As an athlete (or at least having been an athlete in past) and a sports fan, one of difficult things about finding myself on an extended stay in Shanghai, China (setting up sporting goods manufacturing and other business contacts) is near isolation from most American sports. Although basketball, over past ten or so years, has become popular among Chinese people, baseball has yet to find its way into sports culture here. While at every school or playground it's likely you'll find some kid aspiring to become next Yao Ming, mention term "baseball" to most Chinese, even ones who speak pretty good English, and you'll likely find yourself having to search through a phrasebook to find Chinese phrase for baseball: "bangqiu" (pronounced bong chi-o).
I had heard from some of expatriates living in Shanghai that there was some sort of baseball team playing in city, so I did some Google searches to see whether I could find information about team. I found a few articles on Internet about Shanghai Eagles' spring trip to U.S. to compete against junior college teams. The game summaries, published by news people at a few of U.S. schools against which Eagles played, described a team that had decent pitching, but not much hitting. As can happen with that kind of team chemistry, Shanghai club lost all seven of its exhibition games in U.S.
I didn't expect much when I went to watch team play, but I was excited to actually see a baseball field again, having been in China for awhile, and I wanted to experience baseball environment here. A Chinese friend of mine hunted down information about where Shanghai Eagles played and at what time, so I took my wife out for a Friday afternoon at baseball field.
The old ball game didn't have any peanuts or Cracker-Jacks, or hot dogs, or drinks, or very many spectators. There was a mascot dressed in a chicken suit, and, although we had to search behind some buildings to find it, surprisingly field looked pretty standard. There was a total of probably fifty people in attendance when game began. People came and went as game progressed. Something that struck me was feeling that many there were obviously hard-core baseball fans, kind you would expect to find catching foul balls at a MLB park. After quickly being spotted as one of only white guys in attendance, I was approached by Dan Washburn, a news consultant doing a story for Baseball America. During my conversation with him, he told me that he met some older Chinese men at one of games he'd attended. He mentioned that when he asked them what brought them out to event, they told him they played ball when they were much younger, being forced to leave game behind when Mao Zedong did away with American influence during Cultural Revolution. As for group of boisterous, college-aged enthusiasts, I was told that a group of them attended local baseball college, and they were being trained to later become professionals. (In China, many children who express a particular athletic skill are guided down a specialized path devoted largely to ultimate fulfillment of their athletic capabilities.) There were some younger T-ball aged kids at game who were introduced to me by uncle of one of boys. He wanted them to practice English with me and my wife, and later two boys asked me to play catch with them using homemade-looking, well-used baseball one of boys brought to game.
The area we used to play catch was same grass area outside stadium used by professional teams to warm up their bullpen pitchers. I used opportunity to get a feel for how well a professional pitcher in China throws. The one I saw was probably throwing in high-70's to low 80's. I watched him throw curve balls with some good movement and change ups as well. His control was comparable to an average to good college pitcher.
The particular game we watched went into extra innings as Eagles dropped a large lead late in game. Being distracted by people attempting to practice English during tenth and eleventh innings, it wasn't until twelfth that I noticed a strange twist to baseball as Chinese play it. Probably for sake of ending game as soon as possible, they allow both teams to start extra innings with a runner on second base. One problem I saw with this approach is that it made game boring, as apparent lack of confidence in hitting on part of both teams turned extra innings into a bunt-fest. Finally Tianjin broke open and went on to win 9-5 in 12 innings.
During game, I met some college baseball players who had become interested in baseball when they came to college. They don't attend designated baseball college, so their educational involvement baseball is only extra-curricular. They invited me to play with them, and I have participated in some of their practices and scrimmages.