MICHAEL MARONE, a student at Tsinghua University, couldn't believe his ears. 'Not bad,' said the coach of the Beijing Tigers baseball team. 'Can you pitch for us next week?' Marone was being offered the chance of a lifetime: to play professional baseball. For the 23-year-old American, the opportunity came out of left field. He was just an ordinary foreign student, but the fledgling Chinese league needed all the talent it could find. Marone had been a Yale recruit and played for Taiwan National University during his gap year, but he had no illusions about getting into the big leagues. 'The best I could be is an average AAA minor league player in the States,' he says. Marone was on a fellowship to study Chinese, but giving it up for professional sport cost more than he expected. 'I got this e-mail last week,' he says sheepishly, gesturing to a printout from the US demanding repayment of US$4,149 he owes for not attending classes. Marone's financial woes are typical. Playing for the struggling Beijing Tigers doesn't quite bring the glamour associated with professional sports. But compared with his Chinese teammates, his 2,000-yuan monthly salary is at the high end of the spectrum. 'I want to make baseball China's national sport,' says the Texan of the game that's still a fringe sport on the mainland. Marone is buzzing with excitement at the chance of making it a grand tradition, as it is in the US. 'Right now, these baseball players are recruited because they're bad javelin throwers, but some day everywhere in China, kids will be playing it in the streets,' he says. For foreign players such as Marone, China's pro-sport scene offers a chance to break new ground. The baseball league is the newest addition to the mainland's professional sport leagues. Four years ago, the government signed a contract with American Major League Baseball to help develop China's baseball league through player and coach exchanges, and the results are promising. The national team beat South Korea for third place in the recent Asian Championships. The Chinese soccer league, meanwhile, is reeling from a series of corruption and bribery scandals. But Chen Yangfu, the head coach of Beijing Guo'an Football club says he's optimistic. 'We're getting better and better,' he says. 'But for the league to grow, everyone has to return to the excitement of the game, and forget other distractions.' Certainly, the Chinese national team had an impressive showing at last year's Asian Cup, despite losing the championship to Japan. Basketball has been the sport in which China has shone internationally, and Yao Ming's NBA success may well lift it to the status of China's national sport, over soccer. Lesser-known NBA imports Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer have also improved the international profile of Chinese basketball. The national team is slowly, but steadily, rising in international standings (they finished eighth in the Olympic Games last year). The quality of Chinese basketball and professional sport is on its way up, but it's no longer an open field for foreign players. 'It's very difficult to make it here,' says Chen. 'They have to be very talented and fit into the position we need.' Only two foreign players are allowed on each professional team for fear of overseas talent dominating and suppressing local development. 'Know if you're good, but be realistic,' says Branko Jelic, Guo'an's Serbian forward. The 27-year-old is a 10-year veteran in pro football, but joined his new team seeking better playing conditions and a new challenge. Jelic and his Romanian teammate Dan Alexa are assigned a full-time translator and receive a relatively comfortable salary. But contracts for foreign players in the Chinese football league have been difficult to come by. Chinese talent scouts generally scour professional circuits abroad looking for players in the position that's in demand. 'We're looking for older players with experience, perspective and professionalism who play the position we need to fill,' says Chen. 'We want someone who can set an example and teach.' But even as Chinese professional soccer teams look abroad for expertise, young foreign hopefuls are coming to the mainland under their own steam. Steven-Mark Nwamkpa arrived from Nigeria 14 months ago, looking for a shot at the big league, but the tall centrefielder has yet to hit the pro pitch. For now, the 19-year-old pays the rent by teaching English and moonlighting as a model and actor in Chinese soaps. 'It's something like passion,' he says. 'If I don't play football, I don't feel complete.' Beijing came as a shock to Nwamkpa, who honed his skills in the Nigerian and African youth leagues before graduating early with a degree in engineering. The winter struck him as particularly grey compared with his sunny home town, and the going has been tough. Nwamkpa came up empty at the latest pro football tryouts: the league thought he was too young and inexperienced. 'They're looking for big names,' he says. 'They want videotapes and clips of career highlights. But I'm right here. Why don't they just look?' The story is much the same for Abubacar Fofana, a 21-year-old basketball point guard from Guinea. 'I couldn't get perspective back home,' he says. 'Everything was on one level. I wanted more.' With his muscular build and a scar across his right cheek, Fofana could be mistaken for a street fighter, but he's surprisingly soft-spoken. He came to Beijing two years ago, looking for something more after he hit the ceiling on the Guinean national basketball team. But his China trek was soon interrupted by an offer to play professionally in Lithuania. A year later, he was back in Beijing after experiencing what he calls contractual difficulties. Now, Fofana is striving to get his foot in the door with the China Basketball Association. 'I played against [CBA teams] with the Lithuanians last year,' he says. 'I know I can play well in this league.' In the meantime, he funds his quest by coaching at a special basketball school in eastern Beijing. Professional sport on the mainland is in a curious place at the moment. It hasn't reached the same level as in the west, where only the best find success, yet it's ahead of less developed places, where the best seem to go nowhere. 'Everyone wants to be a part of growth,' says Nwamkpa. 'And someday I want to talk about Chinese football and say, 'Hey, I was a part of that'.'