Lucchino, reps from several MLB teams heading to China

BOSTON -- Like a Marco Polo of the major leagues, Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino is off again to explore distant lands
on baseball's behalf.

A longtime proponent of expanding the game internationally,
Lucchino is leaving for China on Monday with a delegation from the
commissioner's office. They'll meet with government officials,
visit the Olympic baseball venue and take in a couple of China
Baseball League games while trying to determine whether -- how soon,
really -- a major league team could play exhibitions there.

"The commissioner is eager to get an MLB presence in China,"
Lucchino said Friday in an interview at Fenway Park. "We have an
interest in popularizing the Red Sox name and brand in Asia. But we
also have an interest in being active participants in major league
baseball's growth."

Also making the trip are Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating
officer, San Diego Padres chief executive officer Sandy Alderson
and Pittsburgh Pirates CEO Kevin McClatchy. Tim Brosnan, Jimmie Lee
Solomon and Paul Archey will also represent the commissioner's

"It's a very high-level group that baseball has put together,"
Lucchino said. "It's designed to demonstrate how serious our
short-term and long-term interests are in the development of
baseball in China."

Lucchino was the president of the Padres when they
made two trips to Monterrey, Mexico, for regular-season games.
(They also played in Hawaii.) He pushed for the creation of the
World Baseball Classic, and has campaigned to have the Red Sox play
in Japan after they signed pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

But these days most sports are looking at China, both because
the 2008 Olympics will be in Beijing and because its population is
more than 1.3 billion.

The NFL scheduled an exhibition game there for 2008 before
putting it off to focus on a regular-season game planned for
London. Basketball commissioner David Stern has wondered whether an
"NBA of China" might help the game capitalize on the popularity
of Chinese star Yao Ming.

There are no Chinese baseball stars to market back home, but
Lucchino said the sport is looking for major leaguers, and not just
major league fans. After witnessing an explosion of interest in the
Red Sox in Japan since Boston signed Matsuzaka, Lucchino knows that
developing a Chinese baseball star "is the best way to accelerate
the growth and development of the game at every level."

"Games are helpful, but you also want to grow the game at the
amateur level," he said. "There's no doubt that's the fastest way
of developing an interest in a country."

Baseball traces its history in China to 1863, when the Shanghai
Baseball Club was founded. But while the sport thrived in Japan and
Taiwan, the Chinese associated it with their political enemies and
essentially purged it from the mainland during the Cultural

Things picked up again near the end of the 20th Century and, in
2005, China beat Korea to finish third at the Asian Championships.
But last year at the inaugural World Baseball Classic, the Chinese
did not win a game.

"It has a long history there, but it has up-and-down cycles,"
Lucchino said.

The Chinese are building a 15,000-seat baseball stadium in
preparation for the Olympics, and the Americans want to keep it
busy when the Games are over. The U.S. delegation will visit the
Olympic venue, which is expected to be finished this summer, and a
pair of ballparks in the Chinese Baseball League.

The trip also includes meetings with officials from the Chinese
sports ministry and the U.S. embassy.

The baseball players' association is also planning a
fact-finding trip to China "to see how soon we can play games
there," union head Donald Fehr said.

"It will be very soon, in my judgment," he said, adding that
scheduling and the safety of stadiums are the players' main
concerns. "We're excited about the opportunity. Players have been
for a long time."