Gil Kim is a professional baseball player from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, which we are sure you all know is the home of Yuengling Lager (and is not too far from Bloomsburg, which we are sure you know is home to the Bloomsburg Fair). After graduating from Vanderbilt University, where he was “primarily a role player,” Kim spent 2006 playing with the Omron
Pioniers, a minor league team in Amsterdam, Netherlands. In 2007, he was signed by the Beijing Tigers of the China Baseball League (more info here). The CBL season already over, Kim recently answered some of our questions via email.
Thanks to a story we wrote in the SCMP a few years back, we still get occasional emails from young baseball players wondering how they can play in the Chinese league. Please tell us how it happened for you, so we know how to respond to those emails (actually we’ll just start forwarding them on to you).
It was the second week of April, and I was sitting in the basement of my parents’ Pennsylvania home when I received a phone call from a Beijing Tigers representative, who presented me with an offer to come to China and play some baseball. I did not know much about Beijing or the China Baseball League, and I had absolutely zero knowledge of the Mandarin Chinese language. All I knew was that the Beijing Tigers were offering me the chance to play professional baseball, and that was the only reason I needed. So three weeks after representatives from the Tigers contacted me, I packed a few bags and flew halfway around the world.
Any information regarding the CBL was extremely difficult to find. After I graduated from Vanderbilt in 2005, I scoured the internet for hours upon hours just to try and find any way to contact teams in China. I finally read your articles about the Shanghai team on shanghaidiaries.com and decided to cold contact you with an email. You put me in touch with Tom McCarthy, who founded the league back in 2002, who in turn put me in contact with Ding Feng of the Chinese Baseball Association. Nothing came about for the 2006 season, but I contacted Ding Feng again before the 2007 season. Together with Shen Wei, also with the CBA, they basically gave my information to the Beijing team. Even the best international baseball agents had little contact with the CBL, so I was just fortunate enough to receive a tremendous amount of assistance from people I had never even met.
Oh, happy to be of help. So … pro baseball in China. What were you expecting?
I came to China with little knowledge of what I was getting myself into, and it did not take long for me to realize that this would be one of the most unique experiences of my life. At the time, most of my former Vanderbilt teammates were playing professional baseball with their respective Major League organizations, living with host families or rented apartments in towns like Lynchburg, VA, Manchester, NH, and Mobile, AL, to name a few. They were busy playing games just about every night of the week, a demanding schedule that without a doubt requires the utmost of dedication and commitment.
And in China?
Playing professional baseball in China requires the same level of dedication and commitment, albeit through quite a different structure and season schedule. Every one of our players lived on the campus of the Beijing 3rd Sports School in the Daxing Lucheng district. Everyday began with a 7:15 A.M. line-up meeting and team stretch, and by 7:30 we were in the dining hall for our team breakfast. In the CBL, we played only three games a week, and spent our “off days” training, with two hours of fielding practice in the morning followed by two hours of batting practice in the afternoon. We ate lunch at 11:30 A.M., and dinner at 5:30 P.M. An occasional evening batting practice or strength training session was not all that unusual. The structure and lifestyle of professional baseball in China was unlike anything I had ever experienced, yet I welcomed these differences with an open mind and an eagerness to learn the “Chinese way.” And while my former college teammates were able to verbally communicate with their fellow teammates and coaches, the language barrier I faced with the Tigers – the majority of the team could not speak English – presented quite an additional challenge.
Tell us about your first game.
We traveled to Guangzhou my first weekend to square off against the Guangdong Leopards. Whether you’re playing baseball in the U.S. or in China, it’s still the same game. We had solid starting pitching, played strong defense, and put the ball in play on offense all weekend, coming home with two victories from a strong Guangdong squad. Among the differences that stood out, I noticed that each team’s pitchers continued to throw and stay loose in between each inning. Our two power hitters were both called on for sacrifice bunts, sometimes as early as the first inning. Every hitter tipped his cap to the umpire before the at bat, and the fans were treated to a performance by an all-female dance team, which replaced the traditional 7th inning stretch. These subtle differences were interesting and fun, although I’d have to say that I didn’t particularly enjoy the Backstreet Boys selections blaring through the stadium in between each inning.
So how would you describe the level of play in the China Baseball League? Any players we should pick up on our fantasy teams?
