By Sportswriter Spencer Musick
TIANJIN, Aug. 30 (Xinhua) -- United States Major League Baseball (MLB) and the China Baseball Association (CBA) put pen to paper on an extended partnership deal here on Wednesday that seeks to spur the development of baseball at all levels in the world's most populous country.
The signing ceremony was held on the sidelines of the ongoing 13th National Games of China.
The agreement's key components are centered around fostering grassroots baseball talent and generating enthusiasm for the sport among the general public.
The singing ceremony was attended by officials from the CBA and MLB Asia, all of whom stressed that the extension of the partnership has a special focus on creating a homegrown baseball culture in the country.
James Small, MLB vice-president for Asia-Pacific, said the agreement was just the latest chapter in a relationship between the MLB and the CBA that started in 2001, calling it "a partnership that benefits Major League Baseball... and sports in China as well."
Small was keen to point out that baseball is already gaining modest grassroots traction in the country.
"Because of our partnership, more kids are playing the game of baseball, more adults are playing the game of baseball. The game is continuing to grow at a very very high level. And we are excited to be a part of that," Small remarked.
Small said that one goal of the agreement was to spur enthusiasm for the sport by taking steps to increase the number of people taking up bats and putting on helmets each year.
"I have said many times that baseball is perfectly suited for China. And there are 1.3 billion people in China who are baseball fans, they just don't know it yet," Small promised.
Small also stressed that for baseball to be successful in China, it must take on a life all its own in the country.
"For baseball to be successful here, it needs to be a Chinese game. It needs to be umpired by Chinese, it needs to be officiated by Chinese, it needs to be played by Chinese. It can't be an American game that is played in China, it has to be a Chinese game," Small said.
Another component of the partnership between the CBA and MLB seeks to use the latter's training expertise to build a strong Chinese national team from the existing pool of talent.
Small said that this aspect of the partnership is a continuation of work that the MLB has been undertaking for many years, where it has "worked very closely with the CBA on training a national team. In the past, that has been a few weeks (for the players) in the United States usually training at one of our major league spring training facilities." He says that will certainly continue under the extended agreement.
He also added that several ideas put forward by the Chinese side to augment this training work are on the table, but that the exact details of how this cooperation might be expanded have not yet been worked out.
Small also pointed out that these new steps will be taken in anticipation of baseball's inclusion in the 2020 Olympics.
"Baseball returning to the Olympics in the 2020 Games in Tokyo is a very significant development in the growth of baseball around the world. And I think in terms of our relationship with the CBA it creates a more direct focus because there is a specific goal in mind in terms of training a team that can qualify for 2020," Small said.
"In order for China to be considered a baseball playing nation, it must be played at a high level. So that is the focus of this agreement: to work closely with the CBA to make sure that all players, umpires, coaches have the greatest chance of success," he continued.
Rick Dell, General Manager of MLB Asia, says he has high hopes to see many of the Chinese players currently in the United States playing for team China in the future, and pointed out the number of Chinese players affiliated with the MLB who took part in the last edition of the World Baseball Classic (WBC).
"Look at how many players are playing for team China right now...in the last WBC we had three players playing for them. I think as you multiply that number moving forward, and in light of the success that (Chinese players) are having with MLB teams... I would think that a majority of the (Chinese national team) players will be affiliated with the MLB."
Small echoed Dell's sentiment.
"The (Chinese) players from the Baltimore Orioles, or the Boston Red Sox, or the Pittsburgh Pirates, will tell you that their greatest honor is putting on the team China uniform and representing their country at the highest levels," Small concluded.
Also in attendance at the ceremony were Lang Wei, an official with China's General Administration of Sport responsible for baseball, softball and field hockey, Chen Xu, Secretary-General of the China Baseball Association, and Aaron Wang, Acting Managing Director of Major League Baseball, China.