Baseball tradition cultivated in China
Pointing toward Classic, national team slowly becoming competitive
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
China's Wang Wei (right) hit the first home run in World Baseball Classic history. (AP)
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For the Chinese, the 2009 World Baseball Classic is the third phase of their growth as a baseball-playing nation.
With the aid of Major League Baseball, China started from scratch before the 2006 Classic with an eye toward at least being competitive last summer when Beijing hosted the Olympics.
The Chinese then defeated rival Chinese Taipei in one of the most exciting games of an Olympic baseball tournament won by South Korea.
"One of the reasons they've been able to be successful is that we gave them opportunities over the last couple of years to come play in the States either during extended Spring Training or the Arizona Fall League," said Ed Burns, MLB's vice president of baseball operations and administration, who oversees the Chinese ballclub that will play in the Classic next year. "That got them some game competition, which is high-level competition.
"In that they had been lacking, and it helped them build their skills."
China is one of 16 nations that will take part in the 19-day tournament next March 5-23, scheduled to be staged in Japan, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Canada and three U.S. sites with the finals on March 23 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
As in 2006, the field also includes Australia, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, South Africa, the U.S., and Venezuela.
The Chinese are scheduled to open the tournament against defending champion Japan on March 5 at Tokyo Dome. In 2006, the Chinese were a washout in the Asian bracket as they lost all three of their games by a combined score of 40-6. Between the Classic and the Olympics they have a 1-9 record: 0-3 in the Classic and 1-6 in the Olympics.
But they were certainly more competitive in the Olympics than their record might reveal. Aside from the win over Chinese Taipei, the Chinese went into the bottom of the ninth with runners on base before losing to the Netherlands by a pair of runs, and they lost to eventual gold medal-winning South Korea, 1-0, in 11 innings.
"For a country without a baseball tradition, they acquitted themselves quite nicely," Burns said.
Officially, no roster spots have been filled. The Chinese are not expected to make it out of the first round again this time, but stranger things have happened. No one figured that they would ever bring back baseball, a sport that was banned in the country during the cultural revolution of the 1960s. But their first professional baseball league was started with four state-supported teams in 2003 and this year, the winner -- the Tianjin Lions -- for the first time represented China in the recent Asian Series, which was won by Japan's Seibu Lions.
Former Major Leaguer Jim Lefebvre managed the Chinese national team through its formative years, but he's gone now, having left for the position of hitting coach with the San Diego Padres.
Burns is now seeking to fill that spot and is talking to former A's hurler Steve Ontiveros about returning as pitching coach.
"Ontiveros was able to get on the mound and really demonstrate stuff to them," Burns said. "He taught some guys some new pitches and about some training techniques. I think their success in the Olympics, pitching was a real key to it."
The manager probably will be another former Major Leaguer, Burns said.
Growth by any account can be measured by how many players Major League teams sign from a particular country. And now there are four from China. The Yankees have two: catcher Zhang Zhenwang and left-handed reliever Liu Kai. The Mariners have the others: catcher Wang Wei and first baseman Yu Bing Jia.
Wei will forever hold a distinction in the annals of the Classic.
"He hit the first home run in World Baseball Classic history," Burns said. "The first game played was China-Japan in 2006, and he got them on the board with a home run."
During the Olympics, Wei was injured in a plate collision and might not be available for China's World Baseball Classic entry. The other three should be on the team.
Another training program, to be held in Florida or Arizona, is being established for China in February.
Then it will be on to phase four of their development -- building up from the foundation that's already set.
"We're trying to increase the visibility of baseball in China both within the public and even their own sports ministry," Burns said. "We want to make sure that the government pays adequate attention to the development of baseball as a potential sport in their country. The fact that they were able to have even some modest success in the Olympics really helps in that effort."