China Seeking Nation’s Biggest Baseball Upset
China will look to capitalise on a surprise performance in the 2009 World Baseball Classic (WBC) and pull another upset in this year’s edition of the quadrennial tournament. The red-and-yellow will face No. 1-ranked Cuba, No. 3 Japan, and No. 20 Brazil in their bid for the world title.
Baseball History in China
While Japan is best known among Asian nations for its baseball prowess, China has the longest history of the sport on the continent. The first club was formed in 1863 in Shanghai by an American medical missionary. By 1895, three universities fielded baseball teams, though it was not for another decade that organised baseball was played.
The sport became quite popular after the proclamation of the Republic of China in 1949, but the game’s development was halted in the early 1960s as Mao Zedong prepared for what would become the Cultural Revolution. Baseball was forbidden along with other Western practices, and the ban was not lifted until 1976 at Mao’s death.
“We lost a generation of baseball players,” Leon Xie, MLB managing director in China,explained to the Asia Times. “It will take at least one generation to recover.”
Despite a policy of “friendship first, competition second” as applied to most Western sports, baseball struggled to regain a foothold against tennis, table tennis, badminton, and basketball. The nation did not join the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) until 1981.
In 2002, the China Baseball League (CBL) was founded with four teams in major cities on China’s East Coast. Two more teams were added in 2005, and the league has established ties with Japan to aid development.
MLB also sponsors the CBL, and began the “Play Ball” programme in 2007, aimed at training coaches and giving Chinese children basic instruction in schools. A year later, the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres played a pair of spring training games in the Olympic stadium. In 2009, the MLB Baseball Development Centre was established in Wuxi to attract the nation’s top talent and offer training. Similar projects exist in Australia, South Africa, and Italy.
“The government is very protective of the schools to keep out any kind of commercialism,” notedXie. “Having Play Ball in the schools shows the strength of our relationship with the government.”
“It’s a little early to be asking for a Yao [Ming, a former NBA superstar] of baseball, but programs like Play Ball are pushing China in the right direction to cultivate new baseball stars. These kids are growing up as the first generation to play this game, but it has to start with the youth,” observed Jeff Brueggemann, a member of MLB’senvoy to China. “I played baseball with my brother and dad growing up. Most Chinese kids don’t even have siblings.”
According to baseball’s governing body in China, the Chinese Baseball Association, there are four million people that play the sport in China. Many of those do so at one of the approximately 60 universities and 1,000 schools that offer teams. While these numbers may be somewhat inaccurate, they have no doubt risen since the Chicago Tribunereported that there were only around 30,000 players in 1991. Still, the figure is miniscule compared to the population of around 1.3 billion and a booming economy.
“It’s a long haul, a long process,” confessed Jim Small, Vice President of MLB Asia. “We’re taking a sport that’s been gone for a long time, and bringing it back.”
“There is no reason to doubt that in the near future some of the world’s best baseball players will be Chinese,” Jim Small, Vice President of MLB Asia,told the China Daily. “It will take some time but it’s definitely going to happen.”
China’s International Play
China has had very little international success in its baseball history. Their best-ever finish in the WBC is 11th, 10th at the Baseball World Cup, 11th at the Intercontinental Cup, and a single third-place finish in 2005 at the Asian Baseball Championship (ABC) in Japan. They are 33-86 in international tournaments since joining IBAF, including a 14-41 mark in events not limited to Asian countries.
The nation has shown improvement in recent years, defeating Korea to win the bronze at the 2005 ABC.In the 2008 Olympics, the hosts lost to Korea in 11 innings and defeated Chinese Taipei, repeating the feat in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. The latter victory is its only one in six games at the WBC.
In the 2006 Classic, China was shelled in three straight games in the Tokyo Dome. In an opening pool that was essentially a replay of the 2005 ABC, Japan beat the red-and-yellow 18-2, Korea avenged itself with a 10-1 drubbing, and Taiwan earned a 12-3 victory.China hit only .185/.286/.293 in the tourney with a 9.72 ERA.
The 2009 WBC revealed a Chinese side that had made some progress, losing 4-0 to Japan before shocking Taiwan, 4-1. They were eliminated with a 14-0 loss to Korea, but finished ahead of an embarrassed Chinese Taipei squad. Chinese batters managed only a .190/.207/.250 line, with the pitching staff recording a 6.65 ERA.
