CATCHERS ARE AMONG the most essential and most overlooked players on the baseball field. Power hitters and diving outfielders get the most camera time, and the psychological duel between pitchers and batters monopolises the game. But the catcher is the backbone, setting the pace, anchoring and orchestrating the team – and this is the role Justin could someday play.

A powerful left-handed hitter, he is 17 years old, six feet tall and 186 pounds, ideally suited to baseball. Last fall, after some scouts saw him behind the plate, Justin achieved the nearly impossible – he was signed by the Boston Red Sox as a player in their Gulf Coast League, US$10,000 bonus in hand, becoming the first player from Tibet ever signed by Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States.

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Justin is one of five players from mainland China currently signed to the Minor League, where promising young players are developed to rise through the ranks and someday, perhaps, play for a top-tier team. They are all products of MLB’s development-centre model, which gives athletes as young as 10 the opportunity to build their baseball skills through daily training while also attending school. MLB has operated three centres in Nanjing, Changzhou, and Wuxi since 2009, and in December announced plans to expand the model in twenty more locations across China.

The programme is part of MLB’s broader ambitions to grow baseball into a sport as popular as basketball in China. In 2015, the US National Basketball Association (NBA) signed a US$500 million partnership with Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings, giving Tencent broadcasting rights for NBA content.

During last year’s NBA playoffs, the league’s Weibo account counted 2.9 billion video views – a level of success MLB hopes to emulate.

Baseball’s slow growth in mainland China stands in stark contrast to its popularity in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, where decades of economic and cultural proximity to the US have made the game a beloved national pastime.

The sport grew in popularity along with the push towards economic modernisation and political reform that transformed east Asia in the late 19th century. In mainland China, however, the historic perception that baseball is inseparable from Western values has hampered the growth of the game.

In Taiwan, MLB games are already broadcast regularly, along with the games from the island’s own league and Japan’s, too. Increasing the visibility of MLB’s baseball development efforts in China could lead to more viewership for the Chinese professional league, which was established in 2002. Currently, the China Professional League (CPL) operates 10 teams based out of major cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. Its following remains small, and the league suffered from operational financial difficulties in recent years, but an increased following for MLB could also result in a larger fan base for the CPL.

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To that end, building popular interest in baseball does not only mean making Chinese children into major-league athletes – it also means creating Chinese baseball fans and establishing a culture of spectatorship. MLB’s multi-pronged effort to grow baseball’s popularity in the country includes school-based outreach programmes, instruction for physical education teachers, and media partnerships to broadcast games.

Rick Dell, MLB’s general manager of baseball development in Asia, says the first step is just to get children playing: “Once you have children and young people playing baseball, they are going to have a genuine interest in following the game.”

MLB has partnered with local baseball facilities to create pay-to-play learning centres in Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Suzhou, and Shenzhen, which Dell says have been successful in assisting in the growth of the game.

It also works with more than 100 primary schools to include baseball in physical education curricula through an initiative called Play Ball, which the league says has introduced the sport to more than 5 million children since 2008.

FOR ALL THE DIAMONDS IN CHINA

Independent baseball clubs in several major cities are also working to grow a domestic base of non-professional baseball players and fans. James Lin is the director of business development for a private baseball training club in Shenzhen called Blue Sox Academy. “Our mission is not to turn every kid we have into a professional athlete,” he says. “We want to use baseball to teach them life lessons.”

All the same, one of the obstacles to the sport’s growth in China is a lack of facilities; it is hard to encourage people to casually take up a game if they have nowhere to play it. “You can play catch anywhere and people do, but there are very few baseball diamonds in China,” says Mark Hyman, co-director of upcoming documentary film The Great China Baseball Hunt and professor of sports business at George Washington University. Hyman’s film traces the journey of “Itchy” Xu Guiyuan, who became the first player to move from a development centre to the Minor Leagues when the Baltimore Orioles signed him in 2015.

