BEIJING—Han Jichao is 12 years old, and he has been playing baseball for two years. He has already been spotted by Major League Baseball officials, who've taken note of his raw talent and tireless work ethic. Hard work and dedication, Han says, are what it will take for him to someday realize his dream and play in the majors.
If only the path from China to the big leagues were that simple.
Cal Ripken Jr. crossed paths with Han at a baseball clinic yesterday afternoon. Ripken rolled Han grounders and showed the fledgling shortstop how to turn a double play. On the surface, the encounter seems to highlight the wonderful potential for growth - for Han and for baseball in China.
If only it were that simple.
"Baseball in the macro sense means absolutely nothing here," says Hazen MacIntyre, who played minor league baseball in the Braves system in the 1960s and began running baseball camps in China in 2001. "The average citizen barely knows what it means. It's very obscure."
As a State Department-appointed envoy, Ripken has the official duty in China to partake in international diplomacy. But with 11 different baseball clinics on his Chinese docket, his personal goal is to spread the gospel of the game he loves. To what end exactly, no one is certain.
The Chinese population numbers more than 1.3 billion people. Even by Major League Baseball's most generous estimates, only 100,000 of them are playing baseball - just 1 in 13,000. The worry shared by many baseball observers is that after the 2008 Summer Games, when baseball is wiped from the roster of Olympic sports, what little baseball interest there is in China will dwindle even further.
Though the sport thrives in places such as Japan and Taiwan, baseball disappeared from China more than 40 years ago, during the Cultural Revolution. "Baseball coaches were literally imprisoned by Mao in the 1960s," says Jim Small, Major League Baseball's vice president for Asia.
The sport resurfaced in the 1980s, in terms of popularity and participation, but it's far behind badminton, table tennis and basketball.
Historically, Chinese sports have been motivated by Olympic gold. Without those prospects in baseball beyond 2008, there might not be much incentive for the Chinese government to commit money and resources to baseball, no matter how committed Major League Baseball is to expanding the sport here.
Patience neededBut while Major League Baseball is in a race against time, the sport's only real hope of thriving - or even surviving - in China hinges on patience. And a bit of luck.
"It's simple," Small says. "There's 1.3 billion people here; God has touched somebody's arm. There's a 13-year-old who already has the physical skills. We know this. We want to find him and make a major league baseball player out of China in the next 5-10 years. If there is a Yao Ming of baseball, we want to be here and we want to be ready to take advantage."
Major League Baseball thinks that finding baseball's version of Yao could quickly change the sport's prospects here. As it is, baseball is stuck on the fringe of the sporting menu. Major league games are not typically broadcast here, MLB.com generates little Web traffic from China and merchandise sales are nearly nonexistent.
A big part of the problem is there has been no native Chinese major leaguer. Currently, there are four Chinese playing in the minors.
Major League Baseball says it's investing more energy and resources into developing the sport here, though that commitment is still minimal. Baseball officials began focused China operations seven years ago and just last month stationed Rick Dell, director of baseball development in Asia, in Beijing full time. Plus, they're in the midst of a program that introduces the game to school physical-education programs, and they've passed out hundreds of balls and bats to city children.
"Let's not kid ourselves. Major League Baseball is not here for altruistic reasons," says MacIntyre, a senior adviser to sport in Guangzhou. "They're not here just to help China learn baseball. They're here because there are 1.3 billion consumers that they can reach."
In addition to government apathy, a big obstacle inhibiting baseball's growth is a general lack of infrastructure. In China, not only is there no structured youth league system and limited instruction in schools, but there also are few places to even play. There are more baseball diamonds in the city of Baltimore than in all of China, where the total number of fields doesn't even reach triple digits. In fact, Ripken's baseball clinics this week have taken place on soccer fields and even on a basketball court.