Field of dreams: Major League Baseball makes pitch for Chinese star

Nanjing (China) (AFP) –


A coach's voice in an unmistakably American accent rings out across a baseball field: "Attaboy, good job Wayne, nice throw!"

It could easily be California or Florida, but this is a world away in Nanjing and Major League Baseball is hunting for its first star from China.

If -- or more likely when -- that happens, he will probably come from here.

MLB has three development centres in China and in February, three youngsters from the Nanjing site were signed to the Milwaukee Brewers.

They will start in the minor leagues but hope to reach the 'big leagues' eventually.

Missouri-born Ray Chang, who had stints at the San Diego Padres and Minnesota Twins as a player, is the coach playing a significant part in developing baseball in China.

There are nearly 100 budding baseball players spread across the three development centres.

Chang has 23 of them -- what he called "the cream of the crop" -- aged 12-18 under his wing in Nanjing, in China's east.

These boys, who have taken on names such as Wayne, Sonny and Roger, have been scouted from across the world's most populous nation, as far afield as Tibet.

"We are not really looking just for baseball players, we are looking for athletes," the 35-year-old Chang said.

"Baseball at that age level (when he scouts them at 11) is still growing so we are hoping to find better athletes where we can say, 'Look, here's a glove, here's a bat, let's go six years and see what happens.'

"Obviously, preferably we'd like to have baseball players playing since they were five or six, but the reality is that's just not the case here in China."

- 'Amazing opportunity' -

Training is intensive with four or five hours a day from Wednesday to Friday and then matches on Saturday and Sunday mornings, followed by more practice.

Games are against local universities or teams, but they sometimes travel to Japan, Taiwan, Australia or the United States.

Most of the communication is in English and with all expenses paid by MLB -- schooling, training, living costs -- it represents "an amazing, amazing opportunity", Chang said.

"Our main goal is to get these guys opportunities in the US and obviously the top goal is to get them signed by pro teams," added Chang, who played for China despite being born in the United States.

"Not everybody can have that opportunity. We've had seven the last 10 years sign professionally (since the programme began).

"We've had four in the last year so it's been picking up."

- Tibetan baseball star? -

Huadan Cairang sees his family once a year. The 17-year-old hails from the far west, high-altitude region of Tibet, where access by foreigners is tightly controlled by the authorities.

Cairang -- who uses the name "Roger" -- initially played football and was a goalkeeper, but found his strapping frame better suited to baseball. Now mainly a pitcher, he has been playing for nine years, but admits that prior to that "I didn't know what baseball was at all".

It was a Korean coach who spotted his potential.

"He went to Tibet to travel and saw Tibetans have great strength and thought we could try to play baseball," said Cairang.

He and others at the Nanjing base, which is attached to a school, know that making a career in MLB is a stiff task. Some will end up with Chinese teams instead.

But he has other goals.

"Many Tibetans don't know what baseball is. I want to get more Tibetans to like baseball," said Cairang.

- Baseball's Yao Ming -

Rick Dell, MLB's director of baseball development in Asia, said the overarching ambition was to grow the game in China.

The three centres are a key plank and their main purpose is to get teenagers into universities in the US, China or elsewhere and "develop young men".

But finding a breakthrough Chinese star -- baseball's Yao Ming moment -- is "just a matter of time", according to Chang.

"We've gone out everywhere," added Dell.

"Not just to the big cities, not just to the popular places, we've gone everywhere and tried to uncover every stone to see if there's a special kid out there."