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The Pitch

Of China’s 1.3 billion people, very, very few play, or even care about, baseball. This guy aims to change that. (Just don’t mention Yao Ming.)

Author JOHN B. THOMPSON

PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURA BARISONZI

“SOMETIMES YOU START to think you’re Ronald McDonald with a fungo bat,” Rick Dell says. It’s Family Day at the ballpark, and while Dell and his staff have tried to organize some afternoon entertainment, he’s already disappointed. The Tibetan players haven’t put on their costumes for the traditional dance this year. Watching them stomp around the mound in their baseball uniforms just isn’t the same. Worse, the weather is dismal for a June Sunday, with a smoggy haze settling defiantly at the edges of the field like the barrier to another world. But Dell’s mood is set to lift. Soldier is about to show the parents how to hit.

As an instructor explains the mechanics at work, Soldier approaches a tee at home plate and sets his feet into the familiar pits in the right-handed batter’s box. His body tightens for the moment it takes him to set his stance and then unwinds, smooth as a spindle, sending his bat into the ball and the ball into deep center field, trailed by the delighted gasps of onlookers.

Soldier is Zhu Songjun. He’s a lithe six feet and 170 pounds. He can run 60 yards in seven seconds and throw a baseball over 80 mph. He’s 15, a Chinese kid chasing a quintessentially American dream: to play baseball in the majors. “I am my happiest on a baseball diamond,” Soldier says, in Chinese. “It is an unspeakable feeling.” Dell, Major League Baseball’s director of baseball development in Asia, brought the teenager here to the MLB Development Center in Zhu’s hometown of Wuxi, an ancient city on the Yangtze River fast becoming entangled in the sprawl of Shanghai, some 80 miles away.

On a map of China in Dell’s Beijing office, Wuxi is just a dot in a constellation of other dots that make up China’s baseball galaxy. The points on the map, from Xinjiang in the far west to Fujian in the remote south, mark every place baseball exists in the country, including expatriate little leagues and MLB’s own youth camps. These are the places Dell and his staff scour, offering the best young players the chance to enroll at the two-year-old Development Center.

Dell hand-picked every player here — all 37 of them — and he invented Soldier’s nickname, as well as the sobriquets for “Shoeshine” and “Wanger” and “Bernie” and everyone else, which aren’t nicknames as much as they are placeholders for Chinese names that Dell can’t pronounce. His efforts have earned him a nickname of his own: A colleague calls him “China’s Mr. Baseball.” It’s his job to do what a decade ago was unthinkable, and what today is merely highly improbable: deliver the first-ever Chinese baseball star.

RICK DELL HAS a bent-kneed gait and a wisecracking humor gained from a lifetime in baseball, half of it — 27 years — spent coaching at the College of New Jersey. He worked off-seasons as one of MLB’s few willing ambassadors to Asia before coming on full time in 2007. On Family Day, he’s wearing an MLB uniform — he never steps on a diamond without one — and his New Jersey Athletic Conference championship ring, the only ring he has, which he never removes. He’s innocently, impossibly optimistic, the kind of man who told his staff at a January meeting that the myth of Sisyphus is a fable about the need to make work fun. In other words, he’s just the guy to look for baseball standouts in China, a country where baseball has been nonexistent since the Cultural Revolution, whose national team came in dead last in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and which has yet to field a single major leaguer, much less a superstar.

MLB is betting that marketing will play a big part in turning the situation around. The organization has engaged in an aggressive campaign to pitch baseball to China as an egalitarian game with a cosmopolitan sheen. “It’s foreign; it represents fashion, international culture, cool,” says Leon Xie, MLB’s managing director in China, the hard-nosed realist charged with selling baseball to the Chinese. But when asked how MLB can decisively capture the imaginations (and disposable income) of Chinese youth, he sighs. “We haven’t answered that question yet.”

The competition is intense. The National Basketball Association’s success in China is, however unfairly, MLB’s constant standard for comparison. An estimated 300 million Chinese play basketball (compared to the 4 million or so who play baseball), and enough of them follow the NBA that Goldman Sachs once valued the association’s China market at $2.3 billion. “We’re not trying to match the NBA in 15 minutes,” Dell says. “Remember, the NBA’s been here 20, 25 years. People lose sight of that.” The NBA has other advantages, too. Unlike baseball, basketball requires little in the way of equipment, and the game is easy to play in the crush of China’s increasingly dense cities. Then there’s Yao Ming. Any mention of the recently retired Houston Rockets center elicits exasperated sighs from Dell and his colleagues.

