DJ Suonandajie and Other Chinese Players Sets Sights on MLB Draft

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Not one of the hundred or so followers at a current Ban Johnson summer season collegiate league sport right here felt compelled to leap from their garden chairs to applaud when a batter, identified simply by the nickname DJ, stopped at second base on a ball he had ripped down the first-base line. It was a routine play that required DJ, the staff’s quickest runner, to suppress his want to leg out a triple in favor of doing what the state of affairs dictated fairly than risking an inning-ending out at third.

However when that story was relayed to Ray Chang, DJ’s highschool coach 7,000 miles away in Nanjing, China, Chang was bursting with satisfaction.

“That’s superior. I like listening to that,” Chang, who was born and raised in america, stated by telephone. “Our predominant focus is speaking in regards to the ins and outs and the methods of the sport as a result of when these youngsters come to us, they’re to date behind the place a U.S. child could be by way of expertise enjoying and watching the sport.”

Chang is the supervisor of baseball operations for Main League Baseball’s participant improvement initiative in China, a program providing educational and baseball education to college students from seventh grade by means of highschool. The primary improvement heart was established in Wuxi in 2009. Further facilities have opened in Changzhou (2011) and Nanjing (2014). Chang, additionally the top coach on the Nanjing heart, has been working in China full-time since 2017, when he retired from a 12-season minor league profession that started within the San Diego Padres group.

DJ, his former scholar, is a 24-year-old native of Qinghai, a province within the autonomous area of Tibet, who’s recognized on his visa paperwork as Fnu Suonandajie. Fnu is just not a reputation, nevertheless, because it stands for First Title Unknown, a time period utilized by the State Division for foreigners with an unknown given identify. And Suonandajie is just not a household identify: It was given to him by a monk when he was a baby. He rectified that cultural distinction by asking Individuals to name him DJ.

At 5 toes 8 inches and 184 kilos, DJ performs heart discipline and bats leadoff. He didn’t play baseball till he was almost 10, however was found in 2011 by M.L.B. recruiters who scour China for promising athletes to ship to their center college program in Changzhou.

The recruiters had been initially impressed by DJ’s foot velocity and throwing accuracy, a ability he attributes to hurling rocks at home yaks to encourage them to cease grazing. He says it’s a frequent activity of Tibetan kids, with a purpose of getting the rock land shut sufficient to the yaks to startle them into transferring alongside with out truly hitting them.

M.L.B.’s recruiters are working to open the world’s greatest market to a sport it is aware of little about. The purpose is to seek out gamers who can assist construct enthusiasm there, the best way the Chinese language basketball participant Yao Ming ignited curiosity within the N.B.A. in China after he signed with the Houston Rockets in 2002.

Unsurprisingly, DJ says basketball, soccer, tennis and desk tennis would have been his doubtless enjoying decisions had baseball not come calling. As a substitute, he graduated from the event heart’s highschool program in Nanjing, the place he was coached by Chang. He got here to america, earned a roster spot as a walk-on at Los Angeles Harbor Faculty, and graduated from the group school final yr with an affiliate diploma in communications. Shortly earlier than Thanksgiving, he was awarded a full scholarship to play baseball for Rockhurst College, a Division II college in Kansas Metropolis.

“I like the thought of pitcher versus batter, simply me towards him,” DJ stated of his ardour for baseball earlier than a current Ban Johnson league sport. “My first sport in the summertime league this yr, I strike out first three at-bats, however once I get one other likelihood, I used to be like, ‘You bought me the primary three, however I obtained this one,’ and I squared that ball and hit it within the hole. I flipped my bat and I stated to myself, ‘I obtained you.’ That sort of thought that you simply simply don’t quit till the final out, I actually like that.”

By attending school in america, DJ and some different gamers signify a brand new pathway within the improvement course of that might finally result in a watershed second in M.L.B.’s foray into China: the first-year participant draft.

Beforehand, the trail for improvement heart gamers was to signal as worldwide free brokers. That landmark was first achieved in 2015 when the Baltimore Orioles signed the primary improvement heart graduate, Gui Yuan Xu, a place participant who goes by Itchy due to his affection for Ichiro Suzuki. Xu performed 73 video games over three seasons in rookie and Class A ball earlier than being launched.

Since then, six different improvement heart graduates have been signed, by Boston, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. 5 of them suffered the identical destiny as Xu, unable to rise above the bottom ranges of the minor leagues earlier than their eventual launch. Solely Jolon Zhao, a right-handed pitcher in Milwaukee’s system, stays.

DJ shall be one in all no less than 9 graduates who’re making an attempt a special path by being on a baseball scholarship at a U.S. school this fall. Two extra graduates are mulling scholarship affords.

As soon as enrolled in school, they develop into eligible for M.L.B.’s annual draft, which is able to start Sunday and run for 3 days. Whereas M.L.B. is in negotiations with the gamers’ union over the creation of a world draft — a deadline looms July 25 for that call — the present system is proscribed to amateurs enjoying in america and Canada.

Apart from making improvement heart graduates a lot simpler to be seen and tracked by M.L.B. scouts, Chang says there are different deserves to selecting the faculty possibility fairly than signing as a free agent.

“Truthfully, for me, this can be a blessing,” Chang stated. “Going through the shock of a brand new tradition and the pains of 144-game minor league seasons, which is so many extra video games than they’ve performed in a season right here, at 17 years outdated, is extremely difficult. The faculty route permits extra time to ease into the brand new tradition and put together you higher to deal with the grind of minor league baseball, in case you’re fortunate sufficient to get that chance.”

He added, “These guys can compete, little question, however they should transition into the brand new tradition and the longer season.”

The purpose, which is to have a improvement heart graduate drafted, might occur quickly, in accordance with Bryan Minniti, who was an assistant common supervisor for the Philadelphia Phillies, overseeing the group’s scouting and participant improvement, when he signed a improvement heart graduate as a world free agent in 2018. Minniti was just lately named a board member of baseball’s worldwide governing physique, the World Baseball Softball Confederation.

“Any participant improvement venture, particularly one began from scratch, takes time, however I feel we’re getting nearer by the day to seeing a Chinese language participant in Main League Baseball,” Minniti stated. “From a scouting perspective, each staff is hungry for gamers with instruments, and it doesn’t matter the place they arrive from. If there’s a 6-foot-2 left-hander with a very good arm, he’s going to get observed.”

In actual fact, there’s. Roger Rang, one other Tibet native and improvement heart graduate, is a 6-2, 185-pound lefty who shall be a sophomore at Arizona Western Faculty this fall. Via July 8, he had struck out 50 batters in 48⅓ innings whereas strolling solely 9 for the Casper Horseheads, a summer season collegiate league staff in Wyoming.

With the 20-round draft on deck within the coming days, scouts are paying consideration.

Brad Lefton is a bilingual journalist based mostly in St. Louis. He focuses on baseball in Japan and Asia.

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