MLB Seeks Baseball Stars in China to Push Into the Big Leagues

League spends big on diamonds, academies and talent search, as the Chinese government sees baseball becoming a $7.4 billion industry.

Chinese students try to catch a ball during a Los Angeles Dodgers practice session prior to their against the San Diego Padres at Beijing's Wukesong Stadium in March 2008.
Photographer: Guang Niu/Getty Images

Chinese students try to catch a ball during a Los Angeles Dodgers practice session prior to their against the San Diego Padres at Beijing's Wukesong Stadium in March 2008.

If there were ever a Chinese version of the classic baseball film “The Natural,” someone like Xu Guiyuan would be in it.

The wiry 20-year-old from Puning is trying to become the first mainland-born Chinese to play at the highest level of Major League Baseball—and if he succeeds, it could be just the kind of breakthrough moment to spark widespread fan interest in China.

Xu learned the game at one of three MLB Development Centers in coastal China and just completed his first season as a minor-league player with the Baltimore Orioles.

Xu’s journey from baseball novice to potential big leaguer comes as MLB is spending hundreds of millions of dollars building baseball diamonds and academies in a nation where the sport once was banned for being too decadent. His success could boost MLB’s prospects for capitalizing on a Chinese government plan to transform baseball into a 50 billion-yuan ($7.4 billion) industry within a decade.

“If I play badly, it’s my own problem and affects only myself,” said Xu, who didn’t touch a baseball until he was 11. “But if I play well, the effect could be enormous.” 

Xu Guiyuan.
Xu Guiyuan.
Photographer: Andy Wong/AP Photo

Just ask the National Basketball Association. That league catapulted to unseen levels of popularity in China when Shanghai native Yao Ming played his Hall of Fame career with the Houston Rockets.

The NBA now has annual revenue in China of $250 million, according to state-run media, and last year signed a $700 million deal with Tencent Holdings Ltd. for digital streaming rights.

“Yao created an explosion of popularity and a fan base in China that’s more passionate about the game than ever before,” NBA China Chief Executive Officer David Shoemaker said. He declined to comment on league revenue in China.

MLB needs its own Yao to be in the same league in terms of buzz, media saturation and merchandising. There are only about 3,000 baseball players in a nation of almost 1.4 billion people, and just 50 baseball stadiums, according to a December report by the General Administration of Sport of China.

About 500 schools have baseball teams, and the highest level of play is the professional Chinese Baseball League with teams in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Wuxi and Chengdu.

“Baseball development in China is slow,” the report said. “The foundations are weak, the industry is at the developing stage, and games are not influential.”

That compares with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea—baseball-obsessed neighbors that all developed star players for MLB. Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki, currently with the Miami Marlins, is considered a likely Hall of Fame inductee when his career ends.

China has exported several players to MLB organizations, starting with Chao Wang, who joined a Seattle Mariners farm club in 2001, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Yet none of them made it to the majors.

“It’s necessary to have a Chinese superstar,” said Leon Xie, director of MLB China. “For the sport to be a local sport without a local star, it’s impossible. The market ignites when there’s a superstar.”

The history is there, as newspaper reports from the 1870s describe Chinese baseball players in the U.S. Even Babe Ruth came to China with a barnstorming team that played a squad of locals in Shanghai, according to MLB.com.

But when the Cultural Revolution started, baseball was condemned for being too Western, according to “Baseball Without Borders: The International Pastime,” edited by George Gmelch. It wasn’t welcomed back until 1975.

Since then, MLB has been chipping away at China: providing coaches for its teams in international tournaments and the Olympics, having the Los Angeles Dodgers build a stadium in Tianjin in 1986 and staging the exhibition China Series in 2008.  

In January, the league signed its first national media deal, giving Le Sports exclusive rights for three years to live-stream games, including this month’s World Series. Le Sports is backed by Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and China’s richest person.

“The real opportunity is for MLB to be able to sell internet and broadcast media rights in China,” said Jonathan Jensen, an assistant professor in the Sport Administration program at the University of North Carolina. About 710 million Chinese actively use the Internet, according to the government.

China is home to the league’s biggest investment outside the U.S., Xie said. It comes amid a 10-year national plan that includes quadrupling the number of professional-level stadiums to 200, establishing at least 5,000 players and generating more than 20 million viewers.

Besides building its own diamonds, MLB opened development centers at existing high schools in Nanjing, Wuxi and Changzhou to search for diamonds in the rough. There, promising athletes work on their hitting, fielding and throwing after doing their reading, writing and arithmetic—and English lessons.

A Major League Baseball summer training camp in Wuxi in August 2010.
A Major League Baseball summer training camp in Wuxi in August 2010.
Photographer: Qilai Shen/Corbis via Getty Images

 

“Everything we’ve done is incremental,” said Rick Dell, MLB’s director of baseball development in Asia. “We don’t just shotgun the place. We’re trying to leave a footprint.”

Players usually come to MLB’s attention through what Dell calls “independent pockets”—schools or businesses where a teacher or entrepreneur who loves baseball has introduced it to local kids. MLB has paid the education and living expenses of 92 players so far since opening the centers in 2009.

“What the NBA’s experience showed is not a timeframe, but a truth: This is a long-time commitment,” Xie said.

Xu is the first graduate of those academies to sign with an MLB team. The Puning native was introduced to baseball at age 8 by a physical-education teacher, and he practiced by throwing sandbags. He didn’t play with a real baseball until he was 11, yet still was offered an MLB scholarship at 14.

His minimal training is evocative of Roy Hobbs, the slugger in “The Natural” whose bat was forged from a tree split by lightning. And, the Orioles say they signed the left-handed outfielder and first baseman in July 2015 because of his potential to hit home runs.

Xu was nicknamed Itchy after telling a coach at the MLB academy in 2010 that his favorite player was Japan’s Suzuki. He just finished the season with the Orioles’ rookie-league team in Sarasota, Florida. In 33 games, he batted .247 with no home runs and nine runs batted in.

“My background and that of my American teammates are very different,” Xu said from Florida, where he’s living with a host family. “I have confidence to reach their standard, but I need time to learn.” 

Preparations ahead of a game between the Dodgers and the Padres in Beijing on March 15, 2008. 
Preparations ahead of a game between the Dodgers and the Padres in Beijing on March 15, 2008. 
Photographer: Guang Niu/Getty Images