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On a Wednesday afternoon in May I followed directions given to me to meet team at Shanghai Teacher's University on Guilin Road. The field where team practiced wasn't actually a baseball field. It was a general-purpose field used mainly for soccer and track exercises. I have quickly come to understand that space limitations in Shanghai, similar to most parts of China, make it so that facilities have to double up on their usage. It was amusing to me to watch as we set up for a scrimmage. The areas where right and center field should be was filled with a mix of people, including a few of our people playing those positions, and soccer players who were not in least interested in what we were doing, especially since they were fully engaged in their own game. As fly balls dropped among them, some of soccer players would pick balls up and toss them back, while others would, with a demonstration of irritation, kick them out of way. Fortunately for soccer players, none of them were hit.
Many of baseball players were not so lucky. A healthy fear of hard baseballs traveling at high speeds seems to be second nature for most Americans, as if we are born with an understanding that if a ball is fouled off into someone's face, it's going to hurt like heck at best. Although most of them didn't understand what I was saying, I attempted many times to tell those watching action to back away from batter and catcher. During one ten-minute interval, I saw three people get hit hard in face or head by baseballs. Throughout whole practice there were constant near-misses as well.
On-deck hitters kept with Chinese custom for preserving one's place in line by crowding behind person in front. That approach is okay for local McDonald's. In fact, if you don't push your way up in line, you will find yourself standing in same place for a long time, with person after person jumping in front of you. However, when person at front of line is swinging a bat, a different set of rules should apply.
During first practice with college players, I was invited to pitch to team as they scrimmaged. It soon became apparent that there were various skill levels represented at plate. I was reminded of something I saw in Little League (where kids are usually just beginning to learn how to react to balls thrown towards them) when a particularly nervous batter accidentally stepped in front of plate, opening up towards ball so that it hit him directly in stomach. Fortunately I was only throwing about 70 mph, so no major damage was done, except that player was likely quickly cured of any interest he had in new American sport. After that incident other players warned me when I was pitching to someone who was new, so I could slow it down enough for them to take some solid cuts.
In a country where sport hasn't really caught on yet, it amazes me that these players respond so well to difficulties of learning baseball. It is obvious that many of these people, girls and guys alike, have developed a love and even a passion for game. Before their season started in June, they practiced on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Most practice sessions last five hours or longer. During time I have participated with them, I have seen their skills improve, with arm strength increasing and fielding and batting capabilities doing same.
So when Olympics come to Beijing in 2008, what can we expect from Chinese team? Will it be somewhat of an embarrassment, like Greek team's performance in 2004? Or will home team have a chance to compete? My personal opinion is that competition level doesn't exist in China now for national team to compete with likes of Japan, Taiwan, U.S., or Cuba. However, if they can get enough exposure by playing outside of China, they might just pull off a medal. As for long-term outlook on baseball in China, comments made by someone who has more experience with system, as an investor and active baseball supporter in China, give a pretty good take on subject. When I mentioned to him that I was considering opening a baseball retail store or batting cage in Shanghai, one of founders of CBL told me that it wouldn't be a bad idea if I didn't mind starving for a couple of years. A few years from now however, he said, a much different scenario is likely to exist, with baseball possibly becoming what it is in Taiwan.
[This article, written by Richard Robbins, was originally published online at http://www.robbinssports.com/articles.]
Richard Robbins is a former athlete and a sports entrepreneur. He is an owner of RobbinsSports.com, an online sporting goods retail store and Robbins International, an importing and exporting company specializing in supplying products from China to U.S. companies.