthy, an American. McCarthy is pleased with the gains the league has made on the field, however. 'To have come from where we were in 2002, it's been a quantum leap,' the New Englander said. 'The level of play overall is much better. We still need our top players to be more challenged, so we need more of our middle-of-the-road players to step forward.' McCarthy spent Friday in Chengdu, capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, where the Sichuan Dragons made their league debut, losing to the Guangdong Leopards, 6-1. The CBL expanded from four to six teams for the 2005 season, adding Sichuan and the Beijing Hopestars. Another team from Beijing, the Tigers, are two-time defending league champions and, according to McCarthy, the team to beat once again this season. The Tigers defeated the Hopestars, 6-1, on opening day. McCarthy said he would like to expand the league to eight teams in 2007, mentioning Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Jiangsu province's Wuxi as possible sites. Thirty CBL games will be televised on local stations this season, and for the first time CCTV will broadcast the championship series nationally in early July. The league's redesigned website ( www.cbl.org.cn ) offers tape-delayed video footage of games this season, and McCarthy said an English-language version of the site was set to launch sometime in April. He's hoping the added exposure will help fill up some of the empty stadium seats. 'I was surprised to learn that Shanghai had a baseball team,' said 22-year-old Zhang Xiaoyi, of Shanghai, who cheered on her hometown team both on Friday and yesterday. 'This is my first time watching baseball. It's very organised. My favourite sports are soccer and basketball. Those sports are very fast. For baseball, you need patience. But I like it. This is different. It's interesting.' American Richard Robbins also was in attendance for Shanghai's first two games of 2005. He liked what he saw. 'I expected to see some pretty shabby baseball,' the Tallahassee, Florida, native admitted. 'But it was pretty clean.' Yesterday's results: Tianjin 4 Shanghai 0; Beijing Tigers 4 Beijing Hopestars 3; Guangdong 5 Sichuan 3 (10 innings). Today's games: Tianjin at Shanghai; Guangdong at Sichuan; Beijing Hopestars at Beijing Tigers (all games start at 10.30 am).