Welcome to China

Quick facts

Location: Eastern Asia, bordering the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, between North Korea and Vietnam
Size: 3,705,386 square miles, or slightly smaller than the U.S.
Population: 1.3 billion (largest in the world)
People: Han Chinese (93%), plus 55 ethnic minorities; Mandarin, Cantonese
Language: Standard Chinese or Mandarin (Putonghua, based on the Beijing dialect), Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghaiese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, Hakka dialects, various minority languages
Government: Communist state
Capital: Beijing (population: 14 million)

Baseball (and other interesting) notes
Most known for: Its mammoth population; Communist past and present; ambition to secure at least a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics it will host; hoopster Yao Ming; and The Great Wall.
Quotable: "If we can get one of these players to the big leagues, hopefully, it would create the Yao Ming effect in baseball over there." -- Former MLB player turned China coach Jim Lefebvre, in the Asian Reporter, March 2005
Famous national anthem verse: "With our flesh and blood, let us build our new Great Wall!"
Baseball's Chinese debut: Dates back to the 1800s, but was effectively banned during the Cold War under the rule of Mao Zedong.
China's baseball hotbeds: China is still developing the sport, so there is no such thing as a baseball hot spot yet. However, Beijing, Tianjin and Sichuan province have the strongest following. Tianjin in particular has the most educated and enthusiastic fans.
Number of Chinese-born currently signed to MLB organizations: 1.
First Chinese-born player in MLB: Harry Kingman, born in Tientsin, played for the New York Yankees in 1914.
Most notable MLB exports: None.
Ones to watch for in the future: Pitcher Wang Chao (Seattle Mariners organization).
China's baseball weather: Hot.
Biggest sports competitors: Soccer, basketball, ping pong.
MLB connection: In November 2003, Major League Baseball and the China Baseball Association (CBA) signed a development agreement to help train the country's national team, coaches and umpires, and to help its school-aged children learn and play the game. A system was also established enabling MLB clubs to scout and sign Chinese players to professional contracts. One year later, MLB, the CBA and sports goods manufacturer Mizuno staged the first national schools baseball tournament in China. It featured more than 160 teams from schools in four cities competing in elementary, junior high, high school and university divisions. The championship games were televised on Chinese television, a first for scholastic baseball in the country. Former big league players Jim Lefebvre and Bruce Hurst have also taught the Chinese the game, and its national team has participated in minor league spring training games against future MLB prospects. Lefebvre will skipper China in the World Baseball Classic.
Only in China: Breakfast and baseball. The China Baseball Association secured a broadcast agreement under the condition Sunday games were played in the morning. ... People power. The number of school-age athletes in the Land of Mao is larger than the entire population of the U.S., or more than 290 million.

Amateur and international competition
Number of Chinese playing organized baseball: About 156,000 (far too few, but it's grown from 0)
Amateur highlights: Beat a U.S. junior college All-Star team in 2002. Five perfectly placed bunts in the first two innings led to a 7-3 win. Hosts 2008 Olympics.
Biggest international rival: Taiwan
Contact information: Chinese Baseball Association
5, Tiyuguan Road, Beijing 100763
Tel: (+86-10) 6714 5078; (+86-10) 6716 9082
Fax: (+86-10) 6716 2993
E-mail: cga_cra@263.net

Chinese Baseball League
Overview: In 2003, a former U.S. basketball promoter and Boston Red Sox fan, Tom McCarthy, launched the Chinese Baseball League (CBL), the country's first professional baseball league, with four teams. Today, six teams play approximately a 30-game season from April through July, with the top two teams advancing to a best-of-five championship. Each team is allowed up to three non-Chinese born players, with two of those playing at the same time. Most games are played in the early morning to avoid the midday heat (and because there are no lights at the ballparks).
League Web site: www.cbl.org.cn.
Teams: Beijing Tigers, China Hopestars (Beijing), Tianjin Lions, Shanghai Eagles, Guangdong Leopards, Sichuan Dragons (play in Chengdu).
Most successful franchise: Beijing Tigers have won three straight championships.
Biggest rivalry: Beijing Tigers-Tianjin Lions.
MLB talent-level comparison: Single-A (on a good day); Bad News Bears (on a bad day).
Show me the money: Average player salaries are about $500 to $1,000 a month (U.S.).
Best ballpark: Most ballparks are small, with a capacity of about 3,500. China's Holy Grail ballpark is being built for the 2008 Summer Olympics, a 25,000 seater.
Ballpark atmosphere: Drums, horns and cheering sections make an appearance in the playoffs, including capacity crowds. Outside of that, it's pretty non-atmospheric. Tianjin is the best place to see a game. Former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley donated money to help build the ballpark in Tianjin.
China baseball speak: Since baseball was banned for decades under Mao's rule, the Chinese are still learning the finer intricacies of the game. A "run" can be a "point"; a "game" can be a "match"; and "an inning" can be a "set." The league has even distributed a six-page brochure to fans at ballparks that explains the rules. Even the Chinese media has had trouble. Consider this item from the first season that ran in the Guangdong News: "The Beijing Tigers went down to Tianjin Lions in a stunningly one-sided match 12-2 on April 19. It was the first time the Beijing side had lost a match before the ninth set."

Later in the inaugural season, Canada's national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, sent a reporter to Beijing to write a story about the league. One Chinese fan quoted in the article wrote how she happened to briefly catch a baseball game on television and was attracted by "the handsome players in their beautiful uniforms," adding "the pitcher and catcher are the commanders, as close as husband and wife. Behind them are seven brothers who support them. If any problem occurs, those brothers will help you solve it."

Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com. He has a Web site at www.modernerabaseball.com.