“Now you’re locked in,” the batting practice pitcher shouted to Xu Guiyuan, who stood in at the plate on a sunny, windy Wednesday afternoon less than nine hours after the Orioles’ prospect from China arrived at his spring training hotel in the middle of the night.
It wasn’t easy to lock in. Not after jet lag -- his flight to nearby Tampa was delayed -- first-day nerves, and the pressure of trying to become the first player to make the big leagues from the world’s most populous nation.
Xu, 20, arrived at the minor league players’ nondescript budget hotel at about 3 in the morning, and immediately chatted with his parents on his laptop to let them know he had arrived safely.
He got a few hours sleep before joining 150 other players for physical exams, stretching, fielding drills and batting practice at Twin Lakes Park.
His long night might have amounted to a preview of his future life in the minor leagues, where bus trips are the norm.
As practice began, he hadn’t even unpacked or met his roommate, who had yet to arrive. His roommate will be Oswill Lartiguez, an outfielder from Venezuela who has been in the Orioles’ minor league system since 2010 and played last season with the Aberdeen Ironbirds.
Xu has learned some English over the years. He’s become somewhat Americanized living in the dormitory-style Major League Baseball developmental centers in China, eating a combination of American and Chinese food.
When he finally did unpack his black duffel bag on Wednesday, he held up a red card with Chinese characters for “happiness” and “prosperity.” He said his mother gave it to him before he left.
Xu is something of a mystery because it’s uncertain if the talent he’s shown at the developmental centers will translate in the United States.
In his first few batting practice appearances on Wednesday, he hit nothing but ground balls, even whiffing at a pitch. He was overheard remarking to an Orioles coach -- the only one in camp who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese -- that he was still acclimating and was a bit nervous. He booted a few ground balls in practice, too.
But the left-hander ended his practice by hitting line drives to left-center field and right-center. He tends to hit to all fields.
After practice, he headed to a bank to establish his first American account.
Thursday: We’ll bring you his first interview.
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.