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Baseball: Season Begins with New Format
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Two conferences based on geography highlighted the kick-off of the new China Baseball League season on Friday in Wuxi of East China's Jiangsu Province.

The Northwest Conference will consist of the Beijing Tigers, the Tianjin Lions and the Sichuan Dragons. The Southeast Conference will be made up of the Shanghai Eagles, the Guangdong Leopards and Hopestars.

At the end of the regular season, the top teams in each conference will play second-placed teams of the other conference in a best-of-five series, with the winners advancing to a best-of-five championship series.

Under the original format, the top two teams in the six-team league advanced to a best-of-five championship series.

"It is a move to improve the competitiveness of the league," explained Shen Wei, secretary general of the Chinese Baseball Association.

"It will give the relatively weaker teams a bigger chance to enter the championship series."

In all four previous seasons, Beijing and Tianjin have played each other for the championship of the China Baseball League.

The league was inaugurated in 2002, and Tianjin won the first title by edging out Beijing in the final. But the resurgent capital team has beaten Tianjin in the past three championship series.

The dominance of the two teams was so obvious in the past two seasons that they sealed their berths in the championship series with a dozen games remaining in the regular season.

This regular season will consist of 63 games and is scheduled to conclude on July 2.

Association officials said the new move would help them discover more competitive players from the league teams so that they can field the strongest team possible for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

"The level of our national team is ever improving since we introduced the league in 2002," said Hu Jianguo, head of national administrative center for the sport.

(China Daily April 15, 2006)

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