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'Take me out to the ball game' - Young players to slug it out in May

BASEBALL, known as America's favorite pastime, doesn't have much of a following in China, but baseball lovers are trying to change that and get students to swing the bat at an early age.

"Unlike many other physically demanding sports, baseball requires compatibility, flexibility and team spirit - it's a perfect fit for Chinese," says Leon Xie, manager director of Major League Baseball China.

In late May, primary school baseball teams from five Chinese cities will compete in Shanghai for the first national Play Ball! China Program Championship.

It's part of Major League Baseball International's effort to introduce and expand youth baseball in China. Last year was the first season, but there was no championship; this year there will be a national champion.

Competitors, mostly 10-12 years old, come from 120 schools in Beijing, Guangzhou (Guangdong Province), Shanghai, Tianjin and Wuxi (Jiangsu Province).

Around 450 pupils from 30 primary schools in Shanghai will participate.

The program began on March 14 with league competition that runs through May to decide school and city champions. The five city winners will compete at the national final in Shanghai that includes a second team from the host city.

Each school will take the name of one of the major US ball clubs. Uniforms and caps are supplied by Majestic and New Era, sponsors of the program.

Since 1994, MLBI has promoted league and school-based baseball in Australia, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Africa and the United Kingdom. More than 80 percent of the American public are baseball fans, says Xie of MLB China. Once Chinese youngsters experience the fun and excitement of baseball, the game is likely to become popular, he says.

"Baseball involves not only skills, but also strategies and teamwork," he says. "You need to find the best arrangement, cooperate with your teammates and sometimes learn to sacrifice. The spirit of baseball can help young people prepare to enter society."

Most Shanghai competitors are grade-three and four students with less than one year's experience in the game. Each school hired a student of the Shanghai Physical Education Institute as a permanent coach, giving regular classes since last October.

Coaches from MLB will instruct the young players during the annual competition.

"Our goal in this national final is to raise the profile of Play Ball! China so even more kids will want to experience the wonderful game," says Paul Archey, senior vice president of international business operations at Major League Baseball.


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