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.
In the midst of a 10-day goodwill tour, Hall of Famer 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.
But 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.
Consider the underlying symbolism of what will surely be China's most famous ball field. The Wukesong Olympic fields - three in all - are nearly complete and will host baseball practices and games during next summer's Olympics. But just as soon as the medals are passed out, the fields are expected to be destroyed and replaced with office buildings or residential high-rises. Property is too valuable in the city to allow fields to sit dormant.
"At the end of the 2008 Olympics, within moments, the whole structure of sport in China will change," MacIntyre says. "Everybody knows it, but no one is saying what exactly that means."
There is no quick solution. Though Major League Baseball hopes that even after the Olympics, China will feel compelled to field competitive teams in the Asian Games and the World Baseball Classic, it has no delusions of instant success. Small, who runs Major League Baseball's Asian operations from his Tokyo office, says continued commitment from owners and plenty of patience are essential.
"It's going to take some time," Small says. "There's a long horizon. I'm very proud of what we've done. ... You're just now hearing about it because we moved slowly and had to learn about the market before we made our bets."
Still, even after seven years, Major League Baseball hasn't quite figured out how to fully maneuver the Chinese government's obstacle course. When Ripken met with Chinese Baseball Association officials this week, Major League Baseball was not invited to the table.
Yesterday, Ripken and his former Orioles teammate, B.J. Surhoff, held a morning session for coaches and two afternoon clinics for children. The second took place on the rural outskirts of Beijing, at Xiu Song En Hua School, which houses about 100 students, many of whom are orphaned or homeless.
For most of the children, the afternoon marked the first time they had gripped a baseball or swung a bat. Ripken says he hopes it won't be the last.
"It's not something that you can make happen in one day," he says. "I think some mistakes could be made if you try to force your way in. To me, it's about first exposing kids to the sport - they'll love to play and they grow up wanting to play it more.
"To me, it's a longer-term vision. My expectations aren't to find a big league player here and put him over in the States. It's to genuinely bring the kids to baseball and we'll see what happens."
Han Jichao, the quick-footed 12-year-old who worked with Ripken at the Da Cheng School yesterday, says he hopes to someday be China's first major leaguer. He'll leave China next year and move to Japan, where the facilities, coaching and infrastructure will give him a better chance.
He might have the talent and the work ethic. Time will tell whether that's enough.