Marty Lurie Talks San Francisco Giants Baseball

The Long View: Dawn of the Chinese Era

Hello everyone, and thanks for reading the first installment of The Long View. Over the course of the summer, I’ll be using this space to peer a little deeper into some of the news and personalities around the game.

Today, for instance, an item crossed the news ticker that prompted precious few raised eyebrows among casual fans, as the New York Yankees announced the signing of a pair of teenage Chinese nationals. But ten or twenty years down the line, we – and a metric ton of new Chinese fans – may look back on today as an important moment in baseball history.

Not much information is available about left-handed pitcher Kai Liu and catcher Zhenwang Zhang, both 19. Both players, whom the Yankees will introduce at a July 6 press conference, have played in China’s six-team professional league. Zhang, who has won three titles with the Tianjin Lions, appeared briefly in one game of last spring’s World Baseball Classic, but did not bat.

Just last month, MLB representatives traveled to China to talk about the Chinese Baseball League, the possible return of baseball to the Olympic Games (in 2016 or 2020,) and even Major League exhibitions on Chinese soil. The importance MLB places on building a presence in China can be measured by a glance at the trip’s participants, among them the CEOs of three Major League teams, including the Red Sox’ Larry Lucchino, plus Bud Selig’s right-hand man, MLB COO Bob DuPuy.

What’s at stake is a massive, practically untouched economy. When it comes to American sports in China, everyone’s playing catch-up to the NBA. Fans who remember the long bargaining process that brought Yao Ming to the Houston Rockets know how deeply political bureaucracy colors relations between China and the outside world. Yet the question of whether it’s worth the effort has already been answered; now the only question is, “How?”

It’s more than possible that Liu and Zhang will never play under the Major League spotlight. But their signings represent a landmark event in what promises to be a long and important relationship between MLB and China (and represents the starting gun in the race to China between the Yankees, the Red Sox, and Everyone Else.)

In 1951, when Cuban dandy Minnie Minoso came to the Chicago White Sox, the game’s storied history was similarly devoid of Latin players. By 1965, no fewer than eight Latinos were on the All-Star team.

Neither Liu nor Zhang is the first Chinese player to be signed by a Major League team; instead, their signings represent the first successful attempt to bring Chinese players to the U.S. through the proper channels. The Seattle Mariners – who were owned by Nintendo magnate Hiroshi Yamauchi from 1992 to 2004, and have been active in the Pacific Rim since Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro Suzuki won the 21st century’s first two AL Rookie of the Year awards – signed Chinese pitcher Wang Chao in 2002. But that signing, done without the permission of the Chinese Baseball Association, was not considered legitimate.


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