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Original Issue

Great Red Hope

Major League Baseball tries to make inroads into China

THE PADRES and the Dodgers weren't sure what sort of reception to expect when they took the field for the first major league baseball games in China. They wound up getting barely any reception at all. Because of a security crackdown by the Chinese government after an outbreak of violence in Tibet, Wukesong Stadium in Beijing was mostly empty when the teams were introduced last Saturday for the first of two exhibition games. Police canceled all pregame festivities—including live performances of the Chinese and American national anthems—and the increased security at entrances turned the 12,224 ticket holders into a late-arriving crowd. Said Dodgers G.M. Ned Colletti, "When you enter a new environment, you have to be prepared for a lot of different logistics."

It was an unpredictable welcome to an unpredictable (and fast-growing) market, one that MLB hopes to penetrate even though the sport—which was banned in the country during Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution—is unfamiliar to most Chinese. But things settled down once the action got under way. Wukesong, which will be the Olympic baseball venue this summer, was nearly filled for both games. American expatriates, many wearing jerseys and caps of their favorite teams, dominated the crowds, but there were also thousands of Chinese in the stands, as well as Koreans cheering for Dodgers starter Chan Ho Park and Taiwanese rooting for Dodgers shortstop Chin-lung Hu and pitcher Hong-chih Kuo. Vendors hawked hot dogs, peanuts, beer and, in a nod to local custom, plastic bottles of tea.

The games were spring training contests, but both teams fielded lineups with a half-dozen regulars. Players raved about the condition of the field and the atmosphere. "It felt more like a regular-season game," said San Diego reliever Heath Bell, who pitched a scoreless inning in Saturday's 3--3 tie. (The Padres took Sunday's game 6--3.) "We all wanted to win this one."

Chinese fans still have much to learn—they cheered foul balls—but commissioner Bud Selig intends to schedule more exhibition games in the country, believing that the Beijing Olympics will ignite interest. "It's nice to be part of a little slice of history," Padres closer Trevor Hoffman said last Thursday, while standing atop the Great Wall. "I hope we can look back and say it was the real start of baseball in China."



CRASH COURSE George Lombard (left) and Xavier Paul of the Dodgers helped Chinese fans learn an unfamiliar game.