Pitching to the Dragon

On a muggy day last May I pitched three innings against the Tianjin Lions junior development baseball team. I had some control problems, they didn’t swing at balls, I hit a few guys (on accident) and by the time I pulled myself out of the game, I don’t think I’d left much of an impression on the large team of 15 to 18 year olds who were undoubtedly expecting much more from a very tall American who had been playing baseball his entire life. They left quite an impression on me though – it wasn’t so much that they were amazing athletes or that they were superbly conditioned, but rather that they didn’t make the stupid mistakes that baseball seems to bring out in people – especially 15 to 18 year olds.

My observations were confirmed by a friend from the US, Gil Kim, who came to Beijing this summer to play for Beijing’s professional team, the Beijing Tigers. He described practices as being literally padlocked into the baseball facility for six hours and just taking repetitive infield practice and batting practice until he could go through the motions without even thinking about it. This type of repetition can lead to a certain amount of consistency but it doesn’t exactly encourage prodigious talents to shine. Gil did say though, that there was no lack of ability, just a complete lack of coaching and experience.

Despite my first hand experiences, I was still surprised to see that the Yankees drafted two young Chinese players – a pitcher and a catcher – into their farm system. Danwei posted today on the recent move, questioning whether or not Major League Baseball (MLB) had found its Yao Ming. I don’t know what sort of players these are, but I do know that they did not see significant playing time in last year’s World Baseball Classic and considering how difficult it is for any player to climb up through the minor leagues, the chance of either of them actually doing anything significant is very, very slim. As such, the decision on the part of the Yankees should be seen solely as a symbolic investment in and commitment to a market where the MLB sees massive potential.

My friend Gil came to Beijing to play baseball not because he sees it as a spring board into the Major Leagues but because his dream is to work in baseball and he knows his experience in China will be a major differentiator. The MLB’s studies of China’s athletes have uncovered that there are an astounding number of tall, left handed men – the prototypical pitcher – and perhaps more importantly, if the NBA’s track record says anything, there is an enormous amount of money to be made in China from merchandising and licensing (400 million NBA products were sold in 20,000 retail locations in China in 2006 and 83% of 15 to 24 year olds say they’re fans of the NBA).

Some people come to China for low labor costs and engineering grads, but others come for tall, left-handed pitchers and a potential new frontier for America’s pastime.

2 Responses to “Pitching to the Dragon”

  1. It is interesting that the Chinese methods for practicing sound very close to calligraphy practice for most chinese youngsters (parents lock them in a room where they brush over outlines of characters for hours on end). I think another interesting aspect to this story is the cultural integration of baseball into Chinese society, and also the target market for baseball (read: upper class youth).

    One more point that I would like to emphasize is the development timeline for the MLB in China, if it is anything like the NFL’s let’s not hold our breath until the MLB’s version of Yao Ming takes to the pitcher’s mound.

  2. I’ll put my money on MLB finding talent (and eyeballs) in China– NFL should focus on Russia and Punjab.