Chinese Baseball Player Signs with MLB Club
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
Xu Guiyuan made history this week by becoming the first player from MLB’s China development centres to sign a deal with a Major League club. The 19 yr old first baseman/outfielder’s move to a sport with little to no Chinese presence draws many parallels to countryman Song Andong’s pioneer move to the NHL. The difference being, this isn’t the first time the MLB has tried to make its way to China.
The sport was introduced to China over a century ago by Chinese students returning home from Yale University. No time restrictions and an element of sacrifice made it extremely popular amongst the Chinese population, and American All-Star teams travelling to China to play, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, only boosted its popularity.
However, the Cultural Revolution practically wiped out the game after it was labelled as an evil Western influence, with Mao Zedong favoring basketball to be played by the masses. The game has been facing an uphill battle ever since the Yao Ming revolution, but is slowly starting to appear again in China.
The MLB have been very strategic with their development in China over the last 20 years, moving to increase exposure and participation, while raising the standard through a long-term plan. The league even went as far as banning Major League clubs from signing Chinese talent to protect domestic leagues, a restriction that was only recently removed in 2014.
The MLB opened a Beijing office in 2007 ahead of the Olympics, where China finished in last place after winning just one of seven games. Yet, the MLB continued to develop their China initiatives by launching grassroots programs, sponsoring college leagues, and even launching a reality show with a celebrity pop singer as the sport’s ambassador in China.
It is, however, the MLB Development Centres that are driving the sport forward in China, and it was from these efforts that Xu Guiyuan was identified by the Orioles. The first Development Centre opened in 2009 in Wuxi, with two further centres opening up since then. The MLB knows that the popularity of the sport hinges on creating Chinese stars; these Development Centres are the first step of that process that now travels the length of the country to scout talent.
The sport is also in a very strong position given the popularity of baseball throughout Asia. Taiwan, Korea and Japan have already sent players to the MLB, with varying levels of success. This regional rivalry propels the sport into the national limelight as a way for the competition-mad nation to top their neighbouring nations.
Xu Guiyuan may be the first Chinese player selected from the Development Centres, but Dan Duquette, the Orioles Executive VP, believes that ‘he will be the first of many future Major League players from China’. MLB is now benefitting from their long-term strategic approach to China, and it’s clear that baseball is slowly becoming a quintessentially Chinese sport.