Dell touches on this point over breakfast at a DoubleTree by Hilton, one of the sleek luxury hotels that have sprung up around interior China, even in Wuxi’s otherwise barren New District. “We may not get that player we’re talking about during my time here in China,” he says. “It’s not like one of these guys has to be the next — I wouldn’t say Yao Ming — let’s say Derek Jeter. It’s not like that at all.” It can’t be. Developing talent for baseball is different from developing it for other games. A physical aberration like Yao can pretty much step onto a professional basketball court. Baseball takes technique born of endless training and practice. It takes discipline.

This is the quality the Development Center is attempting to instill. Recruits live together in the dorms and eat at the same tables. They normally spend four days per week, every hour not dedicated to class or sleep, training on a dirt infield refurbished and modernized by MLB, which they share with the Xishan sports academy on the grounds of Dongbeitang High School.

They have a clubhouse with laundry service, a private weight room and, of course, a pristine baseball diamond where they drill, throw, run and take batting practice with wooden bats.

But there is something else going on here too. Enrollees at the Development Center have their educations, equipment and housing paid for — a real gift, Dell emphasizes, for players from poverty-stricken provinces like Qinghai or Gansu. The fact is, these young hopefuls are drawing on more than just talent and hard work. They are often, quite literally, hungry. “These kids are already better off than they were, and they’ll be better off when they leave,” Dell says. “And that makes me feel good about what we do.”

FAMILY DAY EXEMPLIFIES the awkward marriage between the easy community of American baseball and the Chinese imperative to impress one’s parents. “When we get a player, we get his family, too,” says Xie. “I don’t just mean his parents, but also his grandparents on both sides. If we get one, we get the rest.” On this holiday weekend, the kids seem eager to please, their expressions severe, their movements deliberate and precise. But when the time comes for the parents to have a go themselves, things quickly devolve into slapstick. They swipe, they swat, they grope and grapple and collapse to the ground laughing. Dell watches a parent skitter a ball a few feet along the ground following a swing that appeared to crack the man’s back. “It’s so weird,” he says. “It’s like when you give a Chinese person a glove. Without one they can catch the ball fine, but when you put a glove on ’em, they’re helpless!”

He’s enjoying himself now, ribbing parents and players alike. “Mr. Dou hits better than his kid!” he yells at one hapless batter. “That must be his best shirt!” he hollers at a man wearing a garish yellow shirt. “Look at this guy!” he shouts as another father steps to the plate wearing camouflage cargo shorts, Tevas and a LeBron James jersey. “He looks like he’s coming from the Jersey Shore!”

Among the prospects playing today, there are a few who stand out. Aside from Soldier, there’s “Sky,” Shi Kai, a lumbering Beijing pitcher who’s throwing 80-mph heat at 13 years old, and “James,” Zhai Lianjie, a precocious switch-hitter from Changzhou who sprints 60 yards in 6.4 seconds and can sling a ball more than 300 feet. “I’ll be very surprised if we don’t have a couple of kids out of this group that would be interesting to somebody in two years,” Dell says. But even the incurable optimist can’t ignore the odds. “I already know that 99.9 percent of these kids are never going to play in the major leagues,” he says at one point. “I know that’s probably true.” He pauses, staring past the backstop. “But one day, one of them will play in the major leagues. Somebody will.”

A few days later, with their families back at home, the kids get down to the serious business of regular practice. With the defense arrayed around the prim outfield and the raked infield, land reclaimed from the rush of industrial progress, it doesn’t look like China. It looks like something else, like a dream. “Cowboy,” Lin Shukao, is on the mound. The batter is James. Cowboy winds up, rears back, lurches forward, and after his back cleat violently departs the rubber and the rough string of the seams leaves his fingertips, there is a pregnant moment, a half-second when the pitch is nothing but potential — a hit or a strike. James shifts his hips and brings the bat around. He makes contact and sends the ball over the wall in center field, 315 feet.

The dreary Wuxi haze finally lifts. The sun shines. In the distance, beyond the fence, Dongbeitang’s outdoor basketball hoops glimmer.

JOHN B. THOMPSON lives in Cambridge, Mass. His fastball is not worthy of the name.

One Response to “The Pitch”

  1. Rona Conti Says:
    October 19th, 2011 at 8:46 am

    Just returning from two weeks in China, seeking the roots of the Japanese calligraphy I have been studying, my passions are broader than brushes. I found your excellent article of great interest, the new China exemplified. Rick Dell is an adventurer, kudos to you and to Rick. I will continue to follow the glimmers.

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