Taking the field

Title game to be last at diamond built by Ellicott City man

On Olympic baseball

August 22, 2008|By RICK MAESE

BEIJING - It has taken a couple of tries now - the language barrier is proving to be quite the Great Wall - but the Chinese volunteers have a tight grip on the rain-slicked tarp and they're finally sprinting toward the outfield, revealing Murray Cook's diamond in the rough.

"And then there was a baseball field," Cook says from the dugout. "Right before your eyes."

Despite the overcast skies, the baseball diamond sparkles. But not for much longer.

Cook, of Ellicott City, knew this day was coming, but that doesn't make it any easier. After spending more than two years planning, building and prepping the Wukesong Baseball Field, tomorrow he'll say goodbye. After the Olympic gold-medal game, the field will be destroyed. It's a field with no future, and a sport - at least as far as the Olympics are concerned - with an uncertain one.

"It helps to know that it's an Olympic event, but it is sad to see things end," says Cook, president of Brickman SportsTurf in Columbia, who has been working with Major League Baseball and the International Baseball Federation for years.

In a way, the three Wukesong baseball fields here in Beijing are perfects symbol for the sport in the Olympics. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Baseball was ousted from the Olympic program for the 2012 Games. Officials with Major League Baseball and International Baseball Federation will lobby hard to return baseball to the 2016 Games, but there are no guarantees.

These are the third Summer Games in which Cook helped plot and plant the Olympic diamonds. He began envisioning these fields during the 2004 Athens Games. In the past couple of years, Cook has been to China 17 times. This most recent trip began more than five weeks ago - and it ends Sunday.

"You're glad to be a part of it," he says, "but it's real sad to think that it could be the last baseball field we see in the Olympics."

Even before they began construction on the three fields - two for competition, one for practice - Cook and his crews knew there was an expiration date. The complex occupies more than 3 1/2 acres of valuable real estate in booming western Beijing. Plans already call for a hotel, a shopping center and maybe an apartment complex on this land.

Baseball just isn't popular or viable enough to inhabit such property. Since the Cultural Revolution, baseball has been little more than an oddity here. When Cook began construction, the cultural divide was huge. The baseball vocabulary didn't translate easily to workers. How do you explain the difference between a batting cage and a batting tunnel?

If only that was the biggest hurdle. Cook tells of a visit here in May, in which he learned that Olympic organizers, unhappy with the grass, had completely razed his field and opted to start from scratch.

"There's so many different moving pieces here and so much red tape," he says. "We wanted to move the warning track over two inches. Oh, my gosh. Stop everything. We need this meeting and that meeting. Everything eventually happens, but it all just moves slow."

For the Games, Cook has had 115 volunteers helping him maintain the fields. Mostly college students, the volunteers couldn't even throw a ball from the mound to home plate, but, slowly, they've picked up bits and pieces about the game.

And the Chinese fans who've filled the stands couldn't be more enthusiastic. Cheerleaders entertain them between innings, and they scream excitedly for every infield pop-up and each foul ball. In fact, fans have to be explained by the public-address announcer that they don't need to keep tossing the foul balls back onto the playing field.

They are loyal, though. Fans arrive before the first pitch and stay until the last out. In a game earlier this week, Cuba blasted China, 17-1. There were 1,390 fans there for the first pitch and, best as anyone can tell, 1,390 there for the final out, too.

The highlight for the Chinese came last week against Taiwan. The relationship between the two nations has long been a messy nest of complications. Olympic literature refers to Taiwan as Chinese Taipei, in fact, and whenever the two nations meet athletically, there seem to be political undertones.

China upset the baseball power, 8-7, notching its only win of these Games.

"That's historic for this country. It wasn't supposed to happen. And it happened on that field right over there," Cook said, pointing to Field No. 2. "How could you get rid of it?"

Cook and baseball officials are hopeful that the Olympic organizers will spare Field No. 2 and simply develop around it. The field would be China's lone baseball diamond with a grass infield, and keeping it here is considered vital for the growth of sport.

Of course, keeping baseball in the Olympics is more important. While there's no hope for 2012 in London, can you imagine the 2016 Summer Games taking place in Chicago or Tokyo - two of the finalists to host the Olympics - without baseball?

Just like the Wukesong fields, here today, gone tomorrow. When the medals are passed out tomorrow and the lights go out above Cook's fields, sadly the glow of baseball will dim indefinitely in many parts of the world.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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