Baseball is finding a home in some unlikely places around the world and one of them is China’s Yangtze River Valley, where Major League Baseball has established development centers in Wuxi, Changzhou and Nanjing.
There, pitching coach Jesse Litsch is passing on what he learned in a career that culminated in five big league seasons on the mound with the Toronto Blue Jays and is enjoying the experience to the fullest.
“It was a pleasant surprise, the way they (the Chinese students) wanted to play baseball, the way they present themselves on the fields,” Litsch told Kyodo News recently by telephone. “In the States, you don’t know what you’re going to get with some kids.”
“Here, they really appreciate it.”
Jim Small, MLB’s vice president for Asia and the Pacific, said last month that China was one of four areas MLB is targeting.
“We have really tried to focus on China and in Mexico, where baseball is underdeveloped, and in Europe and Brazil,” Small said. “We look at pockets, where we think we can go in and make a difference.”
MLB opened its first Chinese center at Wuxi’s Don Bei Tang school in 2009 and this past school year trained 85 student athletes, who now come from all parts of China.
Litsch, who last pitched in the majors in 2011, was hurt in spring training the following year and unable to return despite undergoing a host of procedures. After calling it quits in 2014, he was looking around for coaching jobs and found an offer online that brought him to China for a one-month trial last November.
“I sent a resume and it turned out it was with MLB,” Litsch said. “I went with the mindset of ‘Who knows?'”
“I had a few pro job offers. I turned them down because I felt I could make more of an impact here, show off more of my skills. As a pro, you’re doing things the system’s way.”
Since taking on this challenge, Litsch, who is all too familiar with various surgeries, has spent a lot of time learning best practices for young pitchers, and said one of the advantages of working with Chinese youngsters is that many of them are starting from scratch. They have few bad habits to unlearn and are keen to pick up whatever they can from their instructors.
But while there are many pitching mechanic pitfalls Litsch can help them avoid, so much is unknown about the best way to develop young pitchers in a time when there is an epidemic of elbow ligament injuries in the States.
“I went to a couple of my doctor buddies to get as much info as you can get,” said Litsch, who has a huge number of decisions to make regarding how to bring the youngsters along.
Assisting in the process is Jackson Zhou, a graduate of the program who now works as an interpreter.
“I started playing when I was nine years old and now it’s getting popular,” said Zhou, who graduated in 2014. “The staff is great. They help you a lot in baseball. I’m working with (head coach) Bill Thomas and Jesse and they’ve taught me so much about baseball and life.”
MLB’s program, which uses fields and facilities that would make many American junior college programs envious, began seeking talent in the area around Wuxi, home of this season’s China Baseball League champion Jiangsu Pegasus.
“The first recruiting class in 2009 consisted of 16 players, mostly from the local area of Wuxi,” said Rick Dell, MLB’s Director of Baseball Development Asia. “Since that time, we have expanded our recruiting to the four corners of China.”
“We have developed relationships in what we call ‘Independent Pockets’ throughout China…a Korean, American or local Chinese, working in an area wanting to do a good thing, organizes a baseball club. They have little support (but) we help them with our consulting. They develop players and we give them an opportunity. It is a win-win situation.”
Because students who attend are getting into universities, and have the opportunity to play abroad, interest is growing. Dell said they are now fielding requests for tryouts and not only from mainland China but also from Taiwan and South Korea.
“For some of these kids, it’s a 38-hour train ride from their hometowns,” Litsch said. “This is an adventure for me, but it’s an opportunity for life for them.”