Bound for the Far East

BEIJING – How to capture a 13-hour Major League Baseball charter flight in a single image?


A TV crew was interviewing Sandy Alderson, CEO of the San Diego Padres, smack in the middle of the aisle an hour after takeoff from Phoenix. Now, we all know who normally wins when a passenger blocks the path of a flight attendant. The passenger can back up, sit down, or squeeze uncomfortably close to a complete stranger to let the flight attendant pass.

Not this time. The flight attendant smiled nervously, did a 180 in the aisle and left Alderson to finish his thoughts about MLB's burgeoning efforts to spread baseball in China, including the first games ever in the country Saturday and Sunday between the Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers.

"There is only one first," Alderson said, sounding as if he'd just cracked open a fortune cookie.

His words, however clichéd, carry weight. He was one of baseball's top-ranking executives for seven years before returning to the team level with the Padres and walks in lockstep with Commissioner Bud Selig when it comes to the idea of spreading baseball into every corner of the globe.

China, of course, is a bit more colossal than a corner, what with 1.3 billion people possessing two good hands to clap and a voice to cheer. And an increasing number of Chinese earn enough yuan to purchase tickets, gear, and whatever else the imposing MLB revenue machine is hawking.

So the Padres traveling contingent of 120 leaned back in their seats and were given several choices on how to pass the time. Every passenger was handed a Digecor XT festooned with the MLB China Series logo, enabling movie buffs to watch "Michael Clayton," "Juno," "3:10 to Yuma" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," in succession, or to watch a single "Family Guy" episode 26 times.

Some folks struck up card games, others wandered around making small talk. Food and drink were plentiful and anyone could lay out for a snooze because with 400 seats for 120 passengers, this flight was no sardine can.

The Dodgers had a problem with their charter company and weren't able to fly out of Vero Beach, Fla, until Wednesday, robbing them of a day of sight-seeing. There was grumbling from players and staff, although Dodgers staff historian Mark Langill had the house spin down pat, saying, "Neil Armstrong didn't hang around for sightseeing when he landed on the moon."

Padres players are leery of the foreign food, but are looking forward to dabbling their toes into Chinese culture, bright lights, loud music and all. Ballplayers are notorious night owls.

Team brass has done its best to nip any shenanigans in the bud, primarily by trying to frighten the players into submission. Postings in the Padres spring training clubhouse included the following warnings:

Syphilis is on the rise in China. … Infection rates have increased six-fold over the past few years.

The not-so-subtle message: Keep your pants on.

The World Health Organization estimates that diseases triggered by indoor and outdoor air pollution kill 65,000 Chinese citizens each year, and polluted drinking water kills another 95,000.

The perhaps unintended message: Hold your breath and stick to drinking beer.

MLB issued an advisory that described Beijing scams designed to part Western visitors from their money. One recent ploy is for someone posing as a student to solicit a Westerner's assistance in practicing their English over a cup of tea. The tea ends up costing 100 times what it should, and tea house enforcers intimidate the mark into paying.

Of course, a ballplayer falling into this trap would have gotten a measure of revenge by teaching the Chinese scammers nonsensical baseball jargon like, "Hum, babe," and "That hook was filthy."

The 26 Padres players who made the trip are a mixed bag of one future Hall-of-Famer (Trevor Hoffman), three more established regulars (Heath Bell, Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Kouzmanoff), a few top prospects (chief among them infielder Matt Antonelli), some marginal major leaguers and a slew of guys even dedicated Padres fans haven't heard of.

In fact, folks from Eugene, Ore., might be nearly as excited as fans in San Diego. The Eugene Emeralds, a Padres' Single-A team, will have 10 alumni playing in the games, including the starting pitcher in the first game, Justin Germano.

The Dodgers roster is just as uneven. The most recognizable names to the Chinese probably will be pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo and shortstop Chin-lung Hu, who are natives not of mainland China but of Chinese Taipei. South Korean veteran pitcher Chan-Ho Park will start the first game for the Dodgers.

Will any of the names matter? Chinese philosopher Lu Xun once said: "The first person who tasted a crab must also have tried a spider, but realized it was not good to eat."

So it will be for the fans at Wukesong Stadium watching the first MLB games in this country. They will witness a diamond delicacy when Hoffman throws his signature changeup. They will witness a fetid fastball grooved by some career minor leaguer on a 3-and-1 count.

Unlike the person who tasted a crab and a spider, the novice fans won't see any difference in the pitches.

"It's going to be a long educational process to teach the game here," Padres manager Bud Black said. "It's not a game you learn overnight. This is the introductory phase.

"A journey begins with small steps."

And, no, Black wasn't reading from a fortune cookie, either.