Sunday, March 16, 2008


Wrote this for another site after going to the first Major League Baseball game in China on Saturday - Dodgers vs Padres.

While it didn’t have the impact of the fabled ping-pong diplomacy that helped China and the United States normalize relations in the early 1970s, the first Major League Baseball game played in the Middle Kingdom on Saturday was notable for several, albeit lesser, reasons.

The debut tilt between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres in 50-degree temperatures under blue skies before a near-sellout crowd of about 12, 200 consisting of perhaps three fourths curious Chinese and one fourth expatriates and tourists was played to a 3-3 tie.

The phrase “kissing your sister” came to mind as the announcer proclaimed: “There will be no extra inning in today’s game” in English and Chinese, though it’s likely virtually none of the Chinese natives understood the sullied implication of a “tied” baseball game.

“No extra innings? That’s outrageous!” yelled one New York City native amid a chorus of scattered boos from similarly outraged purists. On the other hand, recalling a long ago 19-or more innings 2-1 snooze fest between the Colorado Rockies and the Chicago Cubs in Denver years ago, I was somewhat relieved.

The concession supplies were sporadic and limited but you couldn’t beat the prices. Much of the pre-game speculation among expats centered not on the starting lineups but on whether beer and hot dogs would be available. Even foreigners who didn’t know a double play from double vision understood the concept of a relaxed afternoon at an outdoor stadium, beer and foot long with mustard in hand.

Long lines at the concession stands didn’t guarantee a thing, however, as many waited patiently for make-believe hot dogs, hamburgers and Mexican tacos courtesy of a fake Western Beijing restaurant chain only to find nothing but peanuts when they got to the head of the line. “I finally hijacked a supplier,” said my seatmate upon returning with three “tacos” after a 2-inning absence. “Saw the guy toting boxes of these to the food stand and just stood in his way and shouted politely at him until he sold me three.”

Beer was plentiful however and – unlike every MLB stadium in the United States – extremely cheap at about US $1.50 for a 12 oz can vs $6.50 for 8 ounces of low alcohol froth. Some enthusiasts were buying beer by the carton and toting the boxes back to the stands with no apparent ill results.

Security was tight and heavy, but ultimately friendly. As one onlooker, an American named Nick Frisch quipped between explaining arcane concepts such as “RBI,” “bunt,” “sacrifice fly” and “infield fly rule” in Chinese to his polite but uncomprehending female Chinese companion: “We've already gotten used to KFC, Starbucks and McDonald's. Now, maybe the juxtaposition of PLA uniforms and baseball is something we'll get used to as well."

Despite the martial overlay provided by the PLA, the atmosphere inside the field was indistinguishable from a minor league game in the US, except the fans were more polite – applauding and cheering virtually every foul ball - and there were no bizarre promotional concepts like a 2003 “Ted Williams Popsicle Night” (first 500 fans received a free popsicle) sponsored by an Arizona minor league team after the announcement that the late-baseball legend would reportedly be cryogenically frozen in nearby Scottsdale.

Taunting the outfielders – an honorable baseball tradition in the US – was also notably absent, and much love was shown by and for “The Swinging Friar,” the Padres’ portly mascot as well as a clutch of bare-bellied, red and silver spangled pom-pom swinging Chinese cheerleaders.

There was sporadic organ music with the traditional “Charge!” ending supplied by a few knowing fans, and canned music between plays ranged from the Who, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Jerry Lee Lewis and Beatles to hip-hop. The traditional seventh inning stretch rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was, sadly, a non-starter in our 88-yuan ticket section where only five expats rose to belt it out as the rest of the stands looked on bemused and puzzled.

"In general overall the ballpark had a good feel," Padres manager Bud Black told Associated Press. "The between innings entertainment was not unlike what we have in the States." Yes, except in the States you don’t have hostesses with large prop cards explaining the between-innings entertainment to the fans.

While both Dodger manager Joe Torre and Dodgers vice president Dave Winfield had promised “front line players” and “we’re not going to give you a bum roster” at the original January press conference touting MLB’s China debut the reality was different, though few seemed to notice or care.

Padres closer Trevor Hoffman was perhaps the biggest name, though his skills weren’t needed Saturday. Asian faces were few though LA’s Korean pitcher Park Chan-ho lasted 5 innings and LA shortstop Hu Chin Lung, a Taiawn native, received cheers simply for his name every time at bat.

Unlike Japan, Korea and Taiwan, baseball is virtually unknown in China though according to MLB historians an American named William Henry Boone formed the Shanghai Baseball Club in 1863. Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel reportedly played exhibition games in pre-Revolution China and MLB further asserts that baseball was the “unofficial game” of Mao’s troops during civil war, though it was banned and forgotten during the Cultural Revolution.

MLB is hoping to eventually find the same success as the NBA and Yao Ming, though it may be a long march. The reverse is true in the United States. Cricket’s first international game was played in the United States in the 1840s for instance and the silence there since has been deafening. Ditto for major league soccer despite occasional infusions of international talent such as Pele in the 1970s and more recently David Beckham.

So what success can baseball expect in a nation where ping-pong and badminton stars are the norm and playgrounds are packed with children playing soccer and basketball with nary a field of dreams in sight?

There are an estimated 100,000 children’s groups learning the game in China, and a sprinkling were on hand Saturday all in team sweat clothes and uniforms.

“Very good to see it with real players in real life, not on DVD,” said one coach – a Korean named Chung Hyop-cho who lives in Beijing and works for a Chinese youth baseball club, the Horses. “My boys have learned something I hope. Maybe the next Yao Ming of baseball is here today.”

Barring that, a sudden archeological discovery of a Paleolithic ballfield in Xi’an or perhaps terra-cotta catchers and outfielders that prove that China “invented” baseball might be the answer.


Ben said...

We all wondered what happened to Mr. Finch...thought maybe he was playing French Horn for the Phil. Good to see he's still in the game.

And we're glad the Dodgers showed that there is no tie game and had the decency to lose yesterday's.

Matthew said...

I would've liked to see a game in China... anything but basketball. And for the price of beer, I could've been drunk.

I am wondering how many baseball fields they have in China--not a lot of space for them. I think there's a big enough field in Shekou to play. Maybe this summer I'll start up a T-Ball Beer League.

glenzo said...

Hi, its been a while. Where are you living now? I have been to Hua Hin around 8 times.