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China to take a swing at first league
Updated: 2002-04-18 11:29

China is nearing first base in its bid to bring big-league baseball to a nation where most sports fans do not know a shortstop from a backstop, with a pilot league ready to swing into action next week.

The Beijing Tigers will take the field against the Tianjin Lions on the morning of April 26 in Guangzhou in China's first official league game, Chinese Baseball Association spokeswoman Shen Wei said on Wednesday.

"It's going to be a double-header," an enthusiastic Shen told Reuters by telephone. "The Shanghai Eagles play the Guangzhou Lightning that afternoon."

The four state-run clubs hold the best of a small but growing crop of talent on the Chinese mainland, where baseball lags far behind Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in terms of level of play.

Fan base lags even further behind -- there is virtually none.

But hopes that China could become a breeding ground for north America's pastime were raised last August when the Seattle Mariners made pitcher Wang Chao, then 16, the nation's first player to sign with a Major League Baseball organisation.

There would be other pitchers with Major League potential on the mound in league contests, promised Shen. "Definitely."


An American marketing outfit is helping Chinese baseball authorities to launch the league, which is currently non-professional, said Shen.

Their first season is set to last only one month, as China's players hang up their cleats in late spring.

The teams will tour their four hometowns playing a robin-robin format with a prize of $180,000 for China's first champions.

All the games will be televised either nationally or locally but it was too early for the league to even consider team sponsorship or advertising at stadiums, said Shen.

"If the level of play still stands at the level it does now, then I'm afraid that to talk about turning professional is nonsense," said Shen.

She said the league would focus on honing skill levels in its debut season.

"We like the look of the market but that doesn't mean to say we can turn professional just by publicising it for a couple of years," she said.


Baseball was first played on Chinese soil a century ago and became an official sport at the national games in 1959. China's woman's softballers are perennial world championship contenders.

But while there are now more than 50 baseball training schools nationwide, the country is still sorely lacking in qualified coaches and players. Hitting and fielding are said to be particular weaknesses.

Each team in the new league could keep three foreign players on their roster, said Shen.

The new league is part of China's larger drive to beef up its sporting arsenal ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and open new markets as a new member of the World Trade Organisation, the baseball association said in a press release on Monday.

State media said the national team aimed to make the quarter-finals at the 2004 Athens Olympics and place in the top six at the 2008 Games.

Shen said China would be able to challenge its big-hitting East Asian rivals in due time.

"We can definitely surpass them in the future," said Shen.

"We have the physique for baseball...and Chinese people are very smart," she said. "To play baseball, you have to have wisdom."

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