SARASOTA, Fla. -- The noontime sun blazes relentlessly as players from the rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliates of the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox engage in pregame stretching and throwing. Each player has the same career goal, but the one wearing the No. 21 jersey for the Orioles undoubtedly has the most intriguing background. He's the only one wearing a microphone with a documentary crew following him. He's the only one who answers to a cartoonish nickname. He's the only one who received worldwide attention simply by signing his name on a contract.
He's the one trying to become the first Chinese player by birth and ancestry to play in the major leagues (two American players born in China have reached the majors).
Twenty-year-old Xu Guiyuan (pronounced "shoo GEE-win") seems somewhat embarrassed by the fuss. He graciously accommodates the media, even though he almost certainly would be more comfortable plying his trade without all the attention. It's valuable experience, however, just like batting, running, throwing and fielding. Because if he does get called up to the majors someday, it's going to be a very big deal to millions of people.
Playing first base, Xu makes an error on his first fielding chance of the game -- "That's no good for the TV," manager Orlando Gomez jokes in the dugout -- before settling down as the Orioles turn a double play to get out of the inning.
Xu grew up in Shenzhen, a growing city near Hong Kong with an estimated population of more than 10 million. He didn't touch a baseball until he was 10 years old, but before long he joined his older brother in playing the sport at school. By age 14, Xu was recruited to the MLB development center in Wuxi, a city of about 6 million in the Jiangsu province. He jumped at the opportunity even though the academy, the first of its kind in that nation, is almost 1,000 miles from Shenzhen.
It was there that he acquired his nickname: Itchy. One of the coaches asked players what they wanted to be called, and Xu invoked the name of Ichiro Suzuki.
"I liked Ichiro, and I wanted to be called Ichiro," Xu said. "But my coach said, 'Too many people are called Ichiro.' Then, he called me Itchy. In the beginning, I didn't know what Itchy means. Then when I learned English, then I know. But I'm already used to it."
Xu was first recruited by MLB International as a left-handed pitcher, but it wasn't long before he showed aptitude as a hitter. Former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Jesse Litsch coached at the Wuxi academy while Xu was there. Litsch said Xu was clearly the top prospect, and he tried to give him an idea of how to handle the daily rigors and lifestyle of being a professional ballplayer.
"As far as ability, he definitely stood out," said Litsch, who now serves as pitching coach for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League. "He's the one who hit the balls over the fence. He's the one that showed the most potential -- not only as a player, as a person too, with his [speaking] English and stuff like that. That plays a big factor in it also."
By 2015, Xu had shown enough promise for the Orioles to make him the first player from an MLB academy in China to sign a pro contract.
The Orioles have signed free agent INF Gui Yuan "Itchy" Xu to a 2016 minor league deal. pic.twitter.com/FpyUdzeJis
— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) July 20, 2015
Baltimore general manager Dan Duquette has seen baseball grow internationally over the past three decades. He was scouting director of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987 when they signed Dave Nilsson, who became the first player to reach the majors after being signed directly from Australia. Duquette fully realizes the significance of signing Xu.
"It's a milestone in that he's the first player from mainland China," Duquette said. "We hope he's the first of many. This is the start of the process."
Xu is 6-foot, 185 pounds and bats and throws left-handed. He was listed as a first baseman for much of the season but also has seen time at the corner outfield spots, perhaps a more logical fit for a player his size. He said he doesn't care what position he's playing as long as he gets to keep playing and practicing.
"Playing defense is a little bit of a challenge," Xu said. "It's a struggle, but I'm getting better."
Against the Red Sox, Xu records the first out of the third inning by digging a throw from the third baseman out of the dirt. When he makes a similar play the following inning, a teammate shouts, "Go Itchy." For the final out of the eighth, he scoops up a grounder and carefully flips the ball to his pitcher on the move. At the plate, Xu bats eighth and goes 1-for-3 with a solid single to center.
Gomez sees the improvement, but he also has to juggle a 34-man roster. To get in the lineup consistently, a player must perform consistently. Xu started the season impressively, batting .500 (12-for-24) in his first nine games. Since then, he's hitting .143 (8-for-56). Through Tuesday, with two games remaining in the season, he was batting .250 with an OPS of .561 in 32 games overall.
"He's making some progress," Gomez said. "In the long run, I think he's going to be a better outfielder [than first baseman]. The knowledge of the game is getting better, and that helps a lot. I'm happy with the way he's really coming around."
Xu faces a steeper learning curve than most of his peers. He's competing against pitchers with more velocity and movement than he ever saw in China.
"The speed of the game is something that he has improved on," said GCL Orioles hitting coach Milt May, who played 15 seasons in the major leagues. "It's still a work in progress, but he's made great strides along those lines. ... He has since become a pretty good fastball hitter, and that's to his credit. He's a very teachable guy. He's all ears. He asks questions and tries to apply things that you might suggest to him."
Before he came to America, Xu watched baseball on his phone. With certain players, he would rewind their swings over and over in order to study their mechanics. In addition to Ichiro, he lists Mike Trout and fellow lefties Robinson Cano and Chris Davis among the major league hitters he likes to analyze. Now he watches games with an eye on learning the proper responses to various game situations.
Xu lives in a hotel along with many of his teammates, and he's acclimating to life in the United States. Like many Americans his age, he eats a lot of burgers and burritos -- especially double chicken and double steak from Chipotle.
Being halfway around the world from his family is difficult, Xu said, but he's committed to the process it will take to climb the organizational ladder. When training in Wuxi, he was far from his family, but at least they were in the same time zone. Now, with a time difference of 12 hours, communicating is considerably more difficult. He stays in touch via FaceTime once or twice a week.
Itchy said he enjoys life in America, and being immersed in the culture helps him learn English at a faster pace. Although his background is unique, he said teammates have helped him a lot and made him feel welcome.
"Guys will joke with him, and he will joke back," Gomez said. "The Latin players will give him a little bit of a hard time, and he gives them a hard time back. Before the year is over, he might be speaking Spanish, too."
Meantime, MLB is committed to making inroads in China. In addition to the development center in Wuxi, MLB has established academies in the Jiangsu province cities of Changzhou and Nanjing. MLB also reached a deal prior to this season to stream 125 games per year online in China through 2018. The baseball talent pool in China is growing, and more prospects will likely be headed to the American minor leagues in the next decade.
Basketball's popularity notably surged in China following the emergence of Shanghai-native Yao Ming in the early 2000s. Although it might not be realistic to expect comparable growth in baseball, MLB must be excited to see how much the game could grow when the first native-born player of Chinese heritage reaches the major leagues.
Xu dreams of being the one to break that barrier. He's well aware of his status as a torchbearer but said he doesn't feel pressure to succeed because of it. Instead, he tries to stay in the moment, remain prepared and give his best effort every day.
"I want to work hard," Xu said. "Keep your goal. Keep your focus. Stay confident."
It's difficult to project the potential of any prospect at the rookie level, especially with Xu, who is absorbing so much so quickly. His development over the next year will be telling, Gomez said. At that point, the Orioles' talent evaluators will have a much clearer idea of what they have.
"I've always said, 'Anybody who's got a uniform has got a chance,'" Gomez said. "I think with one more year, you can tell what he's going to be."
Indeed, the Orioles will know a lot more about Xu by next summer, but it typically takes several years to project a player with some certainty. That said, even if Itchy doesn't ultimately play in the major leagues, Duquette said Xu has a future in baseball if he so chooses, because his experience can help lay the groundwork for a talent pipeline between MLB and China.
"I'm glad we signed him," Duquette said. "At the very least, he can go back to China and teach baseball and continue the process."