"I saw new players, new teammates and I stepped into the hitter box, I feel a little bit nervous," said Orioles' prospect Xu Guiyuan. When asked how he feels to represent China in major league baseball. (Baltimore Sun video)
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.
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.