Getting to first base

The Baltimore Sun

Guangyuan Wang traveled from China to Aberdeen to solve a baseball problem.

As he works to nurture the sport in China, the youth coach has seen that it's not hard to get kids to start playing baseball. The challenge is to get them to stick with it as they get older.

"There's a gap. They don't continue to play," said Wang, 34, who coaches baseball and softball to youth in Guangzhou. "Our mission is to learn new knowledge and bring that back to China."

Hailing from a country where swooshing a pingpong paddle is more popular than swinging a baseball bat, Wang hopes to bring more interest in America's pastime to China after a monthlong visit to Ripken Baseball in Aberdeen.

Wang is part of a 12-member contingent of Chinese baseball and softball coaches learning skills at the Ripken baseball complex. As part of a monthlong visit that began July 22, the six men and six women are attending youth camps and tournaments through a trip organized by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which partnered with Ripken Baseball and Major League Baseball.

The group came to Harford County last month after visiting the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., where they learned about coaching youth, umpiring, conditioning and nutrition.

Upon arrival in Aberdeen, the coaches lunched with Oriole Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. At the Ripken academy, the Chinese coaches have been observing American coaches working with their players and practicing running drills with one another.

They were to attend the international Cal Ripken World Series. The coaches also were to take in major and minor league games, as well as visit Washington and North Carolina before returning to China on Aug. 19.

The visitors, who spoke through a translator, said they have been struck by the joyful enthusiasm among young players in this country, a marked contrast to their homeland.

"Young people here enjoy practice, and they're happy to be at camps," Wang said. "In China, they have pressure to win. They feel pressure rather than enjoying the game. It's a different approach here that encourages baseball."

The concept of increasing the reach of baseball finds a warm welcome at Ripken Baseball.

"The mission is to teach them to be youth baseball coaches so that they can take the game back to China to grow the game at a grass-roots level," said Chris Flannery, the organization's chief operating officer.

While baseball enjoys immense popularity in Japan and Taiwan, it hasn't quite caught on in China. According to baseball historians, China was the first Asian nation where baseball was played in the 1800s, yet it all but disappeared during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

Baseball in China competes with soccer and basketball for the attention of fans, Wang said.

Major League Baseball has made efforts to promote the sport, opening a business office in Beijing and offering instructional assistance to the national team, Chinese players and coaches. For the U.S. trip, officials decided to invite coaches rather than players.

"You can multiply the influence if you can teach people to teach the game," said John McHale, executive vice president of administration for Major League Baseball.

Jianping Zhang, 52, a baseball coach from Wuxi, said she was impressed with the lifelong passion for the sport that she has witnessed here.

"The adults, students, children - everyone participates," she said. "You see fathers bringing their sons, grandfathers with their grandsons, mothers with their daughters. In China, it's a smaller scope."

The sport gained a boost in China with the founding of a professional league in 2002, the coaches said. The Chinese Baseball League started with four teams and added two in 2005. Teams include the Beijing Tigers, Tianjin Lions and Guangzhou Lightning.

The recent signing of two Chinese players by the New York Yankees should stoke fan interest in China, the coaches say. Fans follow their favorite teams - the Yankees, Red Sox and White Sox are the most popular - via the Internet and satellite cable TV, despite a significant time zone difference.

"If we put [forth] our efforts, we will bring Chinese baseball to be more popular and to the modern times," Wang said. "We will be able to come to major league standards."

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