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Saturday, April 12, 2008

MLB in China-not for 20 years if then-Marchman, NY Sun, 5/07

Mr. Marchman's article appeared about 10 months ago in the NY Sun (5/31/07). At that time, the Olympics wasn't being threatened by controversy about Tibet, but about the Sudan:
  • (NY Sun): "As you read this, Major League Baseball's chief operating officer, Bob DuPuy, and chief executive officers Larry Lucchino of the Red Sox, Sandy Alderson of the Padres, and Kevin McClatchy of the Pirates are in China talking baseball.
That's a pretty powerful group of people to send to a country in which baseball has no real interests.
  • In political terms, it would be like sending Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Hank Paulson to Gabon. What could they be doing there?

Fortunately, MLB has been entirely straightforward about its aims. Jim Small, who runs MLB's Japanese office, told Agence France-Presse that baseball's aim is to play games, perhaps even regular season games, in the stadium built to host baseball at the 2008 Olympics, which will be held in Beijing.

If anyone paid attention to MLB's foreign adventures, this would probably be taken badly.

There's also something at least mildly unseemly about negotiating for access to China given MLB's dalliances in the recent past with the Cuban government.

  • What's odd about this high-level meeting, though, is that

  • China not only offers nothing to baseball,

Let's say that the Yankees and Red Sox play Opening Day at Wukesong Stadium, complete with Derek Jeter and David Ortiz shaking hands with Chinese Baseball League officials, and that this sets China's 1.3 billion people aflame for baseball. Would this do any good for MLB?

  • Probably not. An MLB presence in China would consist of, basically, two things:

An infrastructure to sell hats, keychains, Mr. Met bobblehead dolls, satellite TV packages, and the like, and an infrastructure to develop players who might one day become Yankees and Red Sox.

  • Neither of these possibilities are very promising.

  • Selling things to Chinese people may sound good in theory, but China, with an economy roughly the size of California and Florida's combined, isn't rich.

China also has no interest in baseball. The Olympic baseball tournament will be played in a 12,000-seat stadium.

Developing Chinese players is similarly an idea with less behind it than you might think.

  • China has a highly centralized sports system. Hundreds of thousands of children are plucked out of school based on their size and athleticism and tracked for different sports; the country also features a multigenerational breeding program, for which you can thank Yao Ming.

This kind of system won't develop ballplayers.

  • A caliper-wielding scientist may be able to pick out 6-year-olds likely to develop into track stars based on their fasttwitch muscles and shape,

but baseball is a sport in which both Randy Johnson and Billy Wagner, despite a foot's worth of difference in their heights, can both grow up to throw 100 mph fastballs. The skills it requires

The only way sending several executives who are considered potential future commissioners to China makes sense, then, is if Lucchino meant what he said when he explained the need for such a high-powered delegation: "It's designed to demonstrate how serious our short-term and long-term interests are in the development of baseball in China," he told the AP.

  • A Yankees-Red Sox game, or some other high-profile event, will be a mere sideshow;

the real game is in laying infrastructure down for 20 years from now, when China will probably be a lot richer and a lot less dependent on a Cultural Revolution-era system for developing athletes.

  • It's not something you can often give them credit for, but MLB's bigwigs certainly seem to actually be thinking about the long term. Let's just hope we're spared any photo opportunities along the lines of the one we saw when Bud Selig took in a ballgame from Fidel Castro's private box."

NY Sun by Tim Marchman, 5/31/07, "MLB Wants China but China may not Want MLB."

  • P.S. When you factor in the price of oil, the distances involved make the idea virtually impossible. (sm)

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