Field of dreams: why Hong Kong’s baseball chief longs for the day his sport is given room to grow

Growth of the sport in the SAR is being hindered by a lack of playing space

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 11:31am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 8:43pm

Mao Zedong had a lot on his plate in the late 1950s, what with the rapid industrialisation of China’s economy in the Great Leap Forward and the tragic famine that followed.

In 1959, however, the Chairman of the Communist Party spared a moment for the National Games where, for the first time, baseball was an officially recognised sport.

The national US sport had become the unofficial sport of the People’s Liberation Army. More than 20 military teams were formed by the ’60s, the majority of which participated in the games. Popularity was sky-high.

Mao banned baseball in China shortly after; its association with Western decadence and capitalist societies was too close to the bone for the Chairman.

“Whatever their enemies liked, they disliked,” explains Philip Li, president of the Hong Kong Baseball Association (HKBA).

Baseball was “rehabilitated” – brought back to life – in 1976, the very same year Mao died. It was arguably these years of stalling that allowed others to take over as the kings of Asian baseball.

“The level is nowhere near Japan, South Korea or Taiwan, not to mention the US and Cuba. It’s still pretty low, but as you saw in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China continues to promote baseball,” says Li, one of the HKBA’s founding members in 1993.

“Since our establishment, baseball development has been moving very fast,” he says. “The men’s and women’s national team are ranked sixth and fourth in Asia, respectively; the number of our affiliated clubs is increasing and there have been two local films about baseball over the last few years, both of which were shown at the Hong Kong Film Festival. These are indicators of the public’s interest.”

Despite the hike in attention, baseball has struggled to break new ground in the city – partly because there is barely any ground to begin with.

“Hong Kong is short of baseball venues. We only have two: one close-to-standard field in Sai Tso Wan, and a substandard one in Lion Rock Park,” says Li.

“Yet we have more than 100 teams playing local leagues – men’s, women’s, school and university. How can we manage?”

In 2014, the association was handed a lifeline – or so it thought. Then chief executive Leung Chun-ying devoted HK$1 billion in landfill restoration funds for non-governmental organisations (including sports associations, charities or green groups) to develop seven sites.

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HKBA urgently put forward its proposal, but to no avail.

“Regrettably, we failed in our bid for a Tseung Kwan O landfill to build baseball fields,” says Li. “We look forward to when the government offers the second batch of land. We will definitely be bidding.”

In the meantime, baseball players are getting by with makeshift baseball fields, as Li describes:

“We are not asking for luxury turf. We are asking for time slots on football grounds, rooftop fields or any flatland ... but they aren’t big enough for senior baseball; only the junior leagues.”

Space is so limited that the HKBA is promoting a modified style of the sport – called Baseball Six – which requires six players as opposed to the standard nine, and a three-based triangular field instead of the conventional four-based diamond.

With events such as the inaugural BFA Women’s Baseball Asian Cup starting next month, funding is equally as necessary for the sport to move upwards.

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The HKBA is listed as an NGO and a National Sports Association, and therefore receives subvention from the government via the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the Home Affairs Bureau. The problem, once again, is that there is not enough to go round.

“The amount of money we need to spend is increasing year after year, but it’s not coming back [to us]. We understand we are limited by the NGO status, but government funding is never sufficient,” Li says.

As the LCSD continues to juggle its support funds for the more than 10,500 different sports programmes in the city, the HKBA is looking across the border for help.

“Aside from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, we have found that China is building quite a number of fields,” says Li.

“Major League Baseball (MLB) has three development centres in China. It is the only country outside of the US to have centres like this, which means they want to promote and develop there.

“China is near by and has a lot of land. We can keep up with them,” he says, adding that Hong Kong golf has taken a similar route.

In terms of the local baseball scene, Li is optimistic that the tables will turn.

“We expect the game will continue to rise. We hope there will be more government-constructed baseball fields in about five year’s time. A couple of them are already in [the planning stages], but we will continue to do what we do.”