Ready to play ball in China
Dodgers-Padres games seen as first step toward growth
BEIJING -- As Padres outfielder Will Venable was spraying line drives all over the outfield at Wukesong Stadium, a crew of stadium workers several feet away hurriedly rolled on a final coat of paint for a logo on the infield grass.
Minutes later, and after most of the Padres players had retreated inside the clubhouse, a worker slowly pulled a chalk gun from his bag and started to glaze over the crevices of the dugout door.
Ready or not, it's finally time for baseball -- or, as the locals say, bangqui -- in Beijing.
The Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers play the first of two exhibition games starting on Saturday (10 p.m. PT on Friday) in Beijing as the months of anticipation over the first Major League games played in China come to fruition.
There was a buzz at the stadium on Friday, and not just from the workers who were hastily putting the finishing touches on the 12,000-seat facility, where a capacity crowd is expected to watch the games.
The players, many of whom are Minor Leaguers and will spend time riding buses to games this summer, found themselves essentially overwhelmed.
"Being here, you can feel it a lot more than before," Padres infielder Matt Antonelli said. "The people here are really excited for it. The media is here taking pictures ... people are talking about it. You can feel the excitement for the game. It's a big deal."
A big deal for a lot of reasons, none bigger than it's never been done before even though baseball has roots in China that extend as far back as 1863. There's been some flirtation with the game in China off and on but never before have Major League teams come to play games here.
And, not so recently, you might have been hard-pressed to find someone on the bustling streets of Beijing who knew what baseball was, according to Jeff Brueggemann, now in his third year of teaching baseball to the country's youth as part of Play Ball, a program sponsored by Major League Baseball.
"Three years ago, I could say bangqui and people on the street wouldn't know what I was talking about," said Brueggemann, a former Minor League player in the Minnesota Twins organization. "Now I can talk to anyone and they know what baseball is. They might not know the game, but they know what it is. And they want to learn the game."
And, from most accounts, they want to keep the game, which will be played by the host nation in August during the Summer Olympics, which, combined with these games, provides hope to the Chinese sports ministry and Major League Baseball that the game will gain footing in a country where Ping-Pong, badminton and basketball, thanks to an assist by favorite son Yao Ming, reign supreme.
"I don't know the game, we don't see it much [on television] but I am going to watch the games because I want to learn more about it," Ying Huaong, a construction worker, said though a translator. "I'm a basketball fan. I like that."
But certainly baseball has to appeal to some of the 1.3 billion people in China, doesn't it?
"This great country is ready to embrace baseball," Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said in a press conference outside the stadium on Friday. "It's our privilege to bring it here and our hope is that baseball becomes a truly international sport.
"We're building bridges around the world. It's not about two games. It's about exposing the game to youngsters and exposing the joy of the game. I'm very impressed by the speed with which things happen in China. I think it will happen more quickly than we anticipate."
The Play Ball program has already grown to include five cities throughout China and 120 schools, including 30 in Beijing. The Padres held a clinic at a primary school in Fengtai, located in the southern part of Beijing, on Friday morning.
It's the teaching at the grassroots level of the sport that is seen as so vital to the long-term success of baseball in China.
There are no professional leagues in China and only four Minor League players from the country playing professionally in North America -- two with the New York Yankees and two with the Seattle Mariners organizations.
Former Major League player and manager Jim Lefebvre, the coach of the national team in China the past five years, has seen exponential growth in the game, not only in sheer interest but in the skills of the players. The game is catching on.
"There are some people who are skeptical about what this is all about; I'm not," Lefebvre said. "I've seen it. I've seen what happened in Japan, I've seen what happened in Korea, I've seen what happened in Australia. Look at it now. ... Just give baseball time."
That time, many believe, is now, with the games serving as a prime launching point for getting the game on the radar of the country's citizens.
"You don't get instant success in baseball -- it's a game you grow into. But if we make sure kids learn to play the game the right way, once they start blossoming we'll see a number of players make an impact in Major League Baseball," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said.
Really, it's the Yao Ming theory to a large extent. Get a player from the country to gain exposure in the United States by having success and the landscape of interest changes. It's getting to that point that is the most difficult part, all agree.
"The key to the growth and popularity of baseball in China is the introduction of a Chinese player into Major League baseball," Padres CEO Sandy Alderson said. "I don't think that anyone can predict how long that will take. But it's important that Major League Baseball and all its clubs are taking the process of finding and developing players who can play in the Major Leagues."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.