FUKUOKA, Japan—It was the World Baseball Classic version of the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals.
In one dugout was the Cuban national team, with the star power of Jose Abreu, Alfredo Despaigne and Yulieski Gourriel that makes Cuba one of the tournament’s most dangerous offenses and has scouts dreaming of what they might do in the middle of a major league lineup.
In the other dugout, China, whose there-hole hitter, second baseman Lei Li, weighs 140 pounds. Lefthander Xin Li, the Chinese starting pitcher, parked his fastball at 78-83 mph. Ray Chang, a 29-year-old third baseman who hit .241/.304/.271 in 89 games for Minnesota’s Triple-A Rochester club last year, is their ringer, playing shortstop and batting cleanup.
So it was no surprise when Cuba stampeded its way over China in a 12-0 drubbing that was called after seven innings due to the mercy rule, with an Abreu grand slam delivering the knockout blow to an overmatched Chinese team.
The game even had the shenanigans of a game between the Globetrotters and the Generals. In the second inning, Fujia Chu had second base stolen after a pitch got past Cuban catcher Eriel Sanchez. Yet despite the Spanish-to-Chinese language barrier, the Cuban infielders gesticulated to Chu that it was a foul ball, so Chu started walking back to first base. Once Chu was caught between second and first, Cuban second baseman Jose Fernandez tagged him out.
Depending on your perspective, it was either a savvy play by the Cuban team or a cheap trick by the heavy favorites.
“He told me one of the Cuban infielders told him it was a foul ball, so he just turned around and went back to first base,” China manager John McLaren said. “It’s a lesson learned. The umpire’s got to tell you. I’m not going to comment any further.”
Two innings later, Erisbel Arruebarruena led off the inning with a bunt and took second on Li’s throwing error. Arruebarruena stepped on Chu’s foot at first base, so China wanted to appeal the play in case Arrubarruena missed the base.
Only one problem: Li didn’t know how to go through the appeal process. The second base umpire tried to help the confused pitcher. Then the Chinese team brought out the translator to tell Li how to come to the set position on the rubber, step off and then throw to first base. At last, Li executed the appeal to first base.
One more problem: With all of Li’s attention focused on how to properly conduct the appeal, Arruebarruena swiped third base easily while Li threw to first base, where the umpire ruled that Arrubarruena had indeed touched first base. All that was missing was the public address system blasting “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Again, depending on your point of view, it was either a heads up play by Arrubarruena or an unnecessary attempt to take advantage of an overmatched team and an inexperienced pitcher. Ultimately Arrubarruena’s maneuver proved inconsequential, as two batters later Alexei Bell homered to left field to give Cuba a 4-0 lead, but the situations offered both learning experiences for the Chinese players and a glimpse into how nascent baseball still is at even the national team level in China.
But believe it or not, scouts say baseball in China is getting better. No, none of the 30 scouts in Fukuoka are here to bear down on China. There isn’t much to see on the Chinese team from a major league scouting perspective, with numbers north of 40 on the 20-80 scale not in play, low-80s fastballs the norm and players limited in physical stature. Only one Chinese player weighs 200 pounds or more.
Yet scouts who have watched the Chinese team over the last decade see signs of growth. Compared to the United States, the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, the athleticism of the players in China is still well below average and the body types aren’t as projectable, but scouts say the players here now are more athletic than previous versions of the Chinese national team.
The most notable improvement may be in the field. If the pitchers threw strikes and put the ball in play, the fielders could make the routine plays. There weren’t any acrobatic catches, but the Chinese fielders knew how to position themselves in different situations with the ball in play and showed game awareness that made an impression on scouts who have seen the evolution of Chinese baseball.
“They’re able to make routine plays, hit a cutoff man and they’re able to hang in there because their fundamentals have gotten better,” said one scout. “Ten years ago, you didn’t see that. You see a guy with a 40 arm, but he’s hitting the cutoff man. That’s a lot better than where they were 10 years ago. When are they going to have a major league prospect? They needed to get to this step first.”
They kept their first game against Japan to a 5-2 loss in a game scouts were expecting to also end in a mercy rule, a sign of concern for the Japanese team and evidence that Chinese baseball is becoming more competitive.
The next step for China is to be able to recruit better athletes to the sport. Baseball doesn’t get the caliber of Chinese athletes that participate in track or play volleyball. There are Chinese table tennis players with more athleticism, hand-eye coordination and even size than the best Chinese baseball players. Right now, there just isn’t the youth league infrastructure or baseball culture in China to draw the country’s best athletes and develop them from a young age.
“When you have a country with a billion people, I’m sure you can find bigger guys,” said the scout. “Right now, they’re limited to the guys who play baseball. Eventually they can get guys with better bodies and more athleticism. There’s a billion people there, so there’s a market to tap. Once they build, they have to spread the baseball word to expand it to more people. The more they play in these types of tournaments, the more it helps. It’s a slow process, but I think MLB is doing a good job, and the WBC helps for the people in China to see them playing against major leaguers. Do they have a chance to win? No, but that takes time.”
China has one more chance to come away with a victory in the WBC, and it’s a game the team has targeted as its most important since before the tournament began. When China plays 0-2 Brazil on Tuesday, the winner won’t have to go through a qualifier to play in the 2017 WBC, which makes it a pivotal game for the future of baseball in both countries.
For China to start producing major league prospects, however, might take another 10 years. Or it could take 20 years. Or it might never become a fruitful source of talent for MLB. It’s certainly not there yet, but progress is being made.
“I’ll be honest with you, the first time we were together as a team, we had trouble playing catch,” said McLaren, a former Mariners manager who has been with the Chinese program since September 2011. “We just started tightening things up on a daily basis. A lot of credit goes to (pitching coach) Bruce Hurst and Wally Joyner, who was here as hitting coach for a year, and (coach) Art Howe. My two Chinese coaches do a great job and I appreciate their efforts.
“It’s a thrill for me to be part of this just to help the Chinese federation get better. It’s very gratifying because being in the game as long as I have, I’m trying to give back, and this is how I’m doing it. I’m proud of these kids.”