Earlier this month, I spent two days in Gary, Indiana watching the Texas AirHogs – Powered by Beijing Shougang Eagles take on the Gary Southshore Railcats.
Not only was I able to reunite with Stewart Ijames, right fielder for the Texas AirHogs and personally my favorite player (he started his pro career here with my hometown team the Washington WildThings), but I was also able to check out the Chinese National Team and see just how they fit in with the AirHogs and the American Association.
Independent baseball in general is really just a big experiment – a place to learn, grow and try new things. Indy ball has the ability to bend rules and bring in players and fans that affiliated baseball just can’t do.
This Texas AirHogs team may be the biggest and most important experiment in indy ball so far… and people are starting to take notice.
A few months ago, Indy Ball Island covered the partnership between the Texas AirHogs and the Beijing Shougang Eagles/The Chinese National Team.
To recap that article, the Texas AirHogs have thirty members of the Chinese National Team on their roster. Every night, there are 13 different Chinese players on the active roster. Seven of those players can change each game without counting against the normal American Association transaction limit rules.
There may be some advantages to having “fresher” players, but as one can imagine, there are also many obstacles to overcome for the team. It’s been evident as the team is currently in last place with a 17-42 record.
However, lately it seems as if the team is really starting to click and put something together. It may be too late for this season, but the learning taking place for the Chinese National Team has been immensely important.
The most obvious obstacle that they’ve dealt with is the language barrier. Not many of the Chinese players speak English, and none of the American players know Chinese either. There is a lot of Google Translate happening, as you can see coaches with their phones out in the dugout and bullpen to talk to players and give instructions when needed. As the season has been wearing on, players are starting to slowly pick up on the other’s languages, but honestly… it’s not necessary.
For the most part, baseball is a very universal language. It’s never been more evident than watching this team interact. They have hand gestures, their body language shows what they want to say, and players understand each other because they’re all on the same page when it comes to playing a game they’ve all known and loved since childhood.
I watched them interact with each other. I saw the inside jokes, the little nods of agreement, and I just couldn’t help but smile. The word I kept wanting to use was “adorable.” I know that no pro baseball team wants to be called adorable, but I can’t think of anything else that just fits the way that they all interact. These players in a foreign land where they don’t speak the language, getting help and support from guys from a whole different world in many ways.
I can see the American players all stepping up and becoming leaders. They’re essentially saying this is how we do things here… it’s a little different, but it’s really the same.
Along those lines, the style of play is another obstacle that many fans may not realize at first.
In China, pitchers are usually slower (top fastballs are around 85mph) and don’t pitch inside to a hitter. Hitters don’t focus on hitting home runs, but playing small ball and getting on base. Baseball in Asia consists of a lot of singles, bunting and advancing the runner. They aren’t looking for that perfect fastball to blast one out of the stadium.
Both pitchers and hitters have to adjust to the American game, and while it is a slow process to change what you’ve known and done your entire life, the improvements on the field speak for themselves. When I was in Gary, the team won both of the games I attended and got the series win.
The schedule and amount of games have also been an adjustment for the Chinese National Team. The Chinese Baseball League only has a schedule of 30 games played over 10 weeks. That is a very small amount compared to the 100 games played from the middle of May to the beginning of September.
In addition, there are a few less obvious obstacles the team has had to overcome off and on the field. Eric Robinson of The Hardball Times, recently did an in-depth story on the team and highlighted some issues and differences the players have experienced:
The Texas AirHogs (powered by Beijing Shougang Eagles, of course) have encountered issues both common and uncommon for teams in the American Association. One Chinese player told me that the city of Grand Prairie can be a bit boring, with nothing for players to do when they are not at the stadium. And while the bright lights of downtown Dallas, not to mention the theme parks and sports teams in Arlington, are only 10 minutes from the AirHogs, for a group of men with tight schedules and no cars of their own, they might as well be as far as their hometowns of Jiangsu, Sichuan and Inner Mongolia.
Broadcaster Joey Zanaboni noted that players would take off their helmets while waiting in the on-deck circle. He learned that American batting helmets fit these players poorly; the Chinese players took them off to reduce discomfort and headaches. And small differences of habit emerged. The players will routinely share a bat; it is not uncommon to see a batter hand his bat off to the upcoming hitter when he is retired. Several of the Chinese players would, when walking to the batter box, stop to give the umpire a small bow of the head. As they have gotten more use to the American ways of baseball this habit has began to diminish but one wonders if this may have helped to curry favor on close calls on balls and strikes.
(You can read the whole article at A Summer Palace in Grand Prairie: The Chinese National Team Joins the Texas AirHogs. Honestly, read it. It’s fantastic).
While the obstacles are there, the learning experience and the exposure in general has been well worth it. The buzz around the team has been tremendous.
I think everyone in baseball wants the sport to grow. At times, it appears as though the sport is slowly losing steam here in America, but it is definitely gaining popularity all around the world. Something such as this could be the catalyst to get more people into baseball everywhere.
If this is deemed as a success, we could be seeing more partnerships between professional teams and teams all around the world taking place. Personally, I would love to see baseball really come together no matter what country is taking part. I want to see the sport grow worldwide. Baseball desperately needs more fans and young players who truly appreciate the game and appreciate each other.
This experiment can be so much more than just having a foreign team spend time in America.
The ultimate goal for the Chinese National Team is the 2020 Olympics; however, in between the American Association games (they do have a deal with the AirHogs for three years), they plan on taking part in world games leading up to the Olympics in Tokyo.
Their first of these, the Asian Games, will be taking place in Indonesia in August and September. This will essentially cut their American Association schedule short as the team will have to find replacement players for the remainder of the season while the Chinese National Team plays against Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Chinese Taipei.
The shortened schedule means that time is running out to catch this special team in action. If the team is near you, I strongly encourage you to check them out. The two days I spent watching them were some of the most enjoyable days I’ve had all summer long.
If you can’t make it out to a ballpark, you can watch all American Association games HERE.
Also, give a listen to the AirHogs broadcaster, Joey Zanaboni on Mixlr HERE. You won’t be disappointed. Zanaboni is a character with a lot of quirky sayings and his love and enthusiasm for baseball really shines through during his broadcasts. I enjoyed meeting him and talking baseball. I would like to thank him for having me on his pregame show when I was out in Gary!
I also would like to thank the team (especially the bullpen) for being so great when I was out there! I’ve been getting a picture with every bullpen I see this summer, and I wanted to make sure I added the AirHogs to that list! Huge thank you to Taylor Wright for communicating with the Chinese players and getting it done!
Keep up with the Texas AirHogs – Powered by Beijing Shougang Eagles on their OFFICIAL WEBSITE.