KANSAS CITY, Missouri. Not one of the 100 or so fans who were here at a recent summer Ban Johnson varsity league game felt compelled to jump up from their lounge chairs to cheer when the batter, known simply by his nickname DJ, stopped at second base on a ball that he tore it off. first baseline. It was a routine game that required DJ, the team’s fastest runner, to suppress his urge to triple leg in favor of whatever the situation dictated, rather than risk ending the half in third place.
But when the story was relayed to Ray Chang, a 7,000 mile high school DJ coach in Nanjing, China, Chang burst with pride.
“That’s amazing. I love hearing it,” Chang, who was born and raised in the US, said by phone. American child in terms of the experience of playing and viewing the game.
Chang is the baseball manager for Major League Baseball’s China Player Development Initiative, a program that offers academic and baseball education to students from seventh grade through high school. The first development center was opened in Wuxi in 2009. Additional centers opened in Changzhou (2011) and Nanjing (2014). Chang, also the Nanjing Center’s head coach, has been a full-time China coach since 2017, when he retired from a 12-season minor league career that began with the San Diego Padres.
DJ, his former student, is a 24-year-old native of Qinghai, a province in the Autonomous Region of Tibet, who is listed as Fnu Suonandajie on visa documents. However, Fnu is not a name, as it means “name unknown”, a term used by the State Department for aliens with an unknown name. And Suonandaze is not a surname: it was given to him by a monk when he was a child. He eliminated this cultural difference by asking Americans to call him DJ.
At 5ft 8in and 184lbs, the DJ plays in midfield and hits up front. He didn’t play baseball until he was 10, but in 2011 he was discovered by Major League Baseball recruiters who were scouring China for promising athletes to send to a high school program in Changzhou.
Initially, recruiters were impressed with DJ’s foot speed and throwing accuracy, a skill he attributes to throwing rocks at domestic yaks to encourage them to stop grazing. He says it’s a common task for Tibetan children, where the goal is to land on a rock close enough to the yaks that they get scared and move forward without hitting them.
MLB recruiters are working to open up the world’s largest market for a sport that little is known about. The goal is to find players to help create enthusiasm there, similar to how Chinese basketball player Yao Ming sparked interest in the NBA in China after signing with the Houston Rockets in 2002.
No wonder the DJ says that basketball, football, tennis and table tennis would be his likely playing options were it not for baseball. Instead, he graduated from the Nanjing Development Center High School program, where he was coached by Chang. He came to the United States, earned a place on the roster at Los Angeles Harbor College, and graduated from a local college last year with an associate degree in communications. Shortly before Thanksgiving, he received a full scholarship to play baseball at Rockhurst University, a Division II school in Kansas City.
“I love the idea of pitcher versus batter, only I’m against him,” DJ said of his passion for baseball ahead of a recent Ban Johnson league game. “In my first summer league game this year, I hit the first three at-bats, but when I got another chance, I was like, ‘You gave me the first three, but I got it,’ and I equalized. the ball hit the slot. I clicked the bat and said to myself, “I got you.” I really like this idea that you just don’t give up until the very end.”
While attending college in the United States, DJ and a few other players represent a new path in development that could eventually lead to the tipping point in MLB’s foray into China: the first year draft.
Previously, the path for development center players was to sign as international free agents. This milestone was first reached in 2015 when the Baltimore Orioles signed their first development center alumnus, Gui Yuan Xu, a position player who goes by the name Itchy because of his affection for Ichiro Suzuki. Xu played 73 games in three seasons as a rookie and an A-ball before being released.
Since then, six more dev center graduates from Boston, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia have been signed. Five of them suffered the same fate as Xu, failing to rise above the lowest levels of the minor league before their eventual release. Only Jolon Zhao, a right-handed pitcher in the Milwaukee system, remained.
The DJ will be one of at least nine graduates who are trying a different path by earning an American college baseball scholarship this fall. Two more alumni are considering scholarship offers.
Once in college, they qualify for the annual MLB draft, which starts on Sunday and runs for three days. While MLB is in talks with the players’ union to create an international draft — the deadline for that decision is approaching July 25 — the current system is limited to amateurs playing in the United States and Canada.
Chang says that in addition to making development center graduates much easier to see and track for MLB scouts, there are other benefits to choosing a college option rather than signing as a free agent.
“Honestly, this is a blessing for me,” Chang said. “Facing the shock of a new culture and the rigors of 144-game minor league seasons, far more than they’ve played in a season here at 17, is incredibly difficult. The path to college allows more time to soak up a new culture and better prepare for the routine of minor league baseball, if you’re lucky enough to get the chance.”
He added: “These guys can compete without a doubt, but they need to move to a new culture and a longer season.”
According to Brian Minniti, who was assistant general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies and oversaw scouting and player development, the goal of producing a development center graduate could be achieved soon when he signed the development center graduate as an international free agent in 2018. Minniti was recently appointed to the board of baseball’s international governing body, the World Confederation of Baseball and Softball.
“Any player development project, especially one started from scratch, takes time, but I think we’re getting closer every day to seeing a Chinese player in Major League Baseball,” Minniti said. “From the scouts’ point of view, every team is hungry for players with tools, no matter where they come from. If there’s a 6’2″ left-hander with a really good hand, they’ll get noticed.”
Actually there is. Roger Rang, another Tibetan native and developmental center alumnus, is a 6-2, 185-pound left-hander who will be a sophomore at Arizona Western College this fall. By July 8, he had knocked out 50 batters in 48 ⅓ innings while only passing nine for the Casper Horseheads, a Wyoming summer collegiate league team.
Scouts are paying attention to the 20 round project in the coming days.
Brad Lefton is a bilingual journalist based in St. Louis. Louis. He specializes in baseball in Japan and Asia.