China had very mixed results in their most recent tournament in December at the ABC. They finished 2-3, with their wins coming over an underperforming Philippines and a woeful Pakistan side. Though itlost a close game to hosts Chinese Taipei, 3-1, a subpar Korean side upended China 4-0 and an amateur Japanese team blasted the team 10-1.
With the exception of the drubbing by Japan, the pitching staff performed well at the Championship, notching a 3.08 ERA and 1.21 WHIP and striking out 33 in the 38 innings. The lineup, as it has in other competitions, failed to produce. China scored 25 runs in the five contests, but hit .228, reaching base only 28 per cent of the time and slugging .291. They did steal 11 bases, a feat which they may need to replicate for WBC success.
China’s Coaching Staff and Preparations
Unlike most WBC teams, manager John McLaren and his staff bring more star power to the team than do any of the players. McLaren was manager of the Seattle Mariners during 2007 and 2008, and has a 70-89 record in parts of three campaigns.
McLaren will be assisted by Art Howe, who captained three major league clubs to a1129-1137 record over 14 years, but will serving as hitting coach. Bruce Hurst, who accrued a 145-113 record and 3.92 ERA in 15 MLB seasons, returns as pitching coach, a role he held in 2006.Yufeng Zhang, manager of the Shanghai Golden Eagles in the CBL and national team veteran, will serve as a coach and backup infielder.
“I really found my niche,” Hurst remarked, speaking about his time with Team China. “I really like this. I like the people from Major League Baseball International I work with. They are great guys. This is where I found my passion.”
Unfortunately, China will have to do without Kansas City Royals’ starter Bruce Chen. Chen pitched for Panamá in the first two Classics, but has Chinese grandparents. The journeyman hurler has a 71-72 record and a 4.60 ERA in parts of 14 major league seasons.
Chen submitted documentation to play for China, but approval was slow, and the left-handerpulled out of consideration in mid-February, dealing a significant blow to a Chinese side that does not have a player with MLB experience.
The team warmed up for the Classic with a fortnight of MLB-funded training at the Seattle Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz. before the big league club arrived. China conducted a series of exhibition games that have failed to produce much confidence in its chances of avoiding relegation to the qualifying rounds.
The red-and-yellow started by losing two-of-three against clubs from the Korean Baseball Organisation. China then faced the Netherlands three times between Feb. 14-20, losing every game. The team was outscored 32-5 by the No. 7-ranked nation.
The squad returned home on Feb. 21 and flew to Osaka yesterday. China will play two more exhibition games before beginning World Baseball Classic play. It will have a tall task against two of the top three baseball-playing nations in the world.
China has tested Japan 22 times since joining IBAF in 1985, losing every game by an average score of 11-1. The results have been similar against Cuba, as they are 0-7 since first meeting in 1998, averaging an 11-2 defeat. China has split its two contests versus Brazil, defeating them 2-1 in the 2005 World Cup and losing 4-0 in the 2003 rendition.
China’s Starting Nine
China’s roster is almost unchanged from the ABC in December. Though the team’s performance was unimpressive, they do hold an advantage in that the team has been playing together for several months and has experience against several top level countries. Manager McLaren has added three pitchers and several hitters, including the nation’s top talent in Ray Chang.
The team’s leading hitters are Chang, Wei Wang, WeiqiangMeng,andZhenhong Lu. Chang and Wang are two of only several veterans on a club with an average age of 25. Only 6 players are older than 27, and there are three teenagers on the team.
Chang sat out the Asian Championships, but was a national hero in the last WBC and has a solid career minor league batting line.The journeyman infielder is coming off a .241 season, but has a career .272/.346/.379 line in eight seasons.
Chang was 5-for-11 with two extra base hits in the 2009 WBC. He singlehandedly led China over Chinese Taipei with a 3-for-4 effort that included a home run. Chang was born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants.
Wang is arguably the country’s greatest homegrown talent. The catcher was signed by the Mariners, though he returned to play in China’s domestic circuit without appearing in a game.
