Dispatch

The view from the ground.

China’s Field of Dreams

The Chinese are falling in love with America's national pastime. And it might not be long before a kid from Wuxi is throwing fastballs in Boston.

Benjamin Haas

View a slide show of America's pastime gone global.

Huadin Danzin, who grew up a nomad on the Tibetan plateau mostly concerned with tending his yaks, is today consumed by one burning ambition: throwing a perfect strike. Danzin, 15, is one of 26 boys at the Major League Baseball development center in Wuxi, China, training with the dream of one day playing in China's eight-year-old, seven-team professional baseball league.

View a slide show of America’s pastime gone global.

Huadin Danzin, who grew up a nomad on the Tibetan plateau mostly concerned with tending his yaks, is today consumed by one burning ambition: throwing a perfect strike. Danzin, 15, is one of 26 boys at the Major League Baseball development center in Wuxi, China, training with the dream of one day playing in China’s eight-year-old, seven-team professional baseball league.

Looking at him today, it’s hard not to confuse him with the millions of young American would-be Derek Jeters. At one practice session on the perfectly manicured Wuxi field in October, he cheered on his teammates from the dugout, stared down a batter before pitching, and spat like a pro. The sense of excitement was palpable.

But outside the diamond in Wuxi, America’s pastime is still an oddity: Aside from Danzin and his teammates, most Chinese people still don’t know much about baseball. According to the Chinese Baseball Association, the official body charged with overseeing China’s domestic and international competition, only 4 million people in China play the sport; in a country of 1.3 billion that’s not much. (Basketball, by comparison, which has national heroes like Yao Ming, is played by an estimated 300 million people in China.) Baseball has few purpose-built stadiums, and most practice diamonds are located outside city centers, making them less accessible for both players and fans. And Beijing’s Wukesong Stadium, built for the baseball tournament in the 2008 Olympics? It was summarily torn down because the real estate was so valuable.

Yet low interest in the land of Yao Ming may be changing. Chinese authorities, the United States, and Major League Baseball (MLB) — the world’s dominant baseball league and home to players like Josh Hamilton, Hanley Ramirez, and Chan Ho Park — all want to see more baseball in the Middle Kingdom. China wants greater prestige and positive publicity, the United States influence and goodwill, and MLB mainly just cash.

Baseball’s not entirely new to the Middle Kingdom: In fact, it has a long history in China. Henry Boone, a medical missionary who was born in Indonesia to American parents and studied medicine in New York, brought the sport to Shanghai in 1863. Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, learned how to play in Hawaii in the 1880s. He reportedly professed that it was an effective method of teaching soldiers how to throw hand grenades. In the mid-20th century, the People’s Liberation Army even used baseball drills to help build soldiers’ skills in teamwork and strategy — older Chinese still occasionally refer to the game as jun qiu, or army ball. But in 1959, Mao Zedong declared baseball a bourgeois Western influence, and the sport was banned. That pretty much dampened the enthusiasm for a half century.

But eight years ago, on the heels of news that Beijing would host the 2008 Olympics — lifting the profile of international sports within the country — MLB decided to help China set up its first professional baseball league. In autumn 2009, it opened the Wuxi development center to train young athletes, a program that starts in middle school and ends with graduation from high school.

Wuxi, a city of 4 million in eastern Jiangsu province, was chosen as a location because it already had a baseball field attached to a school, and the local government was enthusiastic about the project. The baseball diamond is surrounded by a few modest rows of bleachers and low brick buildings with changing facilities. For practice games, the players sport red and blue shirts with prominent MLB logos. (A nearby ballpark is home to one of China’s pro teams, the Jiangsu Hope Stars.)

MLB’s greater strategy has two main goals: to popularize the sport among Chinese fans (merchandizing, broadcasting rights, and sponsorship deals), and to sign players to MLB teams on the cheap. It’s a sign of the times: Exploit China’s massive pool of cheap labor, while taking advantage of the growing appetite for consumer culture and leisure activities among an exploding middle class. “We plan on taking advantage of the dynamic climate that is taking place in China right now,” Jim Small, vice president of MLB Asia, said in a chipper interview with China Daily last winter.

But the China baseball experiment goes against the grain. Countries where baseball is popular tend to have close political and military ties with the United States: Japan, South Korea, Panama, and the Dominican Republic to name a few. (Cuba is the exception, of course, but baseball made inroads there long before Fidel Castro came to power.) It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that baseball has long been popular in Taiwan — which might explain why Chinese officials have been eager to promote the sport on the mainland.

Baseball was brought to Taiwan during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. After independence, the Nationalist government explicitly did not support the game because of its association with the Japanese, even forgoing the honor of hosting an international baseball tournament in 1976. But ultimately baseball’s popularity prevailed, largely spurred by Taiwan’s success at the Little League World Series in the 1970s. The island’s current total of 17 wins is second only to the United States. There are six Taiwan-born players in Major League baseball, all of whom are national icons at home. In 2000, Chen Shui-bian made his first public speech as president-elect at the opening of the Taiwan Major League season.

It would be somewhat of an exaggeration to say that China’s interest in baseball stems from a desire to outshine Taiwan — or Japan, for that matter, where it is the country’s most popular sport — but a growing rivalry may be on the horizon.

Baseball is a sport that China could excel in, and not just with a handful of star players, as with Yao Ming in basketball. “If you are the best basketball team in Asia, you may not be one of the top-ten basketball teams in the world,” says Rick Dell, director of baseball development in Asia for MLB. “But if you’re the number one baseball team in Asia, you very possibly could be the number one baseball team in the world, and if you’re not, you’re probably one of the top three.” Japan’s national team won the most recent World Baseball Classic tournament — edging out South Korea, Venezuela, and the United States. 

Back in Wuxi, Danzin works on his fastball with one of the American coaches in the bullpen. But that’s not all he’s learning. In order to develop Chinese baseball players who might one day play in the United States, the MLB Wuxi center teaches more than just hitting, throwing, and catching. Students also watch such classic films about baseball culture as Field of Dreams, The Sandlot, and The Natural. Then they imitate what they see. “They start to get that same sort of swagger and demeanor,” says Dell. “They wear their pants the same.” For young Chinese players, aspiring to the major leagues isn’t just a matter of honing skills; it’s about taking on a new identity.

And if recent history is any guide, it won’t be long before a Chinese big-leaguer is taking the mound in New York or Boston. A-Rod had better look out: The Chinese are coming. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece stated that the facility in Wuxi used by Major League Baseball as a development center is also home to one of China’s pro teams, the Jiangsu Hopestars; in fact, the Jiangsu Hopestars play at a nearby stadium.

Benjamin Haas is a writer in Nanjing.

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