In China, baseball in step with military exercises Late socialist hero is team's inspiration

April 05, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- Their spring training takes place indoors, on a dusty square of black earth barely protected from North China's biting winds by a drafty, hangar-like structure. You could call this the Cabbage -- rather than the Grapefruit -- League.

Though this baseball team plays almost year-round, even its stars make only about $40 a month at best -- and all of the players have to bunk and eat together all the time.

During their last big homestand last fall, they got walloped in all three games by a combined score of 30-6. This year, they are not at all certain they will do much better.

Meet the Chinese national baseball team.

This is baseball without the big crowds and hoopla, without salary arbitration and product endorsements, without chewing tobacco or even chewing gum.

And this is a baseball team that takes its inspiration not from the freewheeling styles of Jose Canseco or Darryl Strawberry, but from the legend of Lei Feng, the deceased People's Liberation Army private renowned here for his selfless deeds in the name of socialism.

"The first thing we must do is collective work -- only with such efforts can we play well," says star pitcher and co-captain Zhan Yaohua, parroting the Lei Feng slogan plastered on the wall of the Beijing No. 3 Sports Training School, the team's indoor training camp about 45 minutes southwest of the capital.

Such a martial approach to a game played in America with a measure of poetry comes naturally in a land where baseball took root only as a form of military training.

Baseball first was introduced here more than a century ago, just about the time the game was beginning to be played professionally in America. The designer of China's first railroad and other Chinese students educated at Yale in the late 19th century brought the new sport back to their homeland.

But it was only under the wing of a Chinese warlord-turned-PLA general that baseball was given life here in the 1930s and 1940s.

A famed military strategist who played a key role in battling Japan's occupying army during World War II, Marshal He Long was taken with the seemingly far-fetched notion that baseball provided proper doses of battlefield training.

The Chinese team's current senior coach, Du Kehe, a member of the legendary marshal's "fighting baseball team" in the 1950s, said: "Pitching is like throwing a grenade. Hitting requires the same eye coordination as shooting. Running and base stealing are like advancing in warfare."

Chinese baseball players no longer are recruited from the ranks of the military, and the perfection of the game no longer is viewed here as a means to war. But China's pursuit of its mastery remains a somewhat martial quest.

The Chinese squad practices almost all the time -- wintering in the southeast coastal town of Xiamen and then moving north in March to its spring camp set amid miles of dry, still barren farmland.

There, with Japanese-made gloves, American-made aluminum bats and Chinese-made balls, they undergo endless drills -- including one in which a batter within 10 seconds tries to connect with 15 balls, flipped one after another up into his strike zone by a second player crouched just off to the side. The team has a decrepit pitching machine that, like machinery all over rural China, is subject to frequent power outages.

"Americans play baseball with individual strength and force," says Coach Du. "We're not as tall and not as strong. We must emphasize skills and team play. We must stress the fundamentals."

Japan, Asia's baseball powerhouse, takes a similar approach to the game. But for China, a nation of 1.1 billion people with 200 teams at all levels and very few baseball diamonds, it has not yet yielded the same results.

The Chinese national team's level of play might best be likened to that of an average college team in the United States. In the Asian Games in Beijing last September, China lost its three games and ended up in fourth place behind teams from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, in that order.

Top pitcher Zhan, nursing a sore right arm at the time, got knocked out of the box in the first innings of two of the three games. "My performance was not so good," he recalls. He is still trying to work the kinks out of his arm six months later.

But China's showing last year was far better than the rout that ensued when it first competed in an Asian baseball tournament in 1985. And baseball's status here definitely has come a long way from the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the sport was viewed as so foreign and so bourgeois that it simply could not be played.

And, here, as everywhere else in the world, the game is about nothing if not dreams.

"We are short of national experience, and we have a weak foundation in the fundamentals," says Coach Du. "But we are making fast progress, and someday we will close the gap."

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