China’s talent has Small thinking big

MLB executive says schools are key to growing the domestic game

The next big thing for Major League Baseball’s initiative in China is to get more youngsters to put on gloves and pick up bats.

“One of the things we’re working on is a much broader schools initiative,” Jim Small, senior vice-president of MLB’s international business, said in Beijing on Saturday.

“Instead of 180 schools, how can we get into a thousand schools? How do we build a broader base of kids playing baseball in China? I think that’s the next big thing for us,” added Small, who was attending the MLB Experience carnival and exchanged gifts with Dong Zheng, general manager of Chinese Super League Co Ltd, which has partnered with MLB in charity activities nationwide.

On the question of expanding MLB’s Development Centers to other parts of the country, Small is cautious.

“We’re not sure yet. We’re going through that now, because we don’t know if we need more DCs,” said the 57-year-old American, who was deeply involved with baseball development in China as early as 10 years ago when he was president of MLB Asia-Pacific.

“We think we need more grassroots programs to get more players for the three existing DCs. We want a funnel to bring more kids to the current DCs. We don’t need more DCs, we just need a deeper talent pool from which to choose.

“If we get more kids into the current system, that might be enough – but we haven’t ruled out more DCs. We are just going through a process to determine our best course of action.”

Small said last week’s launch of a domestic professional league is a big step in the right direction.

“Having a pro league in China is really important. It’s another step on the ladder … and we’re working at the top of that ladder,” he said.

“We now have seven players from the DCs signed to pro contracts in the US, and we are working with the national team. We are working with the grassroots, getting more kids to play at schools. What was missing until now was a strong professional league.

“Some kids here might one day play in MLB, but they can also play for pro teams in China. That’s important.

“We want to create heroes – and sometimes those heroes are going to be here in Beijing, not necessarily in Los Angeles or New York. Having a Chinese pro league is a big step on that ladder.”

Since MLB established its first DC at Dongbeitang Middle School in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, seven graduates have signed with MLB clubs – Xu Guiyuan (Baltimore Orioles), Gong Haicheng (Pittsburgh Pirates), Qiangbarenzeng (Boston Red Sox), Wang Yang (Philadelphia Phillies), Zhao Lun, Yin Jian and Kou Yongkang (all with the Milwaukee Brewers).

Small is pleasantly surprised by the success of the DC program.

“We have graduated about 70 players from the academy, and seven of them are playing in the US; that’s 10 percent. That rate of success is unheard of. There are no American schools that have 10 percent of their kids signing up to play professional baseball,” he said.

“That’s testament to the quality of athletes in this country. We see Chinese athletes dominating in other non-traditional sports, like track and field, swimming, tennis… so why not baseball?

“We know how to build young Chinese men into professional athletes, but I’m almost more proud of our grads who are pursuing other options, either playing college ball in the US or China or playing in China’s new domestic league. We have also hired some of them as coaches. The future of baseball in China is going to be led by them.”

Baseball, which is returning to the Olympics next summer in Tokyo, was last played at the 2008 Beijing Games, when South Korea won gold.

“Next year’s Olympic inclusion is very important, but we really want to work on making it permanent,” said Small.

“If we can work with the World Baseball and Softball Confederation and other organizations to get baseball back in the Olympics on a permanent basis, that will really benefit the game. Money will flow from Olympic organizing committees down to the national federations, and that funding will help grow baseball worldwide.”

Small said MLB is in talks with the WBSC to see how they can work together.

“I had a meeting with them in June, and we’re going to continue to talk with them to see what we can do together to help keep baseball in the Olympic Games,” he said.

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