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MLB's China development centers paying dividends

Updated : 2017-05-31
By Zhang Xiaoyu and Richard Whiddington (chinadaily.com.cn)

Baseball is not a sport one commonly associates with the world's most populous country, but 18-year old Gong Haicheng, fresh from competing at the World Baseball Classic and the latest product of MLB's China-based development centers to sign for a Major League franchise, is the latest hope that America's favorite pastime will successfully sow seeds in the Middle Kingdom.

Gong is a product of the Changzhou development center in Jiangsu province and signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 16. As the second China-born player to make the journey to the tough world of American professional baseball, Gong represents the MLB's latest hope of tapping into a potentially enormous market through developing homegrown players.

However, with fewer than 15 percent of so-called farm team players making the transition to the major leagues, the right-armed pitcher knows the road ahead is a long and arduous one once he arrives at Pittsburgh's Pirate City complex in Bradenton, Florida.

"All I can do is train hard and gain more experience to reach higher and higher levels," Gong said after the announcement of the signing.

While many Chinese schoolchildren are drawn to kicking a football or shooting hoops with friends, Gong had the chance to try his hand at throwing a baseball during a visit of the MLB Play Ball! Program to his primary school. The experience excited Gong and led to his admission into one of the MLB's three development centers in East China.

MLB's China development centers paying dividends

Gong Haicheng, an 18-year-old graduate of the MLB development center in Changzhou playing for China at the World Baseball Classic in March, 2017. He signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 16 and will play for the Pirates' Gulf Coast League affiliate in Bradenton, Florida, in June. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

While Gong might not be clocking the type of fastballs thrown by some of Latin America's hottest talents, he nonetheless drew considerable attention following his performance at the Asia U18 championship in Taiwan where he was named the top right-handed pitcher. His reputation grew further in March when he became the youngest player to represent Team China at the World Baseball Classic in a short-lived cameo against hosts Japan.

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