Mariners Sign Chinese Pitcher

By Susan Wade

SEATTLE-Chao Wang had spent several weeks in Peoria, Ariz., this spring at the Mariners spring-training complex, part of a baseball/cultural exchange program. But the 6-foot-4, 160-pound righthander from Beijing, who turned 16 on March 25, officially became a member of the Mariners organization on Tuesday.

Wang was presented with a personalized uniform jersey bearing the number 66, a lucky number in China. However, the Mariners concentrated more on 88, the velocity of his fastball.

Wang threw 30 fastballs and changeups at Safeco Field the day after he signed for an undisclosed bonus, with an audience including general manager Pat Gillick, vice-president of baseball operations Lee Pelekoudas, and Seattle pitching coach Bryan Price. What Price saw impressed him.

“He’s got athleticism, he’s got size and he’s got arm strength,” Price told The Seattle Times. “It’s really encouraging to get a young kid like that. You can have influence. We’re going to look after him and take care of him.”

Wang’s listed age has rasied eyebrows. Also, it was reported that China’s baseball association called the Mariners’ conduct unethical in the way the team signed him. However, Ted Heid, the Mariners’ director of Pacific Rim operations, said the Mariners “went through every hoop there possibly was” to make sure the signing met Major League Baseball regulations.

Heid said the Mariners have had their eye on the Lucheng Baseball School student since Wang was 13, but had to wait until Wang was 16 1/2 years old to tender an offer. The club had established a working agreement with the academy and in October will send a pitching coach and a hitting coach to China to help its baseball contingent prepare for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Wang’s parents took an active role in the transaction, along with the academy, where the young pitcher has honed his skills for the last year or so. That, Heid suggested, should quiet any rumblings from the Chinese baseball governing body. A Chinese baseball executive had threatened to keep Wang from coming to the United States to play.

“We were very confused by the allegation,” Heid said, adding that the Mariners haven’t had any contact with that agency since receiving permission from Beijing for Wang to be released from the Lucheng academy.

For his part, Wang said he “felt good” in his short workout. “The environment here is much better than in China,” he said through an interpreter after his pitching exhibition at Safeco Field. Wang’s father, Changlin Wang, has been an Athletic Trainer for 20 years, including 11 years as the China National Judo Team trainer. He was on the Chinese Olympic Team training staff in 1992 and 2000 and played third base at the Lucheng Baseball School as a youth. Mother Lichun Zhao has 15 years of international fastpitch softball experience as a center fielder for China.

Wang was assigned to the Rookie-level Arizona League, but will not make his debut until instructional league play this fall. In the meantime, he will work out with the club’s extended spring program.

Roger Jongewaard, Seattle’s vice-president of scouting and player development, said, “Chao is the first player signed out of China, but we think he may be the first of many as China continues to expand its baseball program.”

Heid added, “I honestly can’t say he’s the very best baseball player in China, but in my opinion, he has the tools that will make him successful.”

He added, “It shows the commitment from our ownership to find major league talent wherever it takes us. International scouting is not an inexpensive venture.”

Wang, the first Chinese player the Mariners have scouted and signed, entered the Fentai Baseball School in Beijing at the age of seven. He spent seven years there before entering the Lucheng Baseball School. Wang was a member of China’s national team at the world 12-and-under championships in Japan in 1997.

Susan Wade writes for the Seattle Times