Pitching practice for Team China at the Seattle Mariners Complex in Arizona last year. Team China will again be traveling to Arizona this week to begin their preparations for the World Baseball Classic, which kicks off on March 3. [Source: MLB China]
By Stuart Wiggin
China isn't exactly the first country you think of when the sport of baseball comes up in conversation. However, Major League Baseball (MLB), the major professional league in the US and Canada and the home of the best baseball teams in the world is attempting to reignite the country's passion for the sport following a somewhat turbulent past which saw it being banned during the Cultural Revolution. With the sport's exit from the Olympic Games in 2012, a decision taken by the International Olympic Committee back in 2005, the importance of the World Baseball Classic tournament, which is set to take place in March this year, has been amplified. The tournament is sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation, supported by the MLB and major leagues from around the world, and features the world's best players competing for their home nations.
Team China will participate in this year's tournament and will do so without having had to go through qualifying thanks to receiving an automatic bye based on their performance in the 2009 World Baseball Classic; a rarity for Chinese national teams. In order to prepare for the competition, widely regarded as the World Cup of baseball in which the winners are crowned "World Champions", Team China is getting ready to travel to the US in order to undergo rigorous training prior to their first match of the World Baseball Classic, against Japan.
Some 27 players will travel from China to begin training in Arizona on January 31 at the Settle Mariners Complex. Thanks to funding provided by the MLB, the Seattle Mariners will provide Team China with access to fields and equipment and help organize games against local junior college teams. Thankfully, the opportunity to utilize such facilities exists due to the MLB pre-spring training period; giving Team China ample time to prepare in the States without impinging upon the MLB season. As for Team China's coaching staff, they will once again be managed by John Mclaren, the former manager of the Seattle Mariners, and current scout for the Washington Nationals.
Elsewhere, Team China will benefit from the input of hitting coach Art Howe, who possesses years of experience in the major leagues having previously managed the Houston Astros, the Oakland Athletics and the New York Mets. Meanwhile, Bruce Hurst, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox in the memorable 1986 World Series, is Team China's pitching coach. As Robin Allemand, MLB Coordinator for Market Development in Greater China told CRI, "All these coaches, the great thing about them, they are down to earth and they are willing to get in the trenches and help out these kids. Because, for the players, coming from where they are [from] and their local teams, they might not have that same advanced training that say a major league player would have starting out in America."
The World Baseball Classic differs from previous Olympic competitions as it regularly features players from the major leagues; whereas the Olympics often clashed with the major league seasons in both North America and Asia. Furthermore, eligibility criteria for representing certain nations are also slightly more relaxed. For this reason, several players who are not Chinese citizens will be joining up with Team China for the pre-tournament training and the tournament itself, with rumblings that Chinese Panamanian Bruce Chen, left-hander for the Kansas City Royals, may link up with the Chinese team after Panama failed to qualify for the tournament.
After training stateside, the Chinese national team will return to China on February 21, and will fly out to Osaka four days later. Once in Japan, Team China will play two exhibition games, one in Osaka and one in Fukuoka, prior to the start of the World Baseball Classic which will see them play Japan on March 3, followed by games against Cuba and Brazil.
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