BEIJING – Baseball did its part, staging a first-rate groundbreaking event with all the trimmings, from noisemakers, hot dogs and a goofy mascot to runs, hits and errors. All that was missing was a winner and loser.
Now China must sit back, rub its collective 5,000-year-old chin and decide whether this peculiar game is worth an investment of its most precious resources.
Its plentiful young people. Its scarce open spaces. Its longstanding national pride.
The first Major League Baseball game ever played here ended with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres playing to a 3-3 tie Saturday, with 12,224 at Wukesong Stadium getting a lesson in the white-flag nature of exhibition games, pitchers being in short supply and all.
Regardless, history was made, so list these names alongside Yuanmau man, the Xia Dynasty, paper, gunpowder and all the other firsts in this vast nation: John Lindsey of the Dodgers had the first MLB hit on Chinese soil, while George Lombard hit the first home run and scored the first run, drilling a first-pitch shot against Justin Germano in the third inning.
"I didn't think about it when I hit it, but as the game wore on a couple of guys told me it was something special," Lombard said.
And who, exactly, are Lindsey and Lombard? Remember that both teams brought mostly minor leaguers on this trip, although all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman of the Padres did become the first pitcher to enter a game in China to AC/DC's "Hells Bells." For the record, Hoffman pitched a scoreless sixth inning.
The first boos at an MLB game in China were saved for the middle of the ninth inning, when it was announced that there would be no extra innings if the score remained tied. The Chinese don't know much about baseball, but apparently they knew tie-land was a weird place.
"They knew enough to boo a tie," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said.
The outcome did leave a trick trivia question for the ages: Who was the winning pitcher in the first MLB game played in China?
The crowd was flecked with American expatriates (who made their presence known by standing and singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch), a large number of Chinese government officials given freebies and the 450 youngsters hand-picked to play baseball by physical education teachers at 30 schools in the city.
Fortunately for the kids, they were bused to the stadium two hours before the game to watch batting practice. The thousands of fans who arrived within 45 minutes of the scheduled 1 p.m. first pitch had to endure epically long lines because of draconian security measures that included stepping through metal detectors followed by head-to-toe wandings and pat-downs. MLB delayed the first pitch by about 15 minutes, waiting for the stands to fill.
"We heard it was a sellout, so it seemed strange that the stands were nearly empty," Dodgers infielder Kevin Howard said. "Later, though, we looked out there and they were full."
The government's ravenous need to control every aspect of the event doesn't bode well for a smooth Olympic Games in August. It's not like MLB doesn't have experience putting on events such as this in a seamless fashion, the World Baseball Classic in 2006 serving as the best example.
Yet hordes of security personnel – mostly men in their early 20s – checked and double-checked tickets, purses, pockets and media credentials. In fact, the credentials MLB handed out to Dodgers and Padres officials were not valid as of the night before the game, when the teams were informed that government-issued credentials would be required for admittance.
That left a bewildered Padres owner John Moores and team vice president and Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield being told they could not enter the premises because they hadn't picked up their new credentials.
More surprises were in store. About halfway through batting practice, photographers were told to shut off their cameras and reporters told that their notebooks would be confiscated if they continued with interviews. Apparently, government officials simply tired of the constant camera clicking and inane questions.
"I kind of like this," Torre cracked. "We could try it in the States."
A handful of reporters pulled out their notebooks anyway when commissioner Bud Selig took a stroll past the batting cage.
"We are bound and determined to make it work here," he said. "We will make it work here. If it can't be done in five years, it will be done in 10 or 15."
The next step in his plan to conquer the world one pitch at a time is next year's World Baseball Classic. There will be more exhibitions like this one, in China again, in Europe, and in Africa, Selig said.
"The WBC will be so big that everybody participating will make it a positive for their country," Selig said. "The sport has never been this popular at every level."
Time will tell whether that popularity spills into China, a nation of colossal untapped potential and mystery.
"I've got to tell you," Selig said, "the idea of the Dodgers and Padres playing two games in Beijing sort of takes my breath away."
- Major League Baseball