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Baseball faces its own great wall in China

BEIJING – Minutes after returning from a visit to the Great Wall of China, Trevor Hoffman set out to scale the Great Wall of Chinese indifference to baseball.

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A Chinese solder guarding the National Museum interrupts an interview with a local citizen, left, by Yahoo! MLB editor Steve Henson, third from left, and interpreter Feng Guang Heng, second from left.
(Gu Zhi Chao / Yahoo! China)

There was a long, fervent introduction by a woman holding a microphone – Hoffman, of course, couldn't understand a word she said – and he walked onto a platform set inside a six-story mall, a banner proclaiming MLB Party fluttering over his head. Music blared. MLB highlights beamed from five screens. Fifteen different styles of New York Yankees caps and a single forlorn Pittsburgh Pirates cap could be had for a staggering 428 yuan apiece, the equivalent of $60, or what two meals of whole Peking duck with all the trimmings cost at popular fowl emporium Quanjude Roast Duck.

The 150 or so folks who stood in line for the autographs of Hoffman and fellow San Diego Padres Heath Bell, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Justin Germano were handed white caps to be signed, and ushered one by one to the table where the four players sat.

"I've done a lot of these things, and this one was definitely unique," Hoffman said. "It's just been a day we'll never forget."

Players often go through the motions during sign-a-thons in the U.S., but this time they greeted each autograph seeker warmly, as if welcoming them into a religious cult.

Baseball has been slow to catch on with the masses, yet MLB is determined to send revenue streams and perhaps a trickle of talent across the Pacific Ocean, even if it takes as long as the Ming Dynasty stayed in power.

Seeds are being planted. Jiang We Bo, a 20-year-old woman from Beijing, beamed as she stepped away from the Padres players. She fell in love with baseball while in high school and follows the Chinese national team.

"I am a huge fan," she said, but admitted she knew nothing about the players who had signed her cap.

Baseball clubs are becoming popular at Chinese universities. Most have 200 or so members who play pickup games and meet to discuss the rules, learn technique and sometimes argue about which MLB team is going to win the World Series.

"It's hard because no baseball is on Chinese television," said Liao Yin Hang, a student whose involvement with a club prompted him to come to the MLB Party.

"I follow MLB on the Internet. I'm a big fan of the Boston Red Sox. I think Big Papi is awesome."

Liao tempered his view when asked if someday his countrymen will share his passion.

"Between now and someday, there will be a long history," he said.

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Yahoo! MLB editor Steve Henson interviews Nathaniel Epp, 18, of Vancouver, Canada, a hockey fan who is visiting China and had not heard about the upcoming MLB Series between the Dodgers and Padres.
(Gu Zhi Chao / Yahoo! China)

Chinese television will carry the exhibition games between the Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday and Sunday, and MLB officials have said that means the sport will be exposed to 700 million people.

A sampling of locals produced the following conclusion to that claim: It's preposterous.

"Some people might turn to the channel for a minute because they are curious," said Feng Guang Heng, a senior at Beijing Sport University. "But they can't understand the game because they don't know the rules. They won't know what's going on, so they won't watch."

Forbidden City, Forgotten Games

Feng adopted the English name Kevin for a few days and agreed to serve as my interpreter. We were joined for a morning of hoofing it through the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square by Jing Nan – a female Yahoo! China editor who adopted the name Esther – and photographer Gu Zhi Chao, a tall, rangy man who consistently stayed about 10 steps in front of the rest of us, clicking away.

Our mission – besides marveling at the traditional palatial architecture that housed 24 emperors for about 500 years – was to survey sightseers from throughout China and beyond (would you believe Champaign, Ill.?) to gauge awareness of the MLB series between the Padres and Dodgers.

Only one person we interviewed knew about the games. He was visiting with his family from Taiwan and had learned about the MLB teams by watching the television news. Gu Zhi Chao – no relation to my photographer – adjusted his baseball-style cap and said that he believed the Chinese eventually would learn to appreciate the game.

"It is a wonderful sport," he said. "Once you know it, you can appreciate it."

The majority sentiment, however, could be summed up by Xufeng, a fit man of about 30 from Southern China who was sightseeing with his wife and son. He said the only U.S. athlete he follows is Jason Kidd.

"I don't care about baseball," he said. "I would like the NBA to come to China. That would be something special. I read that 300 million Chinese play basketball."

How long might it take for baseball to gain that popularity?

Xufeng adjusted his belt buckle engraved with the Playboy bunny, stamped his foot and proclaimed, "I say, never."

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Padres reliever Trevor Hoffman greets an autograph seeker at an event in Beijing.
(Gu Zhi Chao / Yahoo! China)

Any reason?

"You need so much ground for a field that can be used for nothing else," he said. "And the rules are complicated."

On and on it went. Zhang Hui, a tall college student studying radio and television who plays volleyball and basketball, said she would not watch a baseball game.

"I can't understand the rules, and I'm not interested in learning them," she said.

Patrick Bolliger and his parents, Nyle and Susan, know how baseball is played. Patrick, 13, is in a Champaign, Ill., youth league. They just didn’t know there would be MLB games in Beijing the same week as their visit.

Had they known, would they have picked up some tickets?

Said Nyle: "It would have been interesting."

Countered Susan: "I'd rather do China stuff."

Neutrality on the issue was impossible to find until we had exited the Forbidden City and walked through Tiananmen Square, passing dozens of soldiers marching in small groups or standing at attention. The annual session of the National People's Congress – the country's lawmaking body – was underway at the National Museum of Chinese History.

One soldier stood alone near a countdown clock for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the entrance to the museum behind him.

As we interviewed a middle-aged man in a black blazer, the soldier took a few steps toward us. I couldn't help but ask him, "Do you like baseball?"

The slightest grin shined through his stern face and he sounded for all the world like any ballplayer brushing off any reporter in any major league clubhouse. Maybe baseball could flourish in China after all.

"I can't talk right now," he said. "I have to focus on the National meeting."