Mariners, Major Leagues Look to China

Wang Chao grinned when he saw the Seattle Mariners jersey with his name on it. He smiled as he worked out in the bullpen at Safeco Field. He positively glowed as he watched his first major league game, a blowout in which the Mariners trounced their opponents 16-1.

China, meanwhile, cried foul.

The 16-year-old Wang, signed to a 2002 contract, is set to become the first mainland Chinese player to join a Major League Baseball organization. This does not sit well with the Chinese Baseball Association, baseball's governing body in the People's Republic of China, which claims it was not informed of the negotiations and had not given Wang clearance to play in the United States.

An association spokesperson told The Associated Press on Thursday that Wang is still under a 12-year contract with a Beijing team, and said the Mariners "acted unethically" when they signed him.

According to Shen Wei, secretary general of the association, Wang is also registered as a member of China's national baseball team and may be obligated to play in games for them later this year.

"No matter what country you go to to find players, you still need to follow procedures," Shen told ABCNEWS.com.

Two-Sided Game

These complaints are somewhat perplexing to the Mariners front office, which is nevertheless standing by its boy. Wang headed to Peoria after Thursday's game to prepare for fall instructional league training.

Mariners Pacific Rim scouting director Ted Heid insists the Mariners followed all the rules in acquiring Wang. The Lucheng Baseball Academy, where Wang was enrolled, has released him of all obligations, he said.

Furthermore, says Heid, Wang's parents, both successful Chinese athletes, directly informed the Chinese Baseball Association of their son's intent to move.

"We went through every hoop," he says.

International Affair

In spite of the controversy, the signing of Wang may be a shot in the arm for Chinese baseball.

The Chinese Baseball Association, plagued by local disinterest and a lack of resources, is still struggling to put together a professional league.

However, the Mariners' interest in Wang suggests that Chinese baseball may finally be approaching an internationally competitive level. Wang will be only the second Chinese player to play professionally outside of the country. The first is Lu Jiangang, who was signed by the Japanese Chunichi Dragons in 1998.

"The Chinese Baseball Association's done a great job at improving their quality of baseball," says Heid.

China is now attracting scouts from around the major leagues, and Mariners vice president of scouting Roger Jongewaard has said he believes many more Chinese players may follow in Wang's footsteps. An injection of international experience could also help raise the bar for baseball in the country.

Both Heid and Shen note that in the 2008 Olympics to be held in Beijing, China has an opportunity to showcase its overseas-groomed talent and draw both local and global attention to its baseball players.

Give and Get

If by then China manages to assemble a world-class team, they will not have done it alone. The Chinese Baseball Association has consistently enlisted foreign help in its efforts to increase awareness of the sport and improve the quality of its players.

These include conducting baseball exchanges with countries with established baseball leagues such as Korea, Japan and the United States. Several major league organizations, including the Mariners, have sent coaching staffs and minor-league affiliate teams to China to play exhibition games and work with local players.

In turn, this spring the Lucheng academy a handful of players and officials, including Wang, to Arizona where they spent a few weeks with the Mariners during spring training.

This turned out to play a key role in Wang's eventual signing, as the organization had the opportunity to observe him up close. After he returned to Beijing, Mariners scouts kept up with his progress and, impressed, began making overtures in mid-July.

Wang was not a starting player on the Beijing team, but "his improvement since we saw him in March piqued our interest," says Heid.

Scout's Honor

Although Seattle has set a precedent by taking on the first player out of China, Heid says that was not a factor in his signing.

"The Mariners ownership has made a concerted commitment to finding players anywhere in the world," he says. "We found a player that has the tools."

The Mariners organization, which devotes a great deal of energy to international scouting, has signed players not only from Latin America but also from Italy, Australia and Russia.

Perhaps two of the most popular Mariners are Japanese All-Stars Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki. Both have huge followings not only in Seattle, but in Japan, where all Mariners games are now broadcast live on television.

But will Wang have the same impact in his home country?

Heid estimates the chance that a typical young, minor-league "rough diamond" like Wang will make it to the big leagues is less than 1 percent.

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