SARASOTA, FLA. — Xu Guiyuan is seated on the foot of the bed in his cramped hotel room answering my interview questions. The Orioles prospect is switching between English and Mandarin, seeking a comfort level.
He'll answer a simple question in English, then smile shyly and glance at a translator for the more nuanced queries, indicating he's not quite understanding and needs help.
The toggling back and forth is an apt metaphor for Xu, 20, because that's what he's doing in his life – balancing Chinese and American culture, seeking equilibrium.
He has been straddling two cultures and two nations for years. He was discovered by Major League Baseball in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, when he was 13 and sent to an MLB, dormitory-style developmental center where he ate American and Chinese food.
It must have been quite a task for the MLB scout – finding players with talent in a sport they had never played or heard of. Baseball was banned in China during the Cultural Revolution and never really came back. Now, MLB sees vast marketing potential in the world's most populous nation.
In July, Xu – one of five children and the son of a commercial driver – became the first player ever signed from one of the centers and hopes to become his nation's first major leaguer. The left-handed first baseman reported to his first spring training Wednesday.
Talking to him, you get a sense of how unlikely his story is.
"I don't know baseball when I was young because we don't have baseball in China," said Xu, wearing black workout shorts and a gray Under Armour shirt with the Oriole bird logo on the front.
He is fond of wearing Orioles gear. He was wearing a black team sweatshirt when he arrived into Tampa International Airport a few days ago in the middle of the night.
He was also wearing an Orioles jersey when he posed on the Great Wall of China last year after signing, extending his glove over the wall as if making a catch.
He might have posed on a baseball field, but they are hard to come by in his country.
"We don't have a lot of baseball fields," he said. "We can throw it, that's fine. But a baseball field is too big."
Many coaches will teach young players to catch balls with two hands, disdaining the one-handed swipe with the glove hand.
Xu said using two hands was a necessity when he was young because "we don't have very good equipment. The glove is not very good."
He starts a sentence in English. " If [I] use one hand, the ball might" he begins, then gestures to indicate a ball passing through the webbing of a glove and smacking into his face.
On the field, Xu still seems to emphasize – in an almost exaggerated way – cupping his bare hand around his first baseman's mitt when fielding ground balls.
He's dogged, and tough on himself, about baseball fundamentals.
"I hit a lot of balls every day," he said.
His coach and mentor, Simon Huang, said Xu broke 75 bats at one of the the developmental centers.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
One reason for that, Xu said during the interview, is that "I swing at every pitch full speed. It will break if I hit it not in the right spot."
But Xu concedes there is another reason for all the splintered wood.
"Every time when I missed a couple balls I would break the bat," he said.
He said he believes being a perfectionist might help him one day be called up to the big club at Camden Yards.
"I saw a picture, but I've never been there," he said. "Beautiful field. I know the office is behind the field, right?"
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.