'Itchy' Xu Guiyuan has Orioles in leadoff spot as baseball eyes China market

By signing a prospect from China, the O's are batting leadoff as baseball eyes world's most populous country

Deeming baseball a "bourgeois indulgence for the rich," Mao Zedong, China's longtime communist leader, banned the game in 1966 during his Cultural Revolution.

Fifty years later, even as the popularity of other Western sports such as basketball booms in mainland China, baseball remains largely unfamiliar. But the Baltimore Orioles are in the leadoff spot for a mounting effort by Major League Baseball to revive the game there.

Xu Guiyuan, a 19-year-old left-handed first-baseman the Orioles signed in July, will leave his family and country behind this spring to try to become the first Chinese player to make it to the major leagues. He is the first player signed by a club from one of the major league's three youth developmental centers in China, a country of 1.3 billion people that American baseball officials consider fertile ground for the sport's future growth.

The deal with Xu, who idolizes Japan-born major leaguer Ichiro Suzuki, is another signal of American baseball's longing for the world's most populous nation. On Jan. 6, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced a deal with China's Le Sports to live-stream 125 major-league games, including the entire World Series, along with other Mandarin-language baseball programming in a country that is currently far more interested in soccer and basketball.

"China is a crucial frontier for the development of baseball," Manfred said.

Until now, games were available in China on a patchwork of regional networks, but not nationally.

"We essentially are in the top half of the first inning of the history of MLB-China," said Chris Park, the league's senior vice president of growth, strategy and international. "In many different ways, we are an early-stage startup there — culturally speaking, as an education partner, as a media entity, as a participatory sport. We're really excited overall about the path that we seek."

After his signing, Xu donned an Orioles jersey, grabbed a bat and posed for pictures on China's Great Wall. Other photos show a lanky left-handed batter at the plate with a wide batting stance. He has adopted the nickname "Itchy Shoe," a reference to his hero, Ichiro, and the phonetic pronunciation of "Xu."

The Orioles and MLB are wary of applying excessive pressure on Xu, who likely faces an arduous transition in which he will learn if he can hit American pitching, much less navigate the cultural curveballs that accompany a 9,000-mile journey from his family's home in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, to the team's minor-league spring training home in Sarasota, Fla.

But it's hard to ignore what he represents — a potential pathway to the heart of a nation that saw interest in basketball surge after Yao Ming starred in the National Basketball Association from 2002 until his 2011 retirement.

"Hopefully, he'll be a pioneer and will pave the way for others," Dan Duquette, the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations, said Friday. "It's a huge marketing opportunity for Major League Baseball."

In the previous four seasons, the Orioles had a pitcher from Taiwan, Wei-Yin Chen, who recently departed as a free agent.

"When we signed Chen and we played in the playoffs, the TV ratings in Taiwan were significant," Duquette said.

In recent years, baseball "has been working hard to follow the NBA's blueprint in gaining a foothold in the country — in short, attempting to replicate the conditions that produced Yao Ming," said Jonathan Jensen, a consultant and assistant professor in the Girard School of Business at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. "But while baseball has been popular for a long time in Japan and South Korea in particular, China is light years behind and, when you think about it, it really has only been 20 years since Asian players finally broke through to make an impact in MLB, with [Hideo] Nomo in 1995 and Ichiro in 2001."

China's scarcity of baseball fields and relative indifference to the sport make Xu something of an underdog, even though he's from a powerhouse nation.

Taiwan, Japan and South Korea all have produced big-leaguers since the sport organized professionally nearly 150 years ago.

While the game enjoyed some popularity in China before the Cultural Revolution, its comeback has barely begun. The first of three MLB-funded centers for 12-to-18-year-old youths opened in 2009 in Wuxi — near the Yangtze River, in Jiangsu Province — which is where Xu, who is 6 feet tall and weighs 188 pounds, has trained.

The 80 total students across the three centers live in dormitories and receive baseball coaching in the afternoons after school.

American baseball officials believe the game is well suited to China.

"All the ethereal things about baseball — no clock, the sacrifice, the journey around the bases that starts and finishes at home — it all resonates in Chinese culture," MLB Vice President Jim Small, who oversees Asia, told MLB.com. "I'm convinced that if baseball was around during Confucius' time, he would have been a huge fan."

Not everyone agrees.

"Baseball in Taiwan is popular because it came from Japan. And Taiwan is very Japan-friendly," said Tom Doctoroff, Asia Pacific CEO of advertising firm J. Walter Thompson, in an email interview from Shanghai.

While "the spirit of the game" is relevant to "ultra-civil Japan," Doctoroff said, "there is nothing inherently compelling about baseball to Chinese people. It doesn't allow for heroic release like soccer or continuous demonstration of clever resourcefulness like basketball."

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.

Park said MLB understands the sensitivity required to try to re-establish a sport that got benched during the Cultural revolution. MLB is trying to reintroduce the sport, in part through its grass-roots program for youths called "Play Ball!"

"When it comes down to a particular market like China, our focus is really less about the overall potential and more on the day-to-day of trying to make sure that at a very detailed level we have a good understanding of how MLB — across the different hats we wear — can be a durable and valuable presence to Chinese culture," Park said.

Park declined to discuss specifically how MLB might capitalize if baseball catches on in China. Yao became a marketing force for the NBA, boosting television viewership and merchandise sales.

The NBA game is now popular there even though there are no currently active Chinese players. Jeremy Lin of the Charlotte Hornets is the son of Taiwanese immigrants.

Park said Xu's signing "is really important in the overall scheme of things, but we're not looking at this entirely with rose-colored glasses. We understand it's a long road ahead for him developmentally, and there are a lot of ways this could go."

Xu will report in March to the Orioles' minor-league camp, a short distance from where the major leaguers train.

Xu remains a baseball question mark, said Phil Wood, a baseball analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which broadcasts Orioles and Washington Nationals games.

"Scouts will say you look for certain skills — can they throw accurately, can they run, how quickly do they get the bat head through the strike zone?" Wood said. "But until you actually get them into competition, you don't really know. You're seeing when you get him out of his culture, can he make that adjustment?"

Duquette said Xu could end up in the Gulf Coast League after spring training and may be called to Aberdeen, a Class-A minor league affiliate, later in the season.

"He's a pretty good hitter," Duquette said. "It looks to me like he knows his way around the batter's box. Good balance, short swing."

Xu's spring training appearance is likely to be a curiosity, Park said, but if he makes it to the major leagues, "that probably changes the game."

"When the first guy makes it into the majors, it will be like when Ichiro came in," said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. "Or it will be like when Yao Ming arrived. There will be mobs of China reporters hanging around."

jebarker@baltsun.com

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