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Baseball touches home-plate in China
(China Daily)
Updated: 2003-08-18 09:00

Wang Xinxin had just spent four hours in Beijing Fengtai Stadium cheering on his favourite team.

He looked exhausted after all his cheering and drum pounding in the cloudless, scorching Beijing morning. The drenched team jersey he wore stuck tightly to his body and his sweat had smudged the paint on his face spelling out the name of his beloved team.

Baseball touches home-plate in China
Baseball touches home-plate in China
"I just love this game," he chanted, reminding those around him of the famous NBA slogan.

But he was not talking about basketball or any other of the sports like football or table tennis enjoying great popularity in China - he is a baseball fan.

For loyal baseball fans like Wang, the Chinese Baseball League's - (the CBL) - pinnacle tournament featuring China's top four teams, which wound up earlier this month, was something they simply couldn't miss.

That's why Wang got up at 6, with barely a moment for breakfast, because he had to catch a bus at 6:45 with his buddies to take the one-and-a-half-hour ride to the stadium to catch the match which started at 9.

What's more, it was the Tianjin Lions, his home team and the defending champions of the league, that were taking on the local Beijing Tigers in a battle for the 2003 season title in the best-of-five championship finals.

"In China, you have many options - you can love table tennis, or football or basketball, but I have to say baseball is my favourite, because it is a very interesting game," Wang enthused.

Wang is just a part of the growing baseball following which has started to emerge with the growing development of the CBL.

The league, which went into its second year with many innovations, such as tripling the length of the league season and introducing the home-and-away format, has attracted an unusually enthusiastic fan base in the country.

The sport, with a century-plus history in China, was normally only found in schools, with many Chinese universities and colleges having their own teams, including prestigious institutions like Tsinghua and Peking universities.

Starting on March 15 this year, the CBL fielded teams in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Guangzhou, four of the major metropolises in China.

Surprisingly, average attendance has been several hundred at every game and actual coverage could be much larger, because half of the 48 regular season games plus the championship finals were aired live on China Central Television and several local TV stations.

Even the SARS epidemic, which brought a halt to sports in China and a more than two-month suspension of the league's schedule, could not cool down the game's growing popularity - fan attendance hit a record high during the finals as thousands of spectators crushed in the stadiums to watch the confrontation between Beijing and Tianjin.

They used every ounce of their energy to support their favourite teams - whistling, holding slogans and pictures aloft and chanting "homerun" at crucial moments of the games.

Great changes

Among them you find not only faithful native fans like Wang, but also foreign devotees whose home nations have professional baseball leagues.

Baseball touches home-plate in China"Before I came to China, I never thought that I would see baseball games like this here," said Japanese Tsuboi Nobuhito, an eager baseball fan.

"The level is higher than my expectations although it is still a long way behind our Japanese baseball league.

"But it's a great atmosphere, and the players are very competitive," he said.

Ever since coming to China five years ago, Nobuhito has been seeking out chances to get involved in his beloved sport, which he first got involved in in primary school.

"During the first few years in China, it was really hard to find out anything about baseball, because media coverage of the sport was so poor," he said. "I had to go to the Internet."

Thanks to his job in a Chinese-based Japanese language magazine, he was able to follow the sport closely in China and witness its sizable growth.

"There have been a lot of changes here, and now I can get involved in baseball much more easily," he said. "It is interesting to watch CBL games and like the Chinese fans, I really enjoy the matches and getting in touch with the players."

David McIntyre, a photo journalist with Stingray International, is another foreigner who unexpectedly discovered the largely-unknown world of baseball in China.

"It's very impressive to watch a baseball league just like in America," he said while waving to his wife and a friend in the stands.

Baseball touches home-plate in China"One day a friend of mine called and said he saw a Chinese baseball game on TV. My wife asked, 'How many spectators are there? Fifty?' and I said more like several hundred. After that she couldn't wait to see a game," McIntyre said.

Indeed, the competitiveness of the league and the fans' passion, especially during the finals, were a total surprise to many people.

The two teams, the top two finishers of the regular season, fought through extra innings in the deciding fifth game before Beijing eventually edged out Tianjin to win the crown, taking the series 3-2.

The quality of the game has been improved through enlisting several internationals, including some from the American Major League.

"I didn't know what to expect before I came here," said Tianjin's American pitcher Lincoln Mikkelsen who moved here from the Chinese Taipei baseball league.

"It was a great series, and an exciting final.

"I am proud to be a part of this game," he said.

The games' intensity delighted the fans so much that many of them refused to leave after the game, shouting the names of their favourite players at the gate of the stadium.

Further promotion

"Check out this crowd, isn't it amazing?" said Shen Wei, general-secretary of the Chinese Baseball Association and the organizer of the league, proudly.

"Maybe many of them do not know much about the sport, but you can see they love to watch it," she said. "Their loyalty and passion really do good for the players and the league."

She and her colleagues have been trying every scheme to promote the league and the sport in China, with the help from their new partner Dynasty Sports Marketing Ltd, a veteran sports promotion firm, whose business also covers the Chinese Basketball League.

And she knows that development of the quality of baseball relies not only on veteran players, but also on the participation of young players. Baseball clinics entitled "Swing For The Wall" were organized during the league season and they attracted 2,600 children this year.

Plans are already under way to double the number of clinics next season and the organizers are going to bring the game to schools with "Swing For The Wall On Wheels," which will include player appearances, clinics and premium giveaways.

And with all of these ambitious plans, Shen says, "Baseball has a promising future in China."

There is a major driving force behind this - the 2008 Olympic Games. The stadium the league uses will be the Olympic venue for baseball five years from now.

Since China, in 2001, won the right to host its first ever Olympic Games, the nation's sports officials have been putting great effort into lifting the level of all sports so that local athletes can deliver a shining Olympic show on their home soil.

Baseball is no exception, as Chinese national team still is not a medal contender in the world as well as in Asia.

"I hope what we do today can lead to the improvement of the Chinese baseball team for the 2008 Olympic Games," Shen said, pointing to a group of youths in the stadium.

"Maybe one of them will compete at that time."

She is looking forward to the CBL's next season and more importantly, to an improvement in China's national team.

"I believe our teams will reach world-class, and I am very upbeat about their performance in the 2008 Olympics."

Others agreed.

"If this kind of improvement occurs year to year leading up to Beijing 2008, we have no doubt that China will field a very competitive team that will be a medal contender," said Tom McCarthy, President of China Operations of Dynasty Sports Marketing Ltd.

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