Before I came to China, I had heard that the level of talent in the CBL was not very high. While the overall depth of talent was lacking, there sure were some very skilled players. In that first weekend in Guangzhou, I noticed that Jia Yu Bing, the Beijing DH, seemed to crush every single pitch that was thrown to him. He’d hit the ball hard to all fields, and he showed the confidence and patience of a veteran hitter. I also noticed a tall, lanky left-handed pitcher from Guangdong. He threw his fastball in the mid-80s, located his pitches well, and delivered the ball with such an easy and effortless motion. His name was Liu Kai, and he showed the poise of a pitcher well beyond his 19 years of age. I was not surprised at all in late June when I heard the news that Jia and Liu had been signed to minor league contracts with the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees, respectively.
The Mariners also signed 28 year-old power-hitting Beijing Catcher Wang Wei. As one of the few English speakers on the team, Wang was a very good friend of mine, and was recovering from off-season elbow surgery. Wang had a tremendous work ethic, the impressive power to be able to hit balls out of the park in simple short-toss drills, and a great attitude. All three of these players will surely encounter some obstacles when they begin their playing careers in the U.S., but regardless of their success, they will serve an important role in China’s baseball development. The Chinese people now have some of their own to root for in Major League Baseball, and from knowing each of these players personally, I can safely say that Major League Baseball has found three great role models for China’s young ballplayers, not only for their talent, but for their dedication and attitude as well.
So overall, what would you compare the CBL talent level to? AA? A? College?
That’s very tough to say. If I had to pick one level, I would probably compare it to rookie-level minor league baseball in the U.S. The CBL possesses some very talented ballplayers who have a lot of potential, but because of the short 30-game season and the fact that baseball in China is still a relatively new project, you’ll see a lot of mistakes that have less to do with sheer talent than they do with a simple lack of game experience. So you’ll see misjudged fly balls, base running mistakes, and small lapses in concentration … those are all things that you will see at any level, but you’ll see that a lot more taking in a rookie-league game than one at say, the AA level. But one of the reasons this question is so difficult to answer is that the depth of talent in the CBL is not very strong, again stemming from the short season and the lack of development of the game – since kids in China don’t grow up with baseball as their “national pastime,” there just isn’t a large number of baseball players in China that the CBL is able to recruit from, especially when you compare those numbers to the total population.
In the United States, the general consensus is that the top tier of NCAA baseball is equivalent in terms of talent to the Single A minor league level. So when I say that, for example, the Southeastern Conference college baseball in the U.S. is higher than the CBL, that’s not a demeaning statement by any means.
What do you think the future holds for Chinese baseball?
After just one week in China, I was able to understand the reasoning behind Major League Baseball’s investment to develop the game in China. In China, most of the professional baseball players don’t get paid too much. When the season finishes in July, they are back training twice a day, Monday through Friday, from July until April, all for a 30-game season. The players never complained, were quick to flash a smile, and would run through the Great Wall if their coach told them to do so.
And while the game has been developed for many years in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – neighboring Asian countries that have all produced Major League-level talent — you can’t help but wonder what would ensue should a nation of over 1.3 billion people embrace baseball in the same way that their significantly less-populated neighbors have.
We have been told that CBL players get paid around $250 a month. How much did you make? (It’s OK, we ask questions like that in China.)
I was paid 2,000 RMB per month, which I believe is also roughly equivalent to $250 U.S./month. That figure, however, can easily be misconstrued by Americans because my housing and my meals were all part of the salary – in the U.S., those costs are typically not covered by a Major League organization’s salary. Additionally, I found that $250 U.S. goes a lot, lot further in China than it does in the U.S., so I actually lived very comfortably.
Will you be back next year? Maybe with the Shanghai Eagles?
I would love the opportunity to come back and play in China. Obviously I would prefer to play with the Beijing team again because I had such a wonderful experience with their organization this past season – everything was first-class and they treated me better than I could have ever asked. With that being said, I think the CBL as a whole is something that I would really like to continue to be a part of, so if nothing worked out with Beijing, I would definitely be up for spending some time in Shanghai!
Thank, Gil. We’ll look for you at Congbei Stadium next year.
Got a question for Gil? Leave it in a comment. He’ll do his best to add a response.