Friday, January 26, 2007

Once Upon a Time in China

The Yankees are pursuing quite an ambitious building project these days. Not only have they remade their once ridiculed farm system into a loaded system of young pitchers, but they are also more than aggressive on the international scene now. Decades ago, the Dodgers and Blue Jays built baseball academies in the Dominican Republic, hoping to take advantage of the huge fever for baseball that kids in the streets demonstrated by throwing rocks and catching them with milk carton gloves. Hard to argue against that move, in light of the desire shown by those young boys.

The international signing period saw the Yankees grab 5 Dominicans in an especially deep class including outfielders Carlos Martinez Urena and Arielky LaPay, shortstops Jimy Paredes and Jose Toussen, and righthander Hairo Heredia. Toussen and Urena are considered elite prospects, while Hairo Heredia has been described as having "now stuff".

The Bombers have been out there in Venezuela, snatching up prized players like catchers Jesus Montero and Francisco Arcia, as well as shortstop Jose Pirela. Venezuela seems to be the next big breeding ground for Major League talent, which is quite obvious given the roster of the WBC club from that country, which features the likes of Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano, Francisco Rodriguez, Kelvim Escobar, Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen, Bobby Abreu, and Magglio Ordonez.

Now, Cashman and company are venturing beyond Japan and Taiwan in their quest to develop and acquire talent. Matsui, Igawa, and Chien Min Wang are going to make up a current core of important Asian-born players in the Yankees lineup, but the untapped potential is, of course, China. A contingent of Yankees brass, including Cashman, Levine, and Jean Afterman, is heading through Japan to talk with Yomiuri and Hanshin, on their way to building a Chinese empire of their own. The Chinese Baseball Association is little more than a rough cobbling of amateurs feeling their way through the infancy of the sport behind the Great Wall. The Yankees know this, and recognize that this is the time to get in. The branding of baseball in China will be accompanied by an interlocking "NY" and the money the Bombers will bring to the table will help the sport to explode.

The China Baseball League is a fairly new creation, founded in 2002. As the wikipedia entry for the league tells us, the CBL is not to be confused with the Taiwanese "Chinese Professional Baseball League". The Taiwanese league is more established and the sport has been played on that island nation for much longer. Taiwanese baseball players are Major League ready right now, while players from mainland China are probably a generation away from being on the MLB radar. The WBC team was managed by Jim Lefebvre, a utility player for the Dodgers in the late 60's and early 70's, and the former manager of the Mariners, Cubs, and Brewers. He had his work cut out for him, and not surprisingly saw his club get banged around by the more experienced nations in the competition.

I saw the China Hope Stars participate in the Konami Cup Asia Series 2006, along with the likes of the La News Bears of Taiwan (who have a bull as their cap logo, thanks to the La New shoe company's sponsorship!), the Samsung Lions of Korea, and the eventual champion Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan. In 3 games, the Stars were outscored 32-4 by the other countries pro clubs. It's a very positive sign to see China involved in the sport, but they have a ways to go. Hopefully, the Yankees can push those efforts along and give themselves an inside shot at a bright future in China. In the meantime, the profile that is being generated by the Yankees in Asia is broadening and the brand is only growing stronger, despite the success of the Mariners, Red Sox, and others in the Japanese market. I'll keep my eyes on China for you and let you know if anything interesting is reported here in Japan.

On a slightly related note, I joined SABR last year and have thrown my hat into the Asian Baseball SIG. I hope to get more involved in their coverage and research on the sport over here, and I'll do my best to make Canyon of Heroes a forum for that information.


RollingWave said...

Yeah, China is still a long way away, their team routinely get schooled by Taiwan/Korea/Japan, even if those country send mostly amature or second/third rate teams.

Though it does make some sense, since Japan is already very well established, while Taiwan's country size is limited. but it's a long term investment,

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