First Chinese Baseball Players Signed To Play in United States

By Eric Green
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - A new era in baseball may be beginning with the signing by the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners of four Chinese players to major league contracts.

The Yankees started the trend when the team announced the signing of two 19-year-olds, pitcher Kai Liu and catcher Zhenwang Zhang.

The signings by the Yankees came after the team reached an agreement with the Chinese Baseball Association to open an exchange program on developing the game in China.  The two players are to be introduced at a Yankee Stadium (where the team plays) news conference in New York on July 6, and then will report to the team's training complex in Tampa, Florida.

The Yankees said in announcing the signings June 18 that the team aims to increase the popularity of baseball in China.  Already, China has become a plum market for professional basketball, with Yao Ming a star for the Houston Rockets.  Another Chinese, Yi Jianlian, is expected to be picked high in the National Basketball Association’s June 28 draft for players.

Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, said the signings mark the “start of something we can develop further as we work toward our commitment” to help “grow the game of baseball in China.”

The Yankees recorded another milestone June 25, when club officials announced the team will be the first in Major League Baseball to sign a sponsorship deal with a Chinese company. The deal is with Yili, China’s leading dairy products company. The company’s brand will be featured at the July 6 press conference introducing the Chinese players.

Liu played for Guangdong province in China’s six-team league, and for the country’s national team.  Zhang played for the Tianjin Lions, and appeared in one game in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, which was won by Japan, the Asian baseball powerhouse.  (See related article.)

Not to be outdone by the Yankees, the Seattle Mariners announced June 20 it has signed two Chinese ballplayers, catcher Wei Wang and infielder-outfielder Yu Bingjia, and assigned them to U.S. minor league teams. Nearly all U.S. professional baseball players start their careers in the minor leagues.

Jim Small, major league baseball vice president for Asia, told USINFO June 26 that “the future for baseball in China is very bright.  Sports have become increasingly important in Chinese society.  As baseball is not only a global sport but also a sport that is hugely popular in Asia, I think it is quite natural for it to take hold in the Chinese sports culture."

China will host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing from August 8-24.  Baseball will be one of the 28 sports played during that event.  (See related article.)

Small said the signings of the Chinese are “indicative” of the talent that exists in Chinese baseball.  Major League Baseball, he said, has spent the last several years working with the Chinese Baseball Association to “not only make the game more popular but also to increase the quality of play.  These signings are a reflection of the work we have done together."


Small pointed to studies that argue China was the first place in Asia where baseball was played.  Bangqiu - the Chinese word for baseball, which literally means “stick ball” - can trace its roots in the country to at least 1863, when the Shanghai Baseball Club was formed by an American medical missionary named Henry William Boone.

The studies say baseball virtually disappeared in China with the commencement of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.  Red Army cadres attacked all sports as an “unwanted extravagance” of Western decadence.  Baseball coaches were ridiculed and persecuted, and some were killed.

But following Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 (and with it, the death of the Cultural Revolution), anti-Western feelings began to subside and baseball officially was “rehabilitated” by Communist Party leaders.

With a population of about 1.3 billion people, major league talent scouts see China as an untapped market for finding talented players such as Chien-Ming Wang of Taiwan, currently one of the best players on the Yankees.

Murray Chass, a sportswriter for the New York Times, wrote in a January column that China could be the next “plush source of talent,” after major league teams previously discovered superior players in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Give the Chinese time and teaching, said Chass, and their country could soon be sending many more ballplayers to the major leagues.

For more information, see Sports.