|Baseball is where you find it: Beijing 2008|
Written by Bjoern Hartig (Contact & Archive) on September 23, 2008
Although a professional league with currently six teams was founded in 2002 and even though China competed in the World Baseball Classic in 2006, baseball is still at best an afterthought in the Middle Kingdom. You would realize that immediately once you laid eyes on the baseball stadium, which - unlike all other sport venues in Beijing - was a scaffold construction to be dismantled after the Games.
Anyway, once I made it through the security and ticket check, I was greeted by the typical Olympic souvenir and snack stands that offered the same selection as in all other venues. That meant no hot dogs, but you could get a soft drink, ice cream or a (Chinese) beer for less than a dollar, not too shabby. Equipped with two bottles of sugar free cola, I climbed up the stairs, where helpful Chinese volunteers led me to my seat - which I was able to abandon later without trouble to get closer to the field by the way. As was the case with most events further down the popularity scale, there were plenty of empty seats in the stadium, in particularly in the section behind home plate (which was the only section with a roof, something that really mattered under the hot Beijing sun). Actually, the section was completely empty in the first game and less than 20% filled in the Bronze Medal match. No ordinary mortal was allowed to go there, leaving most of the best seats empty, really a shame and something that has to be changed if you ask me.
The first thing I noticed however, were not the empty seats behind home, but the rather unusual pre-game entertainment, which in this case was a group of “dragons” doing some acrobatics, but otherwise the between innings attractions were mostly standard: cheerleaders and the Olympic mascots, although there was also a bat boy carrying a sign in Chinese and English that warned the spectators of foul balls (with moderate success as a person hit by a foul ball had to be carried away by paramedics during the Bronze Medal match).
Once the game started, it became immediately clear that the majority of the audience did not have much of an idea what was going on the field, a problem that is probably typical for the Olympics where most people are happy enough to have gotten any ticket at all (I also encountered that phenomenon on the Tennis Court when everyone was puzzled by the tie-break). I tried to explain the basic baseball rules in broken Chinese to my company, but I am not sure if I succeeded in raising the level of understanding or if I only made him more confused. Anyway, the concept of strikes (hao qiu – good ball) and balls (huai qiu – bad ball) spread quickly from the few adepts scattered in the seats and soon murmurs went through the crowd any time a pitch looked good from the stands but was called a ball instead by the umpire, just like you are used to it. The other thing that took a little time before it became common knowledge was the foul line. A couple of times hard hit balls by Chinese batters that went outside the line caused excitement in the stands that was quickly replaced by confusion why nothing was happening.
No day at the ballpark is complete without the seventh-inning-stretch and a version of “Take me out to the ball game” and although everyone besides myself and a few scattered Canadian fans remained seated and although the song was only playback (with the lyrics shown on the big screen) and nobody asked me to sing it, I really enjoyed my first stretch thoroughly. It was even more fun in the Bronze Medal match when many more people, mostly Japanese, joined in.
A few words about the first game itself: Although the Chinese team got the first base hit (an da – safe hit), Canada scored first on a three run homerun and continued to chip away. The Chinese team – continuously cheered on by the crowed with the Chinese battle cry “Zhongguodui jia you” (lit. Chinese team, add fuel) – managed to get a few runners in scoring position, but was unable to push them across. This was especially painful in the eight inning trailing 0-10, when they failed to score after putting runners on second and third with no outs, thus ending the game by means of the mercy rule.
My experience from the Bronze medal game was only slightly different. This time, the stadium was clearly in Japanese hands and “Nippon, Nippon” cheers were only occasionally interrupted by the “U-S-A” cries of isolated fans from the States. There were less empty seats than the first time, but many Chinese spectators left early because the sun was scorching that day and everyone who did not bring an umbrella slowly melted away in the stands.
The story of the game itself is quickly told: Japan scored a run in the top of the first inning, but the US team tied the game in the bottom of the second on a long ball by Matt La Porta. Japan then jumped ahead 4-1 on a three run home run in the third, only to have the lead erased in the bottom half by a three run blast by Matt Brown. The US took the lead for good with a four run fifth inning, highlighted by a two run shot by shortstop Jason Donald and Japan never really threatened again. I should also mentioned that Darvish Yu pitched the ninth for Japan and he did not overly impress as he allowed a hit, a walk and two wild pitches while striking out one.
All in all, as much as I enjoyed my Olympic baseball experience, I have to admit that I do not think that the Games are really missing something without it. I mean, the most famous players I saw were La Porta, Brown, Brett Anderson and Adam Stern. When the world’s best players are not participating, does anyone really care?* Since semi-final and final are only one game “series”, is the tournament not just a big lottery (The World Baseball Classic has the same problem IMO)? What is a gold medal worth under those circumstances?
Unless MLB pauses the season for the Olympics (and I do not see that happening), I do not think there will be enough incentives to bring it back in 2016.
* I have to admit that Japanese fans really do care. I saw a grown Japanese man cry after the game. Coming from a culture in which you usually do not show your emotions, that really means something.