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China's Baseball Grows from Obscurity
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As Wang Wei stepped on the field on the 2006 China Baseball League (CBL) All-Star Game over the weekend, little excitement came from the stands.

The spectators remained nonchalant during most of the game although Wang played fairly well - he was the first to run home for the northwest conference team, which tied with southeast conference 9-9 in a seesaw seven-inning match held in Wuxi of East China's Jiangsu Province.

Many of them left almost half an hour before the end of the three-hour show that gathered China's best baseball players.

It wouldn't be fair to blame the spectators, who mostly were watching the first baseball game of their lives. Even for the most loyal Chinese sports fans, Wang is an unfamiliar name, although the 28-year-old catcher from Beijing has an A-plus resume: He is a core member of the three-time national league champions Beijing Tigers with a possible fourth straight league title in sight, and he has been a consistent member of the national team in the past few years.

On March 3, he delivered a two-run homerun, the first of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in an Asian zone round match against eventual winner Japan in Tokyo.

Any equal achievement in other popular sports would easily establish Wang as a household name in China, but like his team-mates, Wang has been playing in obscurity for years.

Wang is a perfect example to identify recent baseball development in China - steady and fast, but mostly unrecognized.

The development has attracted huge attention outside the country, as Team China has played some memorable matches internationally including a World Cup journey to the Netherlands and a historic bronze medal from the Asian Championships in Japan last year.

But the achievements went largely unnoticed in China, a country where table tennis and badminton are revered as national pastimes.

"Baseball is still an unpopular sport in China," said Wang.

"But the sport is enjoying a rapid development in the past few years. If we continue to make efforts, things will change, especially in 2008."

Many, like Wang, believe Chinese baseball will gain popularity thanks to the Beijing 2008 Games.

The Chinese sporting officials are expecting a best-ever show on home soil, where they hope their athletes can do better in events they traditionally don't excel in. That leads to sustainable investment into those unpopular sports and baseball is one of the beneficiaries.

"I am expecting a breakthrough for baseball in 2008," said Hu Jianguo, head of Chinese Baseball Association (CBA).

Aiming for 2008

Hu is a firm believer that China will become the next baseball powerhouse and has a medal chance at the 2008 Games if the players work hard enough.

"We are aiming for an exceptional result in 2008 and that needs exceptional efforts from us," he said.

That same confidence is also prevailing among players, who believe they are coming closer to the world's best.

"We are not afraid of any team in the world right now," said Wang. "I think we have caught their level in some aspects but we are lack of consistent play."

China has dramatically raised its participation in international competitions last year after CBA invited two former Major League All-Stars, the Dodgers' Jim Lefevbre and the Red Sox's Bruce Hurst, to be the head coach and pitching coach of the national team.

In May, China beat traditional power South Korea for the first time in the bronze medal match in Asian Championships and won a berth for the World Cup. They continued their good form in Cup tournament in August, finishing ninth in the 18-team event and scoring nine runs against powerhouse Cuba, the eventual winner.

During the World Baseball Classic in March, China did not qualify from the Asian zone after hasty defeats to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but their matches were not short of highlights like Wang's homerun while playing against the best in the world.

"China is a 'sleeping giant' in the baseball world," said John Ostermeyer, member of executive committee of International Baseball Federation who traveled to Wuxi to watch the All-Star Game.

"You need 'exposure' and to play internationally."

Team China will have strenuous training in Japan and the US after this season and is expecting a breakthrough in Asian Games in December in Doha.

"We are learning from our Asian neighbors," said Shen Wei, secretary-general of CBA. "If they can do it, there is no reason that we can not."

Big plan for league

Hu said the 2008 Games is not the ultimate goal and he has bigger plan for CBL after the Games.

"We are trying to work for a more professional league," he said.

"I hope the players will raise their level as much as possible and a bigger fan base will be developed up to 2008."

Hu is already planning on added two more teams to the league before 2008, bring the total teams to eight. He also promised to prolong the regular season, which has been already cut short due to the training and competition schedule of national team.

"A real professional league, that's what we are looking for," he said.

(China Daily May 25, 2006)

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