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September 24, 2009

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MLB opens China training center at Wuxi school

THERE'S a Babe Ruth in training right now. Here in China.

Well, the sturdy 13-year-old is really Luan Chenchen and his teammates call him "Baby Ruth," but someday, his coaches hope he might grow into the sort of talent that made Babe a legend.

Luan is one of 16 kids in the first class of Major League Baseball's first professional development center, part of a program in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, aimed at finding and nurturing future talent - and promoting the game in China.

"With any sport, the best place to start is with the kids," MLB President Robert Dupuy said yesterday, inaugurating the center. "Then they grow up, and become fans and encourage their kids to play."

Basketball has boomed in China, helped by Shanghai-born star Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets. Teams and sponsors have also found a lucrative market here for merchandise.

MLB is gunning for a similar transformation.

After all, baseball has an even longer history in China: the game was first introduced in Shanghai in the 1860s. The sport quietly endured throughout falling dynasties, revolutions and other political upheavals, in part, historians say, thanks to the military's desire to build up grenade-lobbing muscles.

China has a seven-team professional baseball league and the national association says about 1,000 schools have teams, including 140 at the tertiary level. China has fielded teams at both the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic.

Still, few Chinese play or know much about the sport and games are rarely shown on television. Beijing already has demolished its own Wukesong Olympic baseball stadium, and the local professional league struggles to draw spectators.

Worse still, baseball has been cut from the Olympic program, giving sports officials little incentive to back it.

In China, MLB has been running summer training camps for kids and supporting university programs, among other charitable and cooperative efforts.

For its development center, it chose Dongbeitang High School, a newly built facility complete with a baseball diamond, thanks to the school's baseball-fan principal. There, the boys selected for the program attend classes, baseball training and English lessons.


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