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Dell keeps a personal tally of the number and types of baseball facilities in China, and says the total number of facilities he has counted in the country has grown from 115 in 2016 to 158 this year, an increase of nearly 40 per cent. “I think it is the true barometer on the growth of the game,” he says. “If people are investing in baseball fields and indoor training facilities, then there must be a demand for the game. Even if it is only a few fields a year, that is a lot more fields than they had 15 years ago.”

Dell also says MLB has been strategic in timing its expansion. “We did not come in early on and throw money at something before we understood it … We are maximising the opportunities right now in

China. Those opportunities are growing. As the game has grown, we have grown.”

In April, MLB announced a partnership with Tencent to exclusively live-stream 125 MLB games in China, including every game of the playoffs and their culmination, the World Series. Tencent will also broadcast MLB China development-centre events such as training games or sessions.

William Chu keeps an English-language blog called Chinese Bangqiu that follows the developments of Chinese athletes in the American and Chinese professional leagues. He says that despite MLB’s education programmes and the increased media coverage, baseball has yet to catch on as it could in China because it’s “a very hard game to understand”.

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“Basketball and soccer are simple, but baseball is confusing,” he says, citing accessibility as a primary barrier to growing a Chinese audience – both in terms of understanding the game and accessing facilities and equipment to play it.

“I think baseball equals American culture in China,” Chu says. “There was a bit of history in China before it was banned during the Cultural Revolution, but nobody really remembers. If the Cultural Revolution had not happened, I think it would have been a different story. Chinese baseball would have been able to compete with Korea or Japan.”

LONG HISTORY, LONG SHOT

Indeed, baseball’s long history in China has been inextricably intertwined with American culture and values. The sport was brought to China by Americans trading in the concessions in Shanghai who played pickup games in their leisure time. As the world changed around China in the 19th century, Chinese students who went to study in the US and Japan, including Sun Yat-sen, picked up the game along with ideas about individual rights and republicanism.

In 1895, the first recorded teams were established at Huiwen and Tongzhou Universities in Beijing and at St. John’s University in Shanghai. And in the early days of the People’s Republic of China, baseball was “the semi-official pastime of the People’s Liberation Army”, write Sean McGloughlin and Jie Gao in the International Journal of the History of Sport.

The sport was even encouraged by PLA General He Long in the 1950s for its military applications – namely hand-eye coordination, useful for throwing grenades. He was later imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, when the game quickly fell out of fashion for its association with Western values.

McLaughlin and Gao write that outside China, “every other country that took to baseball did so in large part because there was a strong American cultural or colonial presence”.

In contemporary mainland China, the sport’s association with American culture is a draw for some and an object of indifference for others. In Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, which have been recipients of American economic support as well as closer cultural crossover, baseball is followed with reverence and enthusiasm. In mainland China, it remains distinctly foreign.

Baseball has not been an Olympic sport since 2008, but it will return in Tokyo in 2020. Japan and Korea plan to suspend the professional season in order to send their top players to the Olympics. The tournament could also serve as an incentive for more attention and investment in the sport in China. Last November, teams from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan competed against each other in the inaugural Asia Professional Baseball Championship – but mainland China, notably, did not participate.

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At the grass-roots level, meanwhile, sending players to the Major Leagues is not the only metric for the success of MLB’s broader efforts. Regardless of a player’s preparation or skill level, actually playing in the Majors is a long shot.

“Very few of us have been chosen to become a Major League player,” says the MLB’s Dell, noting how challenging it is for a player of any background, country of origin, and training experience to make the big leagues. “You cannot fabricate it, you cannot just manufacture Major League players. Our goal through the development centres is an alumni programme.”

As Major League baseball teams prepare for the most pivotal part of the season – the playoffs – Minor Leaguers prepare for the chance that they might get called up if their parent team is in a pinch. One day, this could be a player from an MLB China development centre, a player such as Justin – or Justin himself. According to Hyman, “It’s not a matter of if, but when.”