MLB in China: My Experiences at the Games

This upcoming Saturday is my birthday.  I'm only telling you this because my wife and her side of our family gave me one of the best birthday presents I've ever received.  For my birthday I was able to fly to Beijing from our hometown of Kunming and watch the Dodgers and the Padres spring training game.  As many of you know, it was the first major league series to be played in China.  

It's almost baseball season and being a passionate baseball fan living over here can be somewhat difficult.  I am able to watch the regular season games online either through MLB TV or through the use of a Slingbox that my parents have setup back in Plano.  Our internet connection can barely handle it, as all of China (330 million internet users) are required to use the same ADSL lines for broadband service, and all of these ADSL lines have to go through the filters in Beijing.  Once people start waking up and checking their e-mails nationwide, the speeds online drop dramatically.  So by the time the games get going I'm usually just hearing broken audio, with a new image every fifteen seconds or so.  The other problem is that since we are thirteen hours ahead of Dallas, most games start around 8AM.  That obviously conflicts with regular daytime work and school hours.  When the opportunity arose to go see a real baseball game, free of internet problems or school conflicts, I was ecstatic.

The above picture is obviously my ticket to the game.  All of the seats from third base to first base were at this price or above.  The price of 480 yuan translates to $67.72.  That price is far too expensive for most Chinese who are unfamiliar with baseball, yet there is a rich class in Beijing, and many of them were at the game.  Fortunately, Major League Baseball made the outfield tickets extremely affordable (around $5), but these tickets sold out long before the games began.

The above picture is Wukesong stadium, which is one of the two olympic baseball stadiums built for this summer.  They finished construction literally just last week.

I got to the game a few hours early to catch batting practice and see if I could get an autograph or two.  Neither went quite as planned.  The game started at 1PM, but they didn't allow fans into the stadium until around 11:45AM.  So I had plenty of time to wait outside before the game began chatting with people and watching the general atmosphere before one of China's very first professional baseball games.

As I talked to people, some had been to children's baseball games before, but had never seen a live adult game.  In Beijing, you can get satellite television that includes ESPN Asia, so some of the people had watched MLB games on TV.  Overall, people were very excited and very interested about what was going to happen.

These two pictures are the kind of thing that makes me love baseball.  While we waited outside for them to let us in, people started playing catch.  First, it was the two Chinese men you see in the top picture, and then some others (including this American dad and his son) started playing.

Finally at 11:30AM they let us line up, and at 11:45AM they opened the doors.  Maybe things have changed in the states since I've lived in China, but the security for this game seemed much higher.  We had to x-ray all of our belongings, go through a metal detector and then have someone run a wand over us to make sure we didn't bring anything into the park.  Fortunately, it moved rather quickly, and since I was the third person in my line I wasn't delayed much.

Whenever I first went into the park I immediately went to buy a hot dog.  I had heard on the news the night before that they had real American hot dogs at the game, so I was excited that they had even brought the food of the game to China.  Well, I wasn't really impressed, haha.  The food was all brought in from a local American restaurant called "Tim's Texas Barbecue."  If I ever met Tim I would politely ask him to remove Texas from his name because his food is an embarrassment to those of us who know Texas barbecue.

As you can see, my hot dog was put in a sliced loaf of french bread.  Hot dogs buns have to be imported so I'm not against this cheaper form of bun.  The dog was a chicken dog, and it already had relish and mustard on it when I bought it.  All of that would have been okay if it weren't for the last problem...the "hot" dog was ice cold.  When I asked if they had a microwave or anything to heat it up they said no.  Anyways, it was still kind of cool to be sitting in Beijing, China eating a "hot" dog at an MLB game.

Do you see the difference in the number of media members in these two pictures?  What's the difference?  The reason for the increase in media was that the Dodgers were getting ready to come out of the dugout in the second picture.  I would not be exaggerating to say that nine out of every ten Asian fans that I met at the game were pulling for the Dodgers.  Why?  Because the Dodgers have three Asian players and the Padres have none.  This is a culture that gets behind it's players like nowhere else.  I was told that in Taiwan baseball has become the most popular sport simply because of Chui Long Hu and Chien Ming Wang.  I can attest that one star player has made basketball the biggest sport in China and I believe a baseball star from the mainland could do the same.

Another thing that I quickly found out was that the players wanted to sign autographs and the fans wanted to get autographs, but that the Chinese government did not want to allow what they saw as "crazy fans" getting close to the players.  Clearly this was a part of the foreigner culture that the Chinese were not familiar with.  So since I wasn't able to get any autographs I decided to spend my time finding a way to get onto the field.

Well, I was able to get onto the warning track in centerfield.  I simply walked past one distracted guard outside the back of the stadium and then walked up to the wall where there were three more guards making sure nobody entered the field.  I simply started talking to them in Chinese and they were so impressed that I lived in China and could speak some Chinese that they let me onto the field for a few shots before making me go back to my seat.

As I went back to my seat I ran into these girls.  They were the game's cheerleaders.  The way I heard the story is that when the planners for the game arrived in China they were asked about where to put the cheerleaders.  The Chinese planners were shocked to hear that American baseball doesn't have cheerleaders so they provided some to cheer between innings occasionally and to help sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."  Here's a picture of that strangely surreal scene.

Once I got back to my seat it was about time for the opening lineups and national anthems.  

The starting lineups were cool to me because they were translated into the two languages.  It was also somewhat cool to see all of the former Rangers such as Adrian Gonzalez.

The opening ceremonies were very cool.  Bud Selig made his first speech in years where nobody booed.  It was translated into Chinese and was just as generic in Chinese as in English.  The cool part to me was that they had a VJ from MTV Asia leading the opening ceremonies, and Jet Li threw out the first pitch as you can see in the picture below.

Once the game started I sat back and just enjoyed the game with only a few minor distractions.  The atmosphere during the game was great as the Chinese fans were really into it.  Many were not familiar with the game at all, so they would cheer for players and not for the game itself.  Chui-Long Hu was a star despite not being from the mainland of China.  Anything he did received cheers and he got a standing ovation in his last at bat.

There was one thing that happened during a few points in the game that was somewhat comical to me, but also very cool.  The VJ from MTV Asia would come back out between innings and the first time she asked in Chinese "Who's familiar with the rules of baseball?"  The stands were silent.  So she said, "Then let's teach you how to play!"  People started cheering loudly.  MLB has a set of short video clips to help teach the game that they played, and a game of selecting the right answer.  Here's an example below.

It was comical to those of us who know the game because the answers were so simple.  Still, you would hear large crowds cheering for the other options.  China still has a long way to go in becoming a baseball country.  If you know the history of baseball in China, you know that it was hugely popular in the thirties and forties but was outlawed during the Cultural Revolution.  I could definitely see from the little league players that were at the game and from the general excitement that it is going to make a comeback.

The rest of the game was pretty much the same as in America, except for a few poor attempts at contextualizing the game by Major League Baseball such as the "Pagoda Shuffle" instead of the "Pick the Hat" game.  I absolutely loved being there and simply watching baseball.  To tell you the truth, there were some moments when I began tearing up thinking about being able to watch baseball in Beijing.  It was definitely one of the best things I've ever been able to do.

I sat next to a couple of A's fans and was excited that they were also very passionate fans.  They live in Taiwan and were in town just for the game.  They were talking about how popular the game is there, and how it's all because of the Taiwanese players in the majors.  That made me excited to think that this game that I love so passionately could someday be popular in mainland China as well.

If you would like to see some more pictures from the day, here is my flickr site.