NL West meets Far East in historic trip

NL West meets Far East

China is a country so rich in history that the year Americans know as 2008 is actually the year 4076, the most recent iteration of the Year of the Rat, or Wu Zi, in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese calendar.

With that in mind, to portray something that occurs in China as historic is really saying something.

Yet taken in its proper perspective, the American pastime indeed is making history in perhaps the world's most storied land, a country whose existence exceeds that of the United States by almost four millennia.

Year of the Rat, meet Week of the Bat ... and Ball and Glove.

Major League Baseball is making its first-ever foray into China this week, when the Dodgers and Padres travel to the other side of the globe to visit the Great Wall of China, enjoy the exchange of ballplayers meeting young Chinese students face to face and, yes, play some baseball.

MLB China Series 2008 will consist of two games at Wukesong Stadium in Beijing, to be played Saturday and Sunday afternoons in China -- both 1 a.m. ET starts in the U.S. The games themselves will culminate a visit sure to blend in a unique way cultures ancient and new, via a sport that courses through America's veins like tea courses through China's.

Considering that China's recent history has included secrecy from and at times disagreement with and disdain for the Western world, the trip is opening a door that many would have doubted possible to open in their lifetimes.

America's pastime? In China?

Taken in its rightful perspective, there's really only one word for it.

"This is really historic," said baseball's Commissioner Bud Selig, who will lead the delegation traveling to Beijing. "I mean, this is the beginning, I think, of a long and a very intense relationship with China. I talked to [Dodgers manager] Joe Torre about it the other day, and I think everybody involved is really quite excited because I think they realize the history of it."

Part of historic change
No longer a sleeping giant shrouded in secrecy, China is a global economic force and will be hosting the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing in August.

For baseball to be part of that change in China's relationship specifically with the U.S. is something representatives from both clubs embrace. When the NL West meets the Far East this week, the feeling of interest and newfound understanding will be mutual.

"I think it's such an exciting time knowing that the Olympics will be here in August -- baseball obviously will be a part of those Olympics -- and for the young people of China to witness this, starting with our two games," Torre said when he visited Beijing in January to help announce the series.

Said Padres vice president Dave Winfield at that same press conference, addressing the Chinese people with his statement: "We're very pleased to be the first Major League Baseball teams to play in China, and hopefully we can help you develop a love for the game as we love it in the United States."

Of course, that's the point of it all. This is a chance for baseball to spread its wings even further as the internationalization of the game continues to grow. Including this year's season-opening series between the Red Sox and A's in Tokyo later in March, baseball has extended its outreach to countries around the globe.

March 13Padres visit Great Wall of China
March 14Padres hold youth clinic at Fengtai School
Teams work out at Wukesong Stadium
Dodgers visit Great Wall of China
March 15Dodgers vs. Padres, 1:07 a.m. ET
March 16Padres vs. Dodgers, 1:07 a.m. ET
Clubs fly back to U.S. after game
Beijing is 12 hours ahead of ET.
But don't get the idea this is the first China has ever seen of baseball. According to various historical accounts, the first "stickball" games there date back to 1863, and baseball flourished there for the first half of the 20th century and then some. It was hailed as the People's Liberation Party's official sport, but it went away with the rest of Western influence upon the Cultural Revolution there.

Baseball began working its way back into Chinese culture in 1986 when Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley traveled there, and it really burst back onto the baseball scene in the last few years, including its appearance in the World Baseball Classic in 2006.

Despite a rough 0-3 appearance in the WBC, there are a proverbial 1.3 billion reasons to believe that China could be a big part of baseball's future.

"They've got a ways to go before they catch up but it's a country with a huge population and good athletes," Randy Smith, Padres director of professional and international scouting, said. "Hopefully the baseball will come. You've got to say that it's the next untapped market because of the sheer numbers in terms of population.

"It's a new sport so I don't think you're going to get guys pop up in the big leagues in the near future but it could be a nice long-term investment for Major League Baseball as well as the Padres."

For the players participating in what frankly will be a grueling travel schedule, including an 18-hour flight from Florida for the Dodgers, it will be a labor of love, an opportunity to experience something that goes well beyond balls and strikes.

"Baseball takes me all over and gives me a chance to see other parts of the country," Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff said. "Now that we're going to China, I just thought it would be fun to experience a different country and a different culture as well as being the first teams to play baseball there."

Signing on the dotted line
Since 2001, five Chinese players have signed contracts with Major League teams.
Zhang ZhenwangCatcherYankees
Liu Kai Left-handed Pitcher Yankees
Wei WangCatcherMariners
Yu BingjiaInfielder/OutfielderMariners
Chao WangRight-handed PitcherMariners
No mere pleasure cruise
Clearly, the players, coaches and executives are taking a business trip. They're ambassadors.

The Padres have been active in the internationalization of baseball for years, notably with the first regular-season series outside the U.S. or Canada, a three-game meeting with the Mets in Monterrey, Mexico, in 1996.

"I think what we've tried to do over the last several years is give the Padres a little higher visibility, not only in baseball but throughout the United States and overseas," Padres CEO Sandy Alderson said. "In order to do that, we've tried to play better baseball, put a good product on the field, but we've explored bringing events to San Diego, the World Baseball Classic and even non-baseball events like the rugby tournament we had.

"We want to promote the Padres as an organization and as a brand if you will and anything we can do is of a historic nature adds to that and helps us grow our history. It's easy for the Yankees and Red Sox who already have name recognition and the connotation of excellence and success. For us, we need to keep working at it. This is one of those events that could contribute to our reputation."

For the Dodgers, it's another step in what has been a long-standing tradition of reaching out beyond borders.

"If China puts its mind to it and decides to embrace professional baseball, we know it will be a success," Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said. "To be part of that and to build a bridge from America to China, I think is very consistent with the history of this ballclub. It's done the same in Japan, in Taiwan, in Latin America.

"Part of what makes the Dodgers a worldwide brand is this organization has always embraced bringing baseball all over the world because of the love of the game. It's a very proud part of our heritage and something that is incumbent upon us to continue."

Indeed, that's at the heart of the trip from Major League Baseball's perspective as well, according to Selig, for whom the internationalization is a large part of his legacy.

"We have to go everywhere. And we will; we will," he said.

By going to China this week, MLB is taking to a new level a mission that has been in the works for years. MLB signed a development agreement with the Chinese Baseball Association in November 2003, opening the door to signing players from China; former players Jim Lefebvre and Bruce Hurst have acted as manager and coach, respectively, of the Chinese National Team; and MLB has begun numerous youth and community efforts in China, with support coming from Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, among others.

MLB has planted its flag, as it were, with an office in Beijing, and this week's trip is a grand way to wave it.

When Major League Baseball officially introduces itself to China this week, face to face and with the crack of the bat filling the air of Wukesong Stadium, the sport will be going where really no American sport has gone before, at least not to this degree.

"It's quite an experience, to say the least," Selig said. "I'm thrilled with it. So this is great. This is history in the making. Someday I'll look back on all this and say, 'It was great to go for the first time.' "

John Schlegel is executive editor for the West Divisions for reporters Barry Bloom, Corey Brock and Ken Gurnick contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.