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THE HOT CORNER: Asia's future field of dreams

by Jim Allen (Jan 27, 2011)

Take 13-year-old Chinese baseball players, provide good education, good nutrition and top-flight coaching and what do you get?

If Major League Baseball's wildest dreams come true, the result would be a supply of playing talent and an important foothold in China's expanding economy.

Fifteen months ago, MLB opened its first development center in booming Jiangsu Province. Jim Small, MLB's vice president for Asia, said it's the crown jewel of their effort in China.

"We brought in a bunch of 13-year-old kids who were good baseball players," Small told The Hot Corner last week. "I went back and saw those kids last November. I could not believe these were the same kids. They were bigger, stronger, much better baseball players.

"We have metrics on how much faster their running is, their bat speed is. All of those things have increased exponentially [since 2009]. But what's really special was that it was our first class. We brought in a new class in September 2010."

The initial group was limited to youngsters from the area surrounding the city of Wuxi. The most recent newcomers were from all over.

"We've got kids from Beijing, we've got kids from [Inner] Mongolia, Tibet. We have kids from all over the country in the second class. They came in better than the first class," Small said.

The plan is to turn out quality ballplayers who are well educated and speak English, with the best players going on to pro jobs in the States.

"What's different about our program and what's the current baseball situation in China--there are baseball schools there--our kids go to school from 8 [a.m.] to 3 [p.m.]. Their kids play baseball 8 to 3 every day," Small said. "You don't need to play baseball that much to be good.

"Studying is No. 1. We call these kids student athletes. The reason why we're like that is that the parents won't give us their kids if it's not like this."

If the program works to perfection for an individual child, MLB gets a prospect and the possibility of marketing a Chinese national hero.

But what if a player isn't that good?

"[If] we don't get a kid that's ready to go into the minor leagues," Small said, "we will be turning into the college system in China these amazing baseball players that are going to come back and do one of two things. Either they're going to continue to play in college or they're going to play in the professional league there or the national team or be a coach.

"Or, they go to a good college and five years after they graduate they're the brand manager of Coca-Cola, we go to him and say, 'Hey, how about a sponsorship deal?' [He says,] 'Yes, I'm a baseball guy. Let's go.' There are so many benefits for us in the long run."

If there are so many potential benefits, one has to wonder what kind of investment Japan's pro establishment is making.

For the most part, Japan is sitting and watching. Nippon Professional Baseball's commissioner's office has no involvement, while three NPB teams currently have ties with China Baseball League clubs.

For several years, the Chiba Lotte Marines have worked with the Wuxi-based China Hope Stars.

"We have been dispatching coaches to help player development," Yasuhiro Enoki, a Marines public relations official, said Tuesday. "However, top management is now considering how to expand our relationship."

The Hiroshima Carp exchange information with the Guangdong Leopards, while the Yokohama BayStars have signed a few Tianjin Lions players to developmental contracts and are expecting to sign more this year. Two teams that have been involved in China in the past, the Yomiuri Giants and Chunichi Dragons, are now on the sidelines with most other NPB clubs, while MLB is expanding its horizons.

"We're looking at opening a second development center," Small said. "The [Chinese] government is all over this. They love [it that] a prestigious international company like ours is being involved in their schools."

Considering China's proximity and the potential size of its market, one would think Japanese baseball would be champing at the bit to stake out its future there, to build its brand.

But it isn't happening.


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