I am a strong believer in the philosophy that one person making a difference in the life of one person or more in their community is making a difference in the world. Everytime I see or hear about people doing this, it inspires me and also reminds me that good people exist in a world where we hear more about the evil that men do. As a result, I've decided to start the CHANGING THE WORLD series. I'll be putting up stories, articles and the like about people who are making a difference in their corners of the world. I hope you get inspired as well. Peace y'all!
A PASSION FOR BASEBALL
Jinan, Shandong Province – "You see," Wang Liqiang gestured through the windshield at a taxi that had cut our car off at the traffic light. "This is what I'm talking about."
Wang, an otherwise laidback Shandong native sporting a small potbelly, was working up to his argument.
"China's changing all the time," he continued. "People used to behave okay. Now with all this development, it's chaotic all the time, and the young people have lost a sense of who they are."
He turned to me. "Baseball will bring that sense of order back."
"It teaches people manners," Wang was hitting his stride now. "Baseball is a nine-person sport. Everyone has a position to play. Everyone knows what he needs to do. Everyone has to work together."
‘Baseball is like life’
Spend time in Wang's company and you soon discover how impassioned the 38-year old is about making America's pastime into China's too.
The former businessman runs the Shandong Zhanwang Baseball and Softball Club from a tiny office in the Shandong capital of Jinan. His goal is to increase China's exposure to the ballgame by bringing the sport to young boys across his hometown province.
Wang's zeal for baseball originated when he first saw it played in 1990 – "at the National Games," he said. "The national team wasn't very strong. But the sport was rather quiet and peaceful."
Wanting to learn more, he went out in search of a book explaining baseball. Then he began following the Chinese national baseball team across the country to watch their games. Before long, other aspects of the sport clicked with him: not just the emphasis on mental aptitude but also courtesy. "Players are required to bow when they meet their coach!"
As China stepped up the pace of its rapid economic development in the 1990s, Wang came to the conclusion that baseball was essential. "Life is like finding your position on a baseball field," he said. "The rules of baseball can help you regulate your life and find your goal. Many people don't have goals. Baseball trains the Chinese people…to fight for their goals, fight for their whole life."
So Wang quit his job in marketing and advertising. He sold his home. He sold his car. And on April 18, 2002, he founded the Shandong Zhanwang Baseball and Softball Club.
‘One ball, one soul’
Slogans like "One ball, one soul" in Chinese characters decorate the walls of Wang's office, housed in a school where baseball isn't played and where he says he might be evicted from since the authorities don't see any benefit to having him there.
Wang shrugged and batted away the suggestion that he’d ever leave – an attitude that has served him well in overcoming challenges during the five years he's run the club.
These challenges – the sport’s lack of visibility, coaching/instruction, fields, equipment – stem from baseball's patchy history in China. Although it arrived as early as 1863 (four years before Japan), it never gained the same foothold here as it did with neighboring countries, particularly as baseball was banned during the Cultural Revolution.
The game has since flourished in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, where leagues for all different levels of play have developed and from which strong talent has emerged – but has languished in China.
Take equipment. Although Chinese factories manufacture mitts and baseballs for foreign companies, those products aren't widely available to buy in China. So the resourceful Wang has worked relations with potential sponsors and connections to other baseball clubs in Japan and South Korea to obtain bats, balls, and mitts – often well used and broken in.
"Mr. Wang is crazy about baseball," said Harry Shi, a Hong Kong-based businessman who met the club owner four years ago. Shi was so impressed by Wang's passion that he persuaded his employer at the time, American sporting goods company SSG, to sponsor the club. SSG donated 120 baseballs, 24 bats, and one pitching machine – all of which were extremely difficult to come by in China, let alone a small coastal city like Jinan.
Wang also has had to find different ways to fund the club apart from his own money --he's sunk more than $130,000 since 2002. He just doubled the $10 annual dues to enroll their boys in his baseball club. It's a nominal training fee he uses to help pay for basic office expenses, playing in competitions, and, of course, travel.
The club's teams try to travel around China, as well as South Korea and Japan, to see ballgames since they're rarely broadcast on Chinese television. (In fact, we "discovered" Wang and one of his teams in Tianjin. The team had driven five hours by bus to the port city as soon as the boys had finished school at 2 p.m. that Friday in order to catch the Tianjin Lions play the Shanghai Eagles.)
An uphill battle
It's also been tough trying to raise the profile of baseball in schools. In a country where there are only 60 full baseball diamonds, one of Wang's tasks has been to persuade school authorities in Jinan just to provide a small space for boys to practice catching. That means vying with basketball courts and soccer fields – two sports that are far more popular in China.
Wang said 2005 and 2006 were tough years.
But whenever he considered quitting, he thought about the boys. "I see the kids love it so much," he said. "How could I do that to them?"
His perseverance has paid off. One of his club's teams won third place in the 2004 national junior competition. And while only two schools in Jinan had baseball in 2002, there are now about a dozen participating in his club. Wang hopes one of the club’s alumni, just about to finish university, will come back to help coach the teams.
Roughly 200 boys, ages six to 17, play on the 14 teams – including his 14-year-old son, a nephew, and a cousin. "It's a family business!" he laughed.
Team sports a good thing single child China
In fact, Wang has found staunch support from the Parents' Association to develop the club. At a practice session that afternoon in Jinan, parents came out to watch their sons play in a concrete schoolyard.
"Each kid is the only child in the family [and] they often get lonely," said Jiang Ai-xia, the mother of 12 year old Zuo Shou-qie, who just started playing baseball this year. "Letting them play baseball helps cultivate their team spirit and encourages them to play with other kids."
Zuo's performance as first baseman may have been a little erratic, but it didn't diminish his enthusiasm. "Baseball teaches us the power of cooperation…and skills," he said. "Although my skills are not that good."
The boys grin bashfully when they're being interviewed, only allowing their enthusiasm to shine off the field when they talk about baseball's future here, "China is just starting…. Once we start loving baseball, we definitely will beat the other countries," said one boy.
Another explained why they like the Yankees, "Their pitchers throws super fast. They hit also very hard and very far!"
Wang, who is normally stern coaching his team from the sidelines, beamed with pride.
"Five years ago, when I started [this] baseball [team], many people thought I was crazy," he said, especially since he wasn't in it for the money. "Five years later, many people think we are the best in Shandong."