Where EAST meets the Northwest
UNPRECEDENTED SETUP. Chu Fujia of China, who plays for the Texas AirHogs,
makes contact for a sacrifice bunt during an American Association of Independent
Professional Baseball game against the Chicago Dogs in Grand Prairie, Texas. The
small ballpark in Texas just a few miles from downtown Dallas is home this
summer to the Chinese national baseball team. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
From The Asian Reporter, V28, #15 (August 6, 2018), page 8.
Chinese baseball team takes over Texas minor league club
By Stephen Hawkins
AP Sports Writer
GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas — The starting lineups are announced in English and
Spanish at home games for the independent Texas AirHogs.
And then the Chinese national anthem is played.
For about 30 members of the Chinese national baseball team, the suburban
ballpark a few miles west of downtown Dallas has become their summer home and
training ground in an unprecedented setup.
They are a revolving part of the roster for a professional team in the United
States, playing more games and against tougher competition while working to
improve for future international events such as the upcoming Asian Games and
2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
"The system that they’ve created here, where we work out in the morning,
we’ve got weight training, the pitchers have a system where we throw on, the
coaches have kind of set up a system that’s really helped them to be able to
make the adjustment to play more games," Sun Jianzeng, a 26-year-old
right-hander, said through a translator.
Chinese players who professionally back home would play only about 20 to 30
games a season make up about two-thirds of the expanded roster for the American
Association team now formally known as the AirHogs powered by Beijing Shougang
Eagles. The players, ranging in age from 18 to 29, rotate on and off the active
roster to play 6 or 7 games per week in one of the low-minor leagues not
affiliated with Major League Baseball.
"It makes it workable, because we don’t want to wear these guys down," said
AirHogs manager John McLaren, a big-league coach for three decades who has
worked with Chinese teams since 2011.
Players not on the active roster for games go through early workouts at
AirHogs Stadium, 10 minutes from the home ballpark of the Texas Rangers. There
are conditioning and weight training drills that are new to the Chinese players.
"They’re trying to do something they’ve never done before, which is play this
many games on a daily basis, and you throw in the fact that with the exception
of maybe three or four pitchers, they’re physically and experience-wise
overmatched," said Larry Hardy, a former Rangers pitching coach filling the same
role for the AirHogs. "But they’re getting better."
McLaren had a short stint managing the Seattle Mariners in 2007-2008 and was
interim manager for three games for the Washington Nationals in 2011. He was on
the Philadelphia Phillies staff the past two seasons.
He also managed China at the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in 2013 and 2017.
Over that time, there would be gaps of six or seven months when he wouldn’t even
see the team — and players would barely play baseball. China has a 2-10 record
in its four WBC appearances, getting outscored 18-102 in those games.
"These guys, I don’t think they’d ever played twice in a week," McLaren said.
That changed when the Chinese Baseball Association made an arrangement with
the AirHogs, allowing them to focus on daily development.
They are now together all the time in a 12-team league that stretches more
than 1,300 miles from Texas into Canada. The closest stop is Cleburne, Texas,
where 53-year-old former big-league slugger Rafael Palmeiro is starring for the
China’s only Olympic berth was in 2008, going 1-6 in group play after an
automatic berth as the host nation. That was the last time baseball was part of
the Summer Games until its return two years from now in Japan.
The AirHogs are a league-worst 17-44 this season, but player-coach Na Chuang
said the team has progressed faster than expected, increasing the confidence of
the Chinese players who will leave with McLaren and some of their national
coaches for the Asian Games in Indonesia before the end of the 100-game AirHogs
Kevin Joseph, who pitched in the majors briefly with the St. Louis Cardinals
in 2002, is part of McLaren’s staff as an assistant coach and invaluable
translator. He learned Mandarin while spending more than eight years teaching
baseball to young people after a friend with connections to baseball officials
in China invited him there.
"The big need, I think, for China is they don’t play a lot of games. So for
them to be able to come, and to learn the rhythm of a baseball lifestyle, play
against better competition, has been a great experience," Joseph said. "The
players have really meshed well with the Chinese guys, they love them."
Joseph said hitters have changed the way they swing the bat, being more
aggressive and ready to hit pitches coming faster than they’ve seen before.
For the pitchers, the emphasis has been on throwing more fastballs and fewer
breaking balls. Hardy said the catchers have started to understand what the
coaches are looking for from pitchers.
"The level of play is a lot higher," Jianzeng said. "You can make smallest
mistakes, can be hurt here as a pitcher. ... Because you’re playing so many
games, you’re learning about yourself as a pitcher, and you’re getting a lot
There are the inevitable hiccups because of communication issues and culture
differences, including the style of play the Chinese players were used to, but
Joseph said things have gone well overall.
"It’s fun just to watch them interact with everybody, and themselves, and
show up every day, kidding and joking," said McLaren, sitting in the coaches’
office next to a narrow room cramped with lockers. "It’s a clubhouse. They’re a
different culture, speak a different language, but the laugh in the clubhouse is
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