KANSAS CITY, Mo. – None of the hundreds of fans at a recent Ban Johnson summer college league game felt compelled to jump out of their lawn chairs to cheer when a batter, known by the nickname of DJ, stopped at second base on a fly ball he had snatched from the first base line. It was a routine play that required DJ, the fastest runner on the team, to suppress his desire to throw a triple in favor of doing what the situation dictated rather than risking a late inning in third.
But when this story was passed on to Ray Chang, the coach at DJ High School 7,000 miles away in Nanjing, China, Chang burst with pride.
“That’s great. I love hearing that,” Chang, who was born and raised in the United States, said over the phone. when these kids come to us, they’re so far behind an American kid in terms of the game experience and game viewing.”
Chang is the director of baseball operations for Major League Baseball’s China Player Development Initiative, a program that provides academic and baseball training to seventh-grade through high school students. The first development center was established in Wuxi in 2009. Additional centers opened in Changzhou (2011) and Nanjing (2014). Chang, also the head coach of the Nanjing Center, has worked in China full-time since 2017, when he retired from a 12-season minor league career that began with the San Diego Padres organization. .
DJ, his former student, is a 24-year-old from Qinghai, a province in the Tibet Autonomous Region, identified on his visa documents as Fnu Suonandajie. Fnu is not a name, however, as it stands for First Name Unknown, a term used by the State Department for foreigners with an unknown first name. And Suonandajie is not a family name: it was given to him by a monk when he was a child. He corrected this cultural difference by asking Americans to call him DJ.
At 5-foot-8 and 184 pounds, DJ plays center court and beats out the lead. He didn’t play baseball until he was almost 10, but was discovered in 2011 by MLB scouts scouring China for promising athletes to send to their college program in Changzhou.
Recruiters were initially impressed with DJ’s foot speed and throwing accuracy, a skill he attributes to throwing rocks at domestic yaks to encourage them to stop grazing. He says it’s a common task for Tibetan children, with the aim of landing the rock close enough to the yaks to entice them forward without hitting them.
MLB scouts are working to open the world’s biggest market to a sport it knows little about. The goal is to find players who can generate excitement there, like Chinese basketball player Yao Ming who sparked interest in the NBA in China after signing with the Houston Rockets in 2002.
Unsurprisingly, DJ says basketball, soccer, tennis and table tennis would have been his likely playing choices if baseball hadn’t called. Instead, he graduated from Nanjing Development Center’s high school program, where he was coached by Chang. He came to the United States, earned a roster spot as an extra at Los Angeles Harbor College, and graduated from community college last year with an associate’s degree in communications. Shortly before Thanksgiving, he received a full scholarship to play baseball at Rockhurst University, a Division II school in Kansas City.
“I like the idea of pitcher versus batter, just me versus him,” DJ said of his passion for baseball ahead of a recent Ban Johnson league game. “My first game in the summer league this year, I knocked out the top three at bat, but when I got another chance I was like, ‘You got me the top three, but I ‘ve got this one’, and I set that ball up and hit it in space. I flipped my bat and I was like, ‘I got you’. That kind of idea that you don’t give up until the last outing, I really like that.
By attending college in the United States, DJ and a few other players represent a new path in the development process that could ultimately lead to a defining moment in MLB’s foray into China: the freshman draft.
Previously, the route for development center players was to sign as international free agents. That milestone was first achieved in 2015 when the Baltimore Orioles signed the development center’s first graduate, Gui Yuan Xu, a positional player who goes through Itchy due to his affection for Ichiro Suzuki. Xu played 73 games in three seasons as a rookie and Class A ball before being released.
Since then, six other development center graduates have been signed, by Boston, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Five of them suffered the same fate as Xu, unable to rise above the lowest levels of the minor leagues before their eventual release. Only Jolon Zhao, a right-handed pitcher in the Milwaukee system, remains.
DJ will be one of at least nine graduates trying a different path with a baseball scholarship to an American university this fall. Two other graduates are considering scholarship offers.
Once enrolled in college, they become eligible for the annual MLB Draft, which begins Sunday and lasts three days. While MLB is in negotiations with the players’ union over creating an international draft — a July 25 deadline for that decision — the current system is limited to amateurs playing in the United States and Canada.
Besides making development center graduates much easier for MLB scouts to see and track, Chang says there are other benefits to choosing the college option over signing as a free agent.
“Honestly, for me, it’s a blessing,” Chang said. “Dealing with the shock of a new culture and the rigors of 144-game minor league seasons, so many more games than they’ve played in a season here at 17, is incredibly difficult. The college route gives you more time to familiarize yourself with the new culture and better prepares you to handle the grind of minor league baseball, if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity.
He added: “These guys can compete, no doubt, but they have to transition to the new culture and the longer season.”
The goal, which is to recruit a graduate from the development center, could come soon, according to Bryan Minniti, who was assistant general manager for the Philadelphia Phillies overseeing the organization’s player scouting and development, when he signed a development center graduate as an international free agent in 2018. Minniti was recently named to the board of directors of baseball’s international governing body, the World Baseball and Softball Confederation.
“Any player development project, especially one that starts from scratch, takes time, but I think we’re getting closer day by day to seeing a Chinese player in Major League Baseball,” Minniti said. “From a scouting perspective, every team is hungry for players with tools, no matter where they come from. If there’s a 6-foot-2 southpaw with a really good arm, he’s going to get noticed.
In fact, there are. Roger Rang, another Tibetan native and development center graduate, is a 6-foot-2, 185-pound southpaw who will be a sophomore at Arizona Western College this fall. Through July 8, he had struck out 50 in 48⅓ innings while walking only nine for the Casper Horseheads, a summer college league team from Wyoming.
With the 20-round draft on deck in the next few days, scouts are watching.
Brad Lefton is a bilingual journalist based in St. Louis. He specializes in baseball in Japan and Asia.