The backstop joined the national team in 1999, appearing in more than a dozen events since then. In the 2006 WBC, Wang was 2-for-9, but had a double and the Classic’s first-ever home run (off Koji Uehara), knocking in four of China’s five runs in the event. He was 5-for-15 at the ABC, though he did not walk or hit for extra bases.
Meng led the team in RBIs (6) in Taiwan, stroking a .294/.368/.412 line and swiping a bag. He showed off a clutch hitting approach, rapping four of his five hits with runners in scoring position.Meng, only 23, is the heir apparent to the 34-year old Wang behind the plate, but plays third on days he does not catch to keep his bat in the lineup.
Zhenhong Lu was the team’s leading hitter at the ABC, ripping a .375 average, stealing two bases and hitting a pair of doubles in 16 at bats. The 21-year old has not appeared in either of the previous Classics.
The batting lineup should remain almost identical to the Asian Championships, with Chang added to the middle of the order.
Xiao Cui – CF
XuAn – SS
Lei Li – 2B
Ray Chang – DH
Wei Wang – C
Fujia Chu – 1B
WeiqiangMeng – 3B/C
Zhenhong Lu – LF
Jingfeng Lai – RF
China’s Pitching Staff
The red-and-yellow had a string of good pitching performances in Taiwan. Tao Bu picked up one of the nation’s victories over Pakistan, while Jiangang Lu and Kun Chen were strong in relief.Dawei Zhu will also factor into the bullpen.
Bu, China’s top pitcher, allowed only one run in 10 frames, striking out 12 and walking two. He pitched a shutout versus Pakistan, striking out nine in five innings of the mercy rule game. Bu also turned in a strong showing against Chinese Taipei, allowing just five baserunners and one run in five innings, whiffing three in the no decision.
Bu may be in line for a start, though he has served as a reliever in the first two Classics. The left-hander has a 9.64 ERA and 2.57 WHIP in four games.
Lu was impressive, surrendering a single hit and no walks to the nine batters he faced in relief, striking out three in 2 2/3. He may return to the rotation for the Classic, as he toed the rubber in China’s win over Chinese Taipei in 2009. Lu gave up five baserunners and one run in 5 1/3 innings, striking out a pair.
The right-hander also recorded a win over China’s archrivals in the 2008 Olympics and the 2006 Haarlem Baseball Week. Lu is the only Chinese player with a victory in either tournament and is the only Chinese hurler ever to defeat Taiwan.
Lu is a multiple winner of the Best Pitcher award in the CBL and was the first Chinese player to play in Japan in 1999, a year after joining the national team. Hepitched in the minor leagues for Japan’s Chunichi Dragons, notching a 3.83 ERA over three seasons.
Chen pitched 3 2/3 innings at the ABC, allowing batters to hit only .133 as he accumulated a 0.82 WHIP. He has a 7.71 ERA and 2.14 WHIP in two Classics, though he got the last five outs and the save in China’s 2009 victory over Taiwan. Chen has played for Team China since 1999.
Zhu was born in Shanghai but grew up in Japan. He was drafted by the Seibu Lions, and played for five seasons in Japan, going 4-11 with a 6.65 ERA in 180 innings. The right-hander allowed a run in one inning in the 2009 Classic.
One final name to watch is Haifan Yang. A right-hander pitcher, Yang turned 18 on October 23, making him the youngest player on the roster. Yang pitched for his CBL team, the Beijing Tigers, in the 2011 World Baseball Challenge, recording a 6.96 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings against national teams.
China’s WBC Schedule
China will begin pool play on Mar. 3 in the 38,561-seat Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome against Japan. Game time is 11 a.m. GMT. A day later, they will contest Cuba at 7:30 a.m. GMT. The red-and-yellow will likely enter game three needing a win to avoid relegation, and will face upstarts Brazil, who shocked the baseball world in November with a dramatic sweep through the Panamá City qualifier. The final pool matchup will commence on Mar. 5 at 8 a.m. GMT.
For a more extensive look at the China team, check out the full preview at Extra Innings: Baseball Around the World. Stay tuned for more news, previews, and recaps of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Gabriel has been a sports journalist for nearly a decade now. He got hist start writing for the Lee University Sports Information Department as an undergraduate student and worked his way up from there. He is a huge Red Sox fan, but his love of travel and baseball have intersected with his love of writing about international baseball.