|Last week Chinese pitcher Gong Haicheng made headlines when he signed with Major League Baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates, but MLB believes more young talents will be scouted in the the world's most populous country in the near future. [ This is a step in the right direction. My family and I avidly watched the Philadelphia Phillies from northern Delaware. ] The 18-year-old Gong is the second graduate to sign with a Major League team out of MLB's development centers in China. His compatriot Xu Guiyuan, also from the development centers, signed with the Baltimore Orioles two years ago.|
"China now has players who can actually play on MLB level, it's a big step in a right direction. I see a lot of schools and private companies taking on baseball, which is becoming a popular sport in China," general manager of MLB Asia Rick Dell said on Monday.
As one of the world's sporting powers, China has become a focal point for many international sports organizations seeking global expansion. With the missions to bring baseball to another side of the globe and to seek out fresh talents, MLB began its activities in China more than ten years ago.
For MLB, Gong and Xu's growth, improvement and success represent the success of their Chinese development centers.
With the aim of increasing the popularity of the game and producing a Chinese star, the first MLB Chinese development center was opened at the Dongbeitang school in Wuxi in 2009, with 16 local players. Now MLB has three development centers in China, with the other two in Changzhou and Nanjing.
These centers all have an international team of baseball instructors. The students receive baseball training and lessons in English in addition to receiving an excellent academic education.
"For Gong's story, it's not just about his signing with pirates, he's also been accepted by Shanghai International Studies University. So in offseason, he will continue to work towards his college degree," said Dell, who was head baseball coach at the College of New Jersey for 27 years before moving to China to oversee the MLB development program.
"What he does today validates the idea that we can have student athletes who can excel in classroom and excel on baseball."
Gong, who trained and studied in Changzhou and Nanjing centers, said he aspires to play in the Major League one day.
"I want to play in the Major League, but I have to take it step by step. I've been to America once. The baseball environment is just impressive and the level is really high. I need to work hard and fight to play in the Major League," said Gong, who pitched for China in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Ray Chang, Gong's coach at the Nanjing center, is optimistic about Gong's career trajectories in the United States.
"We are all on a historical moment for Chinese baseball. Gong is a good kid and he earned it for his hard work. It will be a different experience to play in the United States because it has the biggest baseball league in the world."
"My biggest advice for Gong is to stay humble and continue to work hard. There are a lot of different distractions in professional baseball, good and bad. You really have to continue with what you are doing," added Chang.
In addition to running the centers, MLB launched grassroots youth baseball program Play Ball! in major Chinese cities, helped Chinese elementary schools incorporate baseball into the physical education curriculum, licensed more than 80 MLB shops throughout China and granted leading sports channels rights to broadcast MLB games in China, including the MLB All-Star Game and World Series.
All of the efforts are aimed to grow the sport and find the baseball version of Yao Ming, who helped expand basketball in China when the Chinese superstar played for the Houston Rockets in NBA.
When asked about whether China can have the Yao Ming of baseball, Dell said yes.
"I believe it's going to happen. It will happen."
"I've been in China for ten years. I'm seeing things I did not see. I left my career in the United States to come here because I believe in Chinese baseball.
"It takes time in baseball, it's not like basketball, and now we are getting it. Today we have Gong, and we will have more and more talents," Dell added.