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China isn't playing on major scale yet

February 10, 2007|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Goodwill is commendable. Breaking down barriers is admirable. But when will a Chinese player make it to the major leagues?

Where is baseball's Yao Ming?

Jim Small, Major League Baseball's point man in Asia, has an office in Tokyo but is intrigued by China. In a country of 1.3 billion, he reasons, there is a person who possesses big league tools.

"God has touched somebody," Small said. "And we're going to find him."

Small views such a player as a shortcut to popularizing the game in China: His countrymen will become infatuated by his ascent. Soon, fathers and sons will be tossing a ball back and forth. Kids will choose to play baseball over soccer or basketball.

"He'll be a pitcher, not a position player," Small said. "Right now, there are guys in China who can throw in the 90s with movement. They may not know it yet. They will have to be taught how to control it."

Having combed China for talent since the 1980s without success, the Dodgers take a more sober outlook.

"It's taken two decades already and could take many more years before major league players are developed," said Acey Kohrogi, the Dodgers' director of Asian operations. "China isn't a country where baseball is known. Kids don't play it yet. Most [people] don't understand it."

Only one player from mainland China, right-handed pitcher Wang Chao, has even played in the minors. He was signed by Kohrogi's chief competitor in China, Ted Heid, the Seattle Mariners' director of Pacific Rim operations, and pitched a few innings in the Arizona Rookie League in 2002 and 2003, going 0-2 before being released.

The Dodgers, like every other team, have focused most of their international scouting efforts in such Latin American hotbeds as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

Some Chinese look at their baseball-happy neighbors in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and wonder why they can't play with the same proficiency. Facing those three countries at last year's World Baseball Classic, China, coached by former major leaguer Jim Lefebvre, went 0-3 while being outscored, 40-6.

The Chinese will take such humiliation only so long, Small said. Their competitive nature will spur them to develop top-level players. Former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, who pioneered exporting baseball to China, says it's only a matter of time.

"The Chinese think long haul, they think way out there," he said. "I don't know what their timetable is. I think it will be sooner than later."

*

Times staff writer Bruce Wallace in Tokyo contributed to this report.

steve.henson@latimes.com

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