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Can baseball hit home run in China?
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Joe Torre grew to love baseball playing with his friends on the streets of Brooklyn, New York, using nothing more than a wadded-up piece of paper and a broken broomstick.

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre (left) and vice president of the San Diego Padres Dave Winfi eld (right) pose for photos with young Chinese baseball players during a press conference in Beijing yesterday. Major League Baseball announced that the first-ever MLB exhibition game will be played in China between the Dodgers and Padres. (Photo: AP)

Four World Series titles and a storied career later, the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers will play a part in what Major League Baseball (MLB) hopes will become a new era for baseball in China.

Torre will lead the Dodgers to Beijing on March 15 and 16 to face the San Diego Padres in the MLB China Series 2008 at the Wukesong Baseball field, the venue for baseball events during the Olympic Games. They will be the first MLB games ever played in China.

"In the next 10 years, we want kids to grow up in China thinking of baseball as a Chinese sport," said Jim Small, vice president of MLB in Asia.

Small is quick to point out that baseball has been played longer in China than it has in Japan, one of the top baseball countries in the world. He said that is one of MLB's biggest advantages in gaining a foothold in China.

"People here look at baseball as an Asian sport, not as an American sport," he said.

But capitalizing on those advantages is by no means easy in a country where table tennis is considered the national pastime. In a nation also crazy about sports like soccer and basketball, there is hardly any room for baseball.

"Hopefully, we can help you develop a love for the game as we love it in the United States," San Diego Padres vice president Dave Winfield said during a press conference in Beijing yesterday.

That love for the game translates into enthusiasm among the athletes headed to China in March. Gene Orza, chief operating officer of the MLB Players Association, said the players are thrilled for the opportunity to share their game with China.

"Unlike any other international event I've been involved in, I haven't heard any players on the Dodgers or Padres say they didn't want to come and play in China," Orza said. "The players back in the States realize this is truly a start - a first step - in globalizing the sport."

Such globalization is significant for baseball, a sport that has been voted out of the 2012 London Olympics but is hoping to return in 2016.

"It's a personal disappointment that baseball won't be part of the Olympics in 2012," Winfield said.

"We'll do everything we can to keep baseball on the agenda and on your minds and keep making it part of the world, our gift to the rest of the world."

Following NBA's lead

MLB hopes to follow in the footsteps of the NBA, the league that has become the model for all professional sports leagues hoping to stake a claim in China.

Small said although the NBA appears to have been an "overnight success" in the Chinese market, the basketball league had been "setting the table" for some 20 years before it really started to take off.

"The NBA has done a terrific job in China and we've learned a lot from them - that it took a while for them to do this," Small said. "If it takes us 20 years, so be it. But we know it won't happen overnight."

MLB has made a concerted effort to grow the sport here on a grassroots level.

In 2004, for example, MLB co-sponsored the National Schools Championship, a tournament that attracted more than 2,000 players and 132 different teams. The championship game of the university division was broadcast on Beijing TV.

Last September, MLB launched the "Play Ball!" physical education program in five cities across China. The baseball-based curriculum has been incorporated into 120 different elementary schools and reaches an estimated 100,000 students across China, quite a big number considering only about 150,000 people played baseball in China prior to the program.

MLB has also helped China develop its national team. As part of a development agreement MLB signed with the Chinese Baseball Association in 2003, the league sent former stars Jim Lefebvre and Bruce Hurst to serve as the manager and pitching coach, respectively, for China's national team. In 2005, the team beat South Korea in the Asian qualifier for the World Cup of Baseball, the first time China had ever defeated one of the big three.

One thing that would certainly help the popularity of baseball in China would be an equivalent to the NBA's Yao Ming - a hometown star for whom Chinese fans could feel proud to cheer. Five Chinese players have spent time in the minor league systems of the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees, but none so far have broken into the big leagues.

It is probably only a matter of time before China sees its first homegrown big leaguer. As Torre said, the China Baseball Academy for 12- to 15-year-olds, which the league helped launch last August, will be MLB's first real chance to evaluate the undiscovered talent in the Middle Kingdom.

Torre said the Asian players he has managed, such as the Yankees' Japanese superstar Hideki Matsui, show as much "discipline, commitment, focus and respect for the game" as any of the players he's seen.

"It makes my job as a manager that much easier," Torre quipped.

Small admitted MLB is still in its infancy in China, but he believes the league's "multi-pronged approach" here - including sponsorship deals, TV agreements and further "baseball diplomacy" missions - will ultimately lead to a home run for the sport.

"In baseball terms, we're in the first inning of a nine-inning game," he said. "We're off to a good start, but we still have a long way to go."

(China Daily January 25, 2008)

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