Chapter 2: The American fastball and all those Xu Guiyuan broken bats

Why so many broken bats for Xu Guiyuan? And can the 20-year-old catch up to the American fastball?

Let’s talk about the 75 bats that Xu Guiyuan shattered at one of the three Major League Baseball developmental centers in China. That’s a lot of smashed lumber.

Before and after Roy Hobbs broke his bat “Wonderboy” in “The Natural,” fans have paid attention when ash or maple splinters at home plate, and perhaps wonder the reason. It’s often simple physics -- a pitch striking near the thin handle of a large-barreled bat. 

In Xu’s case, his mentor imbues the broken bats with a sort of symbolism.

Simon Huang, Xu’s friend, teacher and business manager for MLB in China, suggests the player wore the bats out through relentless practice in the cage.

“He worked so hard and never gave up his dream,” Huang said in an email interview from China. “Last five years when he was with us, you can tell from his eyes, he wants to be a pro player. I remembered that we sent him to [the] U.S. for a month of training when he was 16 years old. When he came back, he had more confidence on the field, worked much harder than before. Itchy is way more mature than the other same-age kids.”

His disposition is a central part of Xu’s story because he clearly faces an adjustment to American pitching (not to mention American culture, food, minor league bus trips, etc.). 

He has had major league coaching in China. Former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Jesse Litsch was among his teachers. But regardless of Xu’s talent, he’ll have to be pretty dogged to catch up (and perhaps one day eclipse?) his 150 fellow minor leaguers at Twin Lakes Park. He has been playing in developmental centers with young Chinese players for years. 

Xu might start in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and could end up this season at Short-A Aberdeen of New York-Penn League. "Birdland begins in Aberdeen" is a team promotional slogan.  

It’s likely that things will seem to be moving quickly at first for Xu, who is due to arrive at the airport before midnight and will be in the hotel lobby before 7 a.m. Wednesday morning to bus to camp.

And then there’s the fastball. That will seem to be traveling pretty rapidly, too.

When Xu arrived in Florida for the instructional league last fall, “the biggest concern for him was that the fastball velocity was so much better here,” said Orioles player development director Brian Graham. 

“Fastball velocity was a big change for him. But, you know, that’s baseball.”

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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