When he was 14, Xu Guiyuan had to make a grown-up decision — whether to leave his family in southeastern China and move more than 900 miles away to an academy run by Major League Baseball to learn a sport his country is all but indifferent to.
China shows about as much interest in baseball as the United States does in a niche sport like cricket, but for Xu, who was coveted because he was bigger and more athletic than his peers, the offer contained the faintest hope of a career in America's summer sports pasttime.
China has never produced a major leaguer in baseball, which was banned in 1966 as a "bourgeois indulgence for the rich" by Communist leader Mao Zedong and never recovered. But Xu and his family gambled. In 2010, he moved to baseball's fledgling developmental center in Wuxi, on the Yangtze River, beginning a six-year, cross-cultural journey that recently led him to the Orioles' minor league spring training camp after being the first player signed from baseball's Chinese academy program.
Xu believes he is talented enough to be a baseball pioneer and thinks the sport will one day resonate with the Chinese people. Baseball, the left-handed first baseman said, requires "selfless sacrifice" and "teamwork" that are central to Chinese culture.
"I think he understands this is a heroic quest," said Dan Duquette, the Orioles executive vice president, who stopped at the club's minor league training center at Twin Lakes Park on March 13 to welcome Xu.
"Well, we're glad to have you on the Orioles," Duquette said as he shook the player's hand on a sunny practice field at the palm tree-lined complex about 10 miles from Ed Smith Stadium, where the major leaguers play. "You've got a lot of people watching you back in China."
"Oh, yeah," Xu replied shyly.
Xu, 6 feet tall and 188 pounds with an engaging smile, goes by the nickname "Itchy." The scout who discovered him said he was quiet as a boy, and he still shows hints of shyness, particularly when searching for the right English word or expression. He speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, but he learned enough English at the centers to communicate with coaches and teammates.
Xu might start in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and could end up this season with the Short-A Aberdeen IronBirds of the New York-Penn League. Occasionally, he allows himself to imagine taking the field one day 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?"
The Orioles believe baseball has found a partner in China, a nation of 1.3 billion people that embraces such sports as soccer, basketball and gymnastics. All are Olympic competitions whose popularity is enhanced because they tap into China's nationalist pride. Baseball is not in the Olympics, but baseball-hungry Japan, which hosts the 2020 Games, is pushing for the sport's inclusion.
"Twenty years from now ... people will look back and say [Xu] was the first," said Brian Graham, the Orioles player development director who oversees Xu and the 150 other minor league players at Twin Lakes Park.
At the Chinese academies where he once trained, and where he essentially grew up, Xu is a symbol of baseball hope.
Before he left China for spring training, 20 of his academy teammates assembled in uniform on a dirt infield to record a video that the player carries with him on his iPhone.
"The new season is coming soon — may you make it into the major leagues and achieve your dream!" one player shouts. Then, all yell in unison and pump their fists: "Go Itchy!"
Xu was signed after a trip to China by Orioles international scout Brett Ward and Mike Snyder, the club's Baltimore-based director of Pacific Rim operations. When Xu arrived in Florida for an instructional league stint in the fall, Duquette said he dispatched his son, Dana, to pick up the player at the airport, telling him: "That's a historic trip, you know."
A middle child, Xu left behind his father — a commercial driver — his mother and four siblings to train at the three academies, moving from one to the next as he got older. When the first academy opened in Wuxi in 2009, MLB promised in a news release to provide "professional baseball training for middle school and high school-aged students within an academic school environment."
"For me, I try to help my family," said Xu, interviewed after his first full training day in the cramped hotel room he is sharing with Oswill Lartiguez, an outfielder from Venezuela who played last season with the IronBirds and Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds. "If I sign a contract and go to the MLB developmental center, I can go to school for free, eat for free, live for free, so I can help my family."
In his black duffel bag, he brought to Florida a bright red card his mother gave him featuring Chinese characters for "happiness" and "prosperity."
But his first week created strain. His flight to Tampa International Airport was delayed and he arrived — wearing a black Orioles hoodie — at his hotel at 3 a.m. He felt jet-lagged all week and said he was uncomfortable being immediately singled out by American and Chinese media members before proving himself.
After several days of workouts, the player said he was "very excited, but my body feels a little bit tired. I feel every time when I hit a ball I just missed a little bit. It's getting better."
The next week, on March 16, he hit a single, driving in two runs, in his first minor league spring game.
Xu's training has left him straddling two cultures. He has grown up at the academies learning about both nations and eating American and Chinese food.
His favorite baseball player is Japan-born Ichiro Suzuki, now 42, who has been one of the best big league hitters in the United States during his career. Seeking a nickname, Xu said he asked coaches years ago if he could be called "Ichiro." They told him that was awkward, so he became "Itchy" instead. Xu said he didn't realize at the time that itchy is actually an English word.
He pronounces his family name "Shoo" and his given name "Gwee-YOO-On." The Americanized version of his nickname is "Itchy Shoe."
Xu told the story about his nickname during dinner with a fellow player and coach at a Chipotle restaurant in a Sarasota strip mall after practice one night.
The three are all in their 20s and their conversation reflected their age group. They spoke about the Orioles' minor league teams, the unusual taste of Vanilla Coke and their favorite television program, the zombie horror show "The Walking Dead."
"We love 'The Walking Dead,'" said Jackson Zhuo, a coach at one of the China academies who is in Sarasota polishing his skills.
Zhuo acknowledges that there is pressure on Xu to succeed, but said the player is persistent and strong-willed.
"He can handle it," Zhuo said. "He has a dream."
Simon Huang, a China-based MLB scout and business manager, said Xu was known for shattering bats in China, the result of spending hours at a time hitting. Xu said he simply wore out dozens of bats — and also broke some in frustration because he is a perfectionist.
Xu said through an interpreter that while it's a "great honor" to be an Orioles prospect, he feels the weight of representing his nation and the Chinese players he trained with. He is being followed by an American documentary film crew, and two Chinese television networks have scheduled interviews.
"Maybe he makes the big leagues," Duquette said. "If he doesn't make the big leagues, he's going to have this great knowledge and great skill that he'll be able to pass on to the next generation."
The club says Xu is a fundamentally good hitter but must prove he can connect with an American fastball and develop his defensive skills.
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.
MLB said it is encouraged by the progress made at its centers but that the sport's development in China is in its infancy.
"Baseball itself has sort of a spotted history really going back about 100 years in China but with some pretty significant interruptions," said Chris Park, the league's senior vice president of growth, strategy and international development. "So I think the state of affairs right now is that we have a pretty quickly growing base of youth participation. But it is still at a small scale."
Developing a Chinese major league player "would have a tremendous impact for the sport," said Jonathan Jensen, a consultant and assistant professor in sports management at the Girard School of Business at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.
It would promote baseball not only within mainland China, he said, "but provide a huge boost to the World Baseball Classic and the sport's standing within the Olympics, which it's not currently a part of."
The Olympics visit Asia in 2018 (South Korea), 2020 (Japan) and 2022 (Beijing) "and is hugely dependent on Asia-based corporations for sponsorship, so this is a huge opportunity," Jensen said.
This season for the first time, major league games will be available nationally via livestreaming on China's Le Sports network instead of just on a patchwork of regional outlets.
Among the game's new fans is Xu's father, who has been educating himself on the rules.
"How to play — he knows this now," Xu said excitedly. "When he saw the TV has baseball, he's like, 'Oh, baseball. Baseball!'"