China manager John McLaren starts each day by having his players remember their team motto: “Get better every day.” He’ll then pick out a player, who will then belt out a tune of his choice for the room, “they’re lacking there a little bit,” McLaren said with a grin.
The Chinese are keeping things light at the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
McLaren understands some of the disadvantages the Chinese have against the other Pool B teams. So he wants his players to soak up the WBC experience, have a good time, perform the best they can and help continue the growth of the game in China. None of that, however, means he or his players are ready to just hand Cuba a victory when they meet on Wednesday.
“We know we’re the underdogs,” McLaren told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “We embrace that. We talk about it everyday, we think we can beat Cuba. That’s our intent tomorrow. We’re going to take the field with the intention of beating Cuba.”
The players are eager to get the show on the road despite the great odds they face against the Cubans.
“As far as the conditioning side of it, I think we’re all healthy and ready to go,” infielder Ray Chang said during a news conference.”
Chang is one of China’s WBC veterans, having played for the team in 2009 and 2013. He’s also one of the few Chinese players with experience playing overseas, having spent time at various levels of the U.S. minor leagues since 2005. Fellow infielder Joey Wong has also played in the minors and for the Perth Heat in the Australian Baseball League for the past three seasons.
“We have a few more Chinese Americans, Joey Wong, Andrew Chin, and we have Ray Chang, Bruce Chen,” McLaren said. “We’re not on the equal playing field with all the big dogs. We know that. We have a simple motto: get better every day. That’s what we strive for, just improve our game, do something to move forward and set a foundation to better the baseball program in China.”
China doesn’t have the baseball history of countries such as Japan or Cuba, or even Australia. The country has yet to produce a homegrown major league player, and the sport is still trying to carve out a place for itself in the country.
The lack of a baseball culture means a great disadvantage for the players in terms of playing experience. Teams in the China Baseball League play seasons of a little over three months and often fewer than 40 games.
“They don’t play a lot of games, that works against these guys,” McLaren said. “I think what really works against them is, they don’t really throw hard in China and they don’t see a good velocity.”
The sport has become a little more popular among Chinese youth, in part because some parents in the country view baseball as a “cool sport from abroad,” according to a Chinese journalist in Japan to cover the WBC.
Major League Baseball has opened academies in the country to help foster growth of the game there. In 2015, Xu Guiyuan became the first player from one of the academies to sign a pro contract when he inked a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles.
“We remain extraordinarily interested in the market in China,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. “With respect to the development of players, we run a number of schools in China. We do think we’re starting to see fruit from those schools in terms of the quality of play. I think that the team from China is a much better team than it has been historically. They may do better in the WBC than people think.”