25 February 2013

2013 World Baseball Classic: China

This is the sixth in a series to introduce everyone to teams participating in 2013's World Baseball Classic.  As this series progress, you will find all of the articles under this key world: 2013 World Baseball Classic.  Previously, we reviewed Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the USA.

The body of the China article was written by Chris Lindsay.

IBAF Ranking (out of 74)                  18th
2013 Pool                                            Japan
2013 Players of Note                          Ray Chang, 3B
                                                            Jiangang Lu, SP
                                                            Kun Chen, RP
                                                            Wei Wang, C

2009 Record                                       1-2, Round 1

2006 Record                                       0-3, Round 1

China's rapid economic growth since 1980 has turned it into a major player in just about every field. This has certainly held true for sport, but baseball in China, although growing, is still in its infancy. China's economic power and enormous population give it great potential, but baseball there lags far behind sports such as badminton, ping pong, and basketball.

China's baseball history actually dates back to the nineteenth century, when a group of Chinese students studying at Yale University formed a team, and upon their return to China introduced the game to their home country. The game also was spread in many provinces by American missionaries. In fact, the only major league player to have been born in China is Harry Kingman, the son of one of these missionaries, who was born in Tientsin in 1892 and played four games for the Yankees during the 1914 season. Baseball continued to be played in the country during the first half of the twentieth century, and enjoyed considerable popularity within the People's Liberation Army. 

However, in 1965 the government banned the sport, as it was seen as an American game not in keeping with communist and Chinese values. (Conversely, basketball, although clearly American in origin, was not subjected to such a ban, and is now a huge sport in China, with an estimated 300 million Chinese playing basketball, compared to 4 million playing baseball.) In 1974 with the relaxing of restrictions following the Cultural Revolution, baseball in China was again permitted. Since that time, it has been slowly expanding, with the formation of school and amateur teams.

In the leadup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government aggressively developed athletics of all sorts, with a view to winning international prestige by an impressive showing at the Games. Baseball benefited from this drive, with the building of new stadiums and increased media attention. (However, the Wukesong baseball stadium built for the Olympics was always envisioned as a temporary stadium and was demolished after the Games.)

International Competition

For political reasons, the Chinese national team have always been considered rivals of Taiwan (or Chinese Taipei, if you prefer). Generally, however, the baseball rivalry between Taiwan and China has resembled a baseball rivalry between a minor league team and a little league team. With a well-established baseball culture, Taiwan has historically been dominant in these contests.

The Chinese team has competed internationally in the Asian Baseball Championship since 1985. This tournament is held every other year between the top national teams in Asia and not surprisingly has historically been dominated by Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. China's best performance to date came in 2005, when they finished third. 

In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, China competed in Pool A with Japan, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei. The Chinese team was soundly defeated by all three opponents, with two of the games ending early due to the mercy rule. They were outscored by a total of 40-6 and committed eight errors. 

Beijing hosted the final Olympic baseball tournament in 2008, allowing the Chinese team to compete in the tournament under the Olympic host's automatic qualification. The Chinese team's performance overall was not impressive, as they lost six of their seven games and were outscored 60-14. However, the other game was psychologically important for China, as they succeeded in defeating Chinese Taipei 5-4 in 12 innings.

In the 2009 World Baseball Classic, China seemed to show some marked improvement from 2006. Most impressively, they were able to repeat their Olympic feat and defeat Chinese Taipei 4-1, and although they lost 14-0 to South Korea, they lost to Japan by a more respectable score of 4-0. This represented a combined score of 22-4, with only four errors. Of course these numbers are all in small samples, but nevertheless they represent the kind of rapid improvement that China has demonstrated in many fields of endeavor. 

The China Baseball League

In 2002, a professional baseball league, the China Baseball League, was established with the participation of foreign businessmen. Consisting initially of four teams playing a one-month season, the league has since expanded to seven teams and the playing season has been lengthened.  Each team may include up to three foreign players.

Major League Baseball has been working hard to try to build up the game in China. MLB now runs two baseball academies in the country and has a program to introduce baseball into the athletic programs of 120 elementary schools. Several teams have signed contracts with Chinese players, but no Chinese player has yet reached the majors. Commentators have expressed the hope that China will sometime produce a baseball Yao Ming who can achieve prominence abroad and thereby build the popularity of the sport at home. But judging from the small numbers of Chinese who have made it into the minor leagues, it may be a while.

Nippon Professional Baseball has also been very active; it has partnered with the China Baseball League, each team in the CBL being assigned an NPB team as a sponsor. Under this arrangement, Japanese players may play in China, and Chinese teams may be able to train at Japanese facilities. It seems conceivable that this could at some point develop into a more formalised farm arrangement, with Chinese players being regularly recruited for NPB teams. 

Current Players and Outlook

Since there are no Chinese-born major league players and very few minor leaguers, the Chinese WBC team is pretty much composed of unknowns. In fact, even people who closely followed the 2009 squad would be unfamiliar with this year's roster, as only seven of the 2009 players are returning this year. However, there are a couple exceptions.

Former Oriole and current Royal Bruce Chen, a Panamanian of Chinese descent, was expected to play for China following Panama's failure to qualify, but has withdrawn in order to concentrate on spring training.

Ray Chang, a 29-year-old Chinese-American third baseman now in the Reds' organization, played last year at AAA Rochester, batting an unimpressive .241/.304/.271. Chang was China's best batter in the 2009 WBC, when he was 5 for 11 with the team's only home run.

Another returning player is Jiangang Lu, 34, a starter for the Tianjin Lions who recorded China's lone victory in the 2009 WBC by pitching 5.1 innings of one-run ball. Reliever Kun Chen, 32, recorded the save in the same game.

Catcher Wei Wang, 34, who played in 2006 but not 2009, hit the first home run of the World Baseball Classic against Japan.

China is slated to compete with Japan, Cuba, and Brazil. It's tough to imagine them advancing, and it will be challenging enough for them to win a game this year. Baseball in China certainly benefits from plenty of interest, determined effort, and great potential. International success will have to wait.

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