Chapter 1: Chinese Orioles signee Xu Guiyuan will arrive with intrigue

Xu Guiyuan arrives from China Tuesday to begin a journey he hopes lands him in the majors.

There is a certain lore about talented but undeveloped baseball players discovered in faraway locales.

Think “Million Dollar Arm,” the film dramatization of two players discovered in cricket-obsessed India. Or “The Scout,” the fictional account of a prodigal pitcher found in the Mexican countryside.

Raw talent can seem exotic, and “raw talent” is just the phrase that Orioles player development director Brian Graham is using this week to describe Xu Guiyuan, who arrives at his first minor league spring training late Tuesday night.

Xu is a left-handed-hitting first-baseman the Orioles signed in July. He’s the first player signed by a Major League Baseball club from one of MLB’s three youth developmental centers in China, the world’s most populous nation.

Xu is trying to make history. Mao Zedong, China's longtime communist leader, sidelined the game in 1966 during his Cultural Revolution. The only China-born player to make the major leagues was Harry Kingman, the son of Western missionaries, in 1914. Miami Marlins pitcher Austin Brice was born in Hong Kong but, like Kingman, is not of ethnic Chinese heritage.

Now, along comes Xu, an engaging 20-year-old who is quickly learning some English (Mandarin is his primary language) and has been documenting his baseball journey with his iPhone 6.

“Absolutely there is historical significance,” Graham said of the player’s signing.

“The cycle is just starting for Major League Baseball in China,” Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said.

Graham and others call the player “Itchy” --  a reference to his hero, Japan-born major leaguer Ichiro Suzuki. It’s a nickname Xu has embraced.

The expanded version of the nickname is “Itchy Shoe,” which incorporates the phonetic pronunciation of "Xu." Fans have joked online that his first endorsement should be athletes's foot powder.

He’ll arrive at the airport in Tampa on Tuesday night and will be driven by van to a Sarasota hotel near sprawling Twin Lakes Park, site of the club’s minor league spring training complex. He said recently from China via Skype that he planned to bring along a small Buddha figurine for luck.

The training complex, named for longtime Negro leagues star and manager Buck O’Neil, is surrounded by fields and palm trees and is about 10 miles south of Ed Smith Stadium, where the major leaguers play. The complex wall is adorned with giant murals of  Cal Ripken Jr., Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and other Orioles whose numbers have been retired.

Has Xu heard of these iconic Birds? We’ll try to ask him as the week unfolds and we will be including videos and photos with our posts. 

Xu’s first spring training will officially begin at 6:45 Wednesday morning when he will be bussed to Twin Lakes for player physicals and his first workout.

Xu will be assigned a roommate.

"We’re in the process and I do believe it’s a player from Korea," Graham said. "You know, maybe the cultures are a little bit similar and that would help. I know when he came in the fall [for the instructional league], he didn’t have any issues. He fit in great." 

Here’s what we know so far about Xu:

* He’ll join 150 other players here from all levels of the club’s minor league system. It’s a group that includes outfielder DJ Stewart and infielder Ryan Mountcastle, the Orioles' top two draft picks in 2015, infielder Jomar Reyes, outfielder Mike Yastrzemski and pitcher Tanner Scott.

* Xu is 6 feet tall and weighs 188 pounds.

“He has some power. He uses the whole field,” Duquette said. The Orioles have an old video of Xu from China – he’s wearing a generic uniform with the U.S. major league logo on the jersey. He slams a long home run as appreciative teammates yell, “Woooo!”

* Xu will have an American documentary film crew waiting for him -- I’m  part of it -- and a Chinese television crew is expected to arrive later in camp.

* Xu broke 75 bats during an extended period at the developmental center in Wuxi, near the Yangtze River, in Jiangsu Province, according to Simon Huang, a China-based business operation manager for MLB. Huang attributed this to Xu's "hard work." 

* Xu is  looking forward to dinner in Sarasota with a few teammates this week at Chipotle, his favorite American restaurant.

Baseball camps are pretty regimented, and Graham said he believes Xu might have picked Chipotle because it doesn’t feel so standard-issue.

“It’s fresh food and he gets to pick what he wants,” Graham said. “He points and says, ‘I want that and that,’ and so that would be a good restaurant for him.”

From China to Birdland

Arriving at Orioles minor league spring training this week, Xu Guiyuan, a 20-year-old left-handed-hitting first baseman, is trying to become the first player from mainland China to make it to the big leagues. He’s already the first player signed from one of the major league's three youth developmental centers in China, a country that American baseball officials consider fertile ground to grow their sport. He has adopted the nickname "Itchy Shoe," a reference to his hero, Ichiro Suzuki, and the phonetic pronunciation of "Xu." The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Barker is following Xu's journey with daily reports and videos: Can he hit American pitching, much less navigate the pressure and cultural curveballs that accompany his 9,000-mile trip? Barker is involved in a documentary chronicling Xu and Major League Baseball’s China push.

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