SHANGHAI—The China Baseball League celebrated its Opening Day in April, but in Shanghai, the country’s showpiece “international city,” the invitations must have been lost in the mail. As the fledgling pro league’s Shanghai Eagles and Tianjin Lions battled it out in the ironically named Shanghai Sports Palace, a dusty field far northwest of city center, there was more activity at a bustling fish market nearby.
About 75 fans and curious onlookers were scattered throughout the stadium’s 800 or so seats, and they were treated to an exciting game. Shanghai, last in the league in wins and attendance since the CBL launched in 2002, squandered a 4-0 lead in the ninth inning and ended up losing 9-5 in 12 innings. Most of the cheering during the game, however, came from the dugouts.
Attracting fans in a country that knows little about baseball, and cares even less, remains a critical challenge for the CBL, which expanded from four teams to six prior to the 2005 season. China has a baseball history that dates back to the 1800s, but during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s the sport was considered a bourgeois indulgence, and Chairman Mao had it banned. Baseball has never fully recovered.
Seeing the NBA’s success in China—and no doubt lured by the prospect of hundreds of millions of potential baseball prospects—Major League Baseball is doing its part to help China get back on track in baseball. MLB plans to invest millions of dollars toward the growth of Chinese baseball in the years leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, making China the league’s top development priority worldwide. Inviting China to participate in the World Baseball Classic is another step in the process.
The Chinese national team, made up of CBL players, participated in instructional league in Arizona last fall under the tutelage of ex-big leaguers Jim Lefebvre and Bruce Hurst, the same duo that coached the team in the Asian Championships last year. In 2006, China is expected to field a team in the Arizona Fall League.
Several CBL teams traveled internationally to play this spring—the Shanghai Eagles played against college teams in California—and the national team once again trained with Lefebvre in Arizona. The Rockies invited three Chinese players to participate in spring training. They returned to China just before the start of the CBL season.
League founder Tom McCarthy said while these developments might not show up in attendance figures this season, they are paying dividends on the field—and that’s what is important for a proud country that doesn’t want to be embarrassed on the diamond.
“To have come from where we were in 2002, it’s been quantum leaps,” McCarthy said. “The level of play overall is much better. We still need our top players to be more challenged, so we need more of our middle-of-the-road players to step forward, particularly from a pitching standpoint.”
McCarthy spent Opening Day in Chengdu, capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, where the Sichuan Dragons made their league debut by losing to the Guangdong Leopards, 6-1. More than 1,000 people filled the stands for a grand Friday morning ceremony, but at least half were local students whose attendance was mandatory. For the game the following day, attendance was closer to 200—and security guards wrested foul balls from the hands of bewildered spectators. Not exactly the way to win over fans still trying to figure out what baseball is all about.
“The first time I got to know about baseball was in a Japanese cartoon,” a teenage girl named Lei Wei Jun said from the stands. “I don’t quite understand the game. I can tell who is offense and who is defense, though. I touched a real bat yesterday. It was exciting. I know baseball bats are used a lot in gang fighting.”
An old man seated nearby said he understood baseball just fine: “It’s easy. The team that hits the ball further wins. The team that doesn’t hit the ball loses.”
Dan Washburn is a freelance writer based in Shanghai. With reporting by Bo Feng in Chengdu.