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Chinese Players Seeking to Earn a Spot in Upcoming MLB Draft

By: Eric Wang

In a recent summer collegiate league game, a player known by the nickname DJ performed a routine play. Though none of the watching fans were ecstatic, there was a very different response from the other side of the world. When news reached Ray Chang, DJ’s high school coach in Nanjing, China, he was bursting with pride.

Chang is also the manager of operations for Major League Baseball’s player development initiative in China. 3 centers have been opened in China, in Wuxi, Changzhou, and Nanjing. In a phone interview, Chang summarized the point of these development centers. “Our main focus is talking about the ins and outs and the strategies of the game because when these kids come to us, they are so far behind where a U.S. kid would be in terms of experience playing and watching the game.”

DJ, who plays center field, is 24 years old and a native of Qinghai, a province in the Tibetan region. He was discovered in 2011 by MLB recruiters, who noted him for his foot speed and throwing accuracy. DJ attributes those skills to having hurled rocks at yaks to startle them to move without actually hitting them.

These recruiters are scouring for promising young athletes to open up baseball to the world’s biggest market of players. As the New York Times puts it, “The goal is to find players who can help build enthusiasm there, the way the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming ignited interest in the N.B.A. in China after he signed with the Houston Rockets in 2002.”

However, there is something different now about DJ and other Chinese baseball players: they are attending college in the United States.

Before, Chinese players could only be signed on as international free agents. This was first achieved in 2015, when the first development center graduate, Gui Yuan Xu, signed with the Baltimore Orioles. Xu played 73 games in the low levels of the minor league before he was released. Since 2015, 5 more have also been signed on as international free agents, with only 1, Jolon Zhao, remaining.

DJ, along with eight others, are hoping to earn baseball scholarships at a US college so they can be in the MLB draft. They have to be in a US college since one of the rules of the MLB draft is that the player must be a resident or have attended an educational institution in the US, Canada, Puerto Rico, or other US territory. Being enrolled in a US college fits that criteria.

When DJ and his fellow players reach the big leagues will be for the future to tell. But he may very well be the Yao Ming for the MLB.

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