KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Not one of the hundred or so fans at a recent Ban Johnson summer collegiate league game here felt compelled to leap from their lawn chairs to applaud when a batter, known just by the nickname DJ, stopped at second base on a ball he had ripped down the first-base line. It was a routine play that required DJ, the team’s fastest runner, to suppress his desire to leg out a triple in favor of doing what the situation dictated reasonably than risking an inning-ending out at third.
But when that story was relayed to Ray Chang, DJ’s highschool coach 7,000 miles away in Nanjing, China, Chang was bursting with pride.
“That’s awesome. I like hearing that,” Chang, who was born and raised in america, said by phone. “Our important focus is talking in regards to the ins and outs and the strategies of the sport because when these kids come to us, they’re to date behind where a U.S. kid could be by way of experience playing and watching the sport.”
Chang is the manager of baseball operations for Major League Baseball’s player development initiative in China, a program offering academic and baseball education to students from seventh grade through highschool. The primary development center was established in Wuxi in 2009. Additional centers have opened in Changzhou (2011) and Nanjing (2014). Chang, also the top coach on the Nanjing center, has been working in China full-time since 2017, when he retired from a 12-season minor league profession that began within the San Diego Padres organization.
DJ, his former student, is a 24-year-old native of Qinghai, a province within the autonomous region of Tibet, who’s identified on his visa documents as Fnu Suonandajie. Fnu just isn’t a reputation, nonetheless, because it stands for First Name Unknown, a term utilized by the State Department for foreigners with an unknown given name. And Suonandajie just isn’t a family name: It was given to him by a monk when he was a baby. He rectified that cultural difference by asking Americans to call him DJ.
At 5 feet 8 inches and 184 kilos, DJ plays center field and bats leadoff. He didn’t play baseball until he was nearly 10, but was discovered in 2011 by M.L.B. recruiters who scour China for promising athletes to send to their middle school program in Changzhou.
The recruiters were initially impressed by DJ’s foot speed and throwing accuracy, a skill he attributes to hurling rocks at domestic yaks to encourage them to stop grazing. He says it’s a standard task of Tibetan children, with a goal of getting the rock land close enough to the yaks to startle them into moving along without actually hitting them.
M.L.B.’s recruiters are working to open the world’s biggest market to a sport it knows little about. The goal is to seek out players who may help construct enthusiasm there, the best way the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming ignited interest within the N.B.A. in China after he signed with the Houston Rockets in 2002.
Unsurprisingly, DJ says basketball, soccer, tennis and table tennis would have been his likely playing selections had baseball not come calling. As a substitute, he graduated from the event center’s highschool program in Nanjing, where he was coached by Chang. He got here to america, earned a roster spot as a walk-on at Los Angeles Harbor College, and graduated from the community college last yr with an associate degree in communications. Shortly before Thanksgiving, he was awarded a full scholarship to play baseball for Rockhurst University, a Division II school in Kansas City.
“I like the concept of pitcher versus batter, just me against him,” DJ said of his passion for baseball before a recent Ban Johnson league game. “My first game in the summertime league this yr, I strike out first three at-bats, but after I get one other probability, I used to be like, ‘You bought me the primary three, but I got this one,’ and I squared that ball and hit it within the gap. I flipped my bat and I said to myself, ‘I got you.’ That sort of idea that you just just don’t quit until the last out, I actually like that.”
By attending college in america, DJ and a number of other players represent a latest pathway in the event process that might ultimately result in a watershed moment in M.L.B.’s foray into China: the first-year player draft.
Previously, the trail for development center players was to sign as international free agents. That landmark was first achieved in 2015 when the Baltimore Orioles signed the primary development center graduate, Gui Yuan Xu, a position player who goes by Itchy due to his affection for Ichiro Suzuki. Xu played 73 games over three seasons in rookie and Class A ball before being released.
Since then, six other development center graduates have been signed, by Boston, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Five of them suffered the identical fate as Xu, unable to rise above the bottom levels of the minor leagues before their eventual release. Only Jolon Zhao, a right-handed pitcher in Milwaukee’s system, stays.
DJ can be one in all at the least nine graduates who try a special path by being on a baseball scholarship at a U.S. college this fall. Two more graduates are mulling scholarship offers.
Once enrolled in college, they change into eligible for M.L.B.’s annual draft, which is able to begin Sunday and run for 3 days. While M.L.B. is in negotiations with the players’ union over the creation of a world draft — a deadline looms July 25 for that call — the present system is proscribed to amateurs playing in america and Canada.
Besides making development center graduates much easier to be seen and tracked by M.L.B. scouts, Chang says there are other merits to picking the faculty option reasonably than signing as a free agent.
“Truthfully, for me, this can be a blessing,” Chang said. “Facing the shock of a latest culture and the pains of 144-game minor league seasons, which is so many more games than they’ve played in a season here, at 17 years old, is incredibly difficult. The faculty route allows more time to ease into the brand new culture and prepare you higher to handle the grind of minor league baseball, if you happen to’re lucky enough to get that chance.”
He added, “These guys can compete, little doubt, but they should transition into the brand new culture and the longer season.”
The goal, which is to have a development center graduate drafted, could occur soon, based on Bryan Minniti, who was an assistant general manager for the Philadelphia Phillies, overseeing the organization’s scouting and player development, when he signed a development center graduate as a world free agent in 2018. Minniti was recently named a board member of baseball’s international governing body, the World Baseball Softball Confederation.
“Any player development project, especially one began from scratch, takes time, but I feel we’re getting closer by the day to seeing a Chinese player in Major League Baseball,” Minniti said. “From a scouting perspective, every team is hungry for players with tools, and it doesn’t matter where they arrive from. If there’s a 6-foot-2 left-hander with a very good arm, he’s going to get noticed.”
In truth, there’s. Roger Rang, one other Tibet native and development center graduate, is a 6-2, 185-pound lefty who can be a sophomore at Arizona Western College this fall. Through July 8, he had struck out 50 batters in 48⅓ innings while walking only nine for the Casper Horseheads, a summer collegiate league team in Wyoming.
With the 20-round draft on deck in the approaching days, scouts are being attentive.
Brad Lefton is a bilingual journalist based in St. Louis. He focuses on baseball in Japan and Asia.