The AirHogs were a small-time professional team of ex-minor and formerly major-league players in the North Texas city of Grand Prairie. Then some of China’s rising baseball stars arrived
No one knows the Texas AirHogs quite like Larry Green. Over the team’s 11 seasons playing baseball, the 61-year-old has missed only five of their home games in the Texan city of Grand Prairie. On summer nights, Green pilots his electric wheelchair to his perch on the concrete concourse behind home plate, where he cheers wildly, grumbles about how modern players spend too much time trying to hit home runs, and hollers invective at the home-plate umpire.
“That’s my big excitement,” Green says, taking a break between loudly questioning strike calls on an early August night. “That and trying to get these players to run out ground balls.”
The Texas AirHogs are members of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, a federation of 12, mostly Midwestern, teams unaffiliated with Major League Baseball. Inning breaks are punctuated with water-balloon-toss competitions and mascot races.
Admission starts at US$8 for adults, parking is free and convenient, and season-ticket holders like Green and his roommate, Sharen Norton, get treated like big-shots. The AirHogs’ general manager, J.T. Onyett, visits the pair every game and sometimes offers up the VIP amenities.
When the temperature crept to 43 degrees Celsius this summer, the AirHogs’ staff ushered Green, Norton and a few of their friends up to a vacant air-conditioned luxury suite. “I love the Rangers,” Norton, a 62-year-old grandmother, says of one of Texas’ two Major League teams. “But would they do that?”
Almost everything about the AirHogs’ existence feels folksy and draped in Americana. So it came as a surprise to the team’s small group of season-ticket holders when, at a meet-and-greet before the start of the season, Onyett told them that their little hometown club would be undergoing an experiment. Instead of fielding a typical American Association team of fringe prospects, has-been minor leaguers and guys trying for one last shot at the big time, the 2018 AirHogs would, in effect, lease out most their roster to players from the Chinese national baseball team. Ten non-Chinese pros would supplement the national team squad, acting as on-field ringers and off-field mentors.
The mainland Chinese have long been afterthoughts in Asia’s baseball pecking order, lagging rivals Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Few people in mainland China watch or play the sport; the development system is tiny and the country has yet to produce even a high-minor-league-calibre player. (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have all produced major-league stars.)
But with baseball returning to the summer Olympics in 2020 after a 12-year hiatus, Beijing saw a reason to invest in the sport. Shipping their players to Texas to play 100 games against American pros would be the first big step.
I wondered what the other teams were going to think when we started bashing the pants off them
Sharen Norton, AirHogs season-ticket holder
When Green and Norton heard about the impending arrival of the foreign players, they did not know anything about the history of Chinese baseball. But they did know about their team in Grand Prairie. The AirHogs had won the American Association championship in 2011, but lately, they had been more like the Bad News Bears.
The team had not had a winning record since 2013, they had finished in last place in two of the past four seasons, and – with barely a smattering of fans attending most home games – it sometimes seemed like they might not be able to stay in business. So when Norton learned that China, a nation of more than 1.4 billion, was sending the “cream of the cream” of its baseball talent, she could not help but be excited.
“I wondered what the other teams were going to think when we started bashing the pants off them,” she says.
When the AirHogs’ season began on May 18, Green and Norton quickly recalibrated their expectations. The Chinese national team players that arrived in Texas were young, inexperienced and far from world-beaters. “They didn’t know what was going on. They would do some things that a Little League team would do,” Green says.
But 70 games into the season, watching the AirHogs take on the Sioux City Explorers, in August, Green is pleased with what he sees. “They’re really jiving,” he says. “And the Chinese guys always run it out, which I like.”
Earlier that day, the AirHogs’ Chinese players gathered for a light morning practice of fielding and hitting drills, then filed into the stadium’s former sports bar and grill, which has been repurposed as the team cafeteria. A heavy aroma of dried red chilli peppers, sizzling meat and dried cumin wafted from 10 steamer trays.
In preparation for the season, the AirHogs’ ownershad enlisted Gary Gao, owner of restaurant Sichuan Folk, in the nearby city of Plano, to coordinate the team’s meals, and they had given him the resources to go on a nationwide talent hunt for “A-level” Chinese chefs who would cook authentic meals before and after games.
The two men sweating over the kitchen’s industrial-sized woks came from northern China via Los Angeles and, as lunchtime began, dozens of players waited in line for their chance to scoop generous portions of the chefs’ dry-pot chicken and braised bok choy onto their trays. (A common refrain among the AirHogs’ non-Chinese staff and players is that the cuisine is “different than what you’d get at [American-Chinese restaurant chain] Panda Express”.)
Catered meals, to say nothing of authentic Chinese feasts, were not the norm for the AirHogs before the 2018 season. Salaries in the American Association are meagre to modest (US$3,000 per month is a star’s wages, with most players making closer to the US$1,300-per-month league minimum). The season was full of gruelling bus trips as far as Winnipeg, in Canada, a 20-hour drive away. Job security was non-existent.
But the 2018 Texas AirHogs are different, in many ways operating more like a major-league club than their American Association counterparts. The AirHogs fly to most of their away games. The Chinese players live together in local Country Inn & Suites accommodation and are chauffeured to games, practices and the area’s outlet malls, where they load up on designer gear.
The players enjoy the services of a newly hired strength-and-conditioning coach (in the past, AirHogs players had to work out on their own), and they can take advantage of an in-stadium weight room that was built before the start of the season.
These amenities were part of the pitch to the Chinese, and it showed that the AirHogs’ management was more capable than the team’s past record suggested. “We’re not some fly-by-night independent group,” Onyett says. The Chinese were, in fact, already well acquainted with this fact.
Before the 2017 season, the AirHogs were bought by Neltex Sports, a North Texas group led by Donnie Nelson, general manager and president of basketball operations at the Dallas Mavericks, of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Nelson – whose father, Don, is the most successful coach in NBA history – has been a pioneer in importing foreign talent, and he has been particularly active in China. Nelson took part in basketball scouting trips to the country in the early 1990s, pushed the Mavericks to draft Wang Zhizhi – who became the first Chinese player to make the NBA – in 1999, and currently serves as the chief adviser to the Chinese National Basketball Team.
During Nelson’s time in China, he had become friendly with Sharon Qin, chief executive of Shougang Sports, a subsidiary of Chinese state-backed steel conglomerate Shougang Group. Shougang’s sports division works closely with the Beijing government (Qin was recently named vice-executive director of the Chinese Olympic Committee), and after Nelson bought the AirHogs, he and Qin started talking about China’s baseball goals.
Nelson suggested the Chinese players – many of whom grew up playing other sports and came to baseball as teenagers – needed more games, better competition and a more rigorous talent-development system. The AirHogs could offer all of these things and, this February, Nelson travelled to Beijing to finalise the deal. The team’s mixed identity is now reflected in its name. For the 2018 season, the AirHogs have been known as the “Texas AirHogs powered by Beijing Shougang Eagles”.
Nelson is not the only member of America’s sports royalty involved in the 2018 AirHogs. Walk through the second floor of the team’s stadium and you will find a luxury suite designated for the AirHogs’ co-owner and Hall of Fame catcher Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez. And this season the AirHogs have been led onto the field by the Chinese national team’s manager, John McLaren, a big-league coach who had two stints as a major-league manager and was second-in-command of the star-laden mid-1990s Seattle Mariners teams.
The AirHogs’ leadership may have been experienced, but none of them knew how the Chinese players would compete against the American Association competition – or if they could at all. McLaren has known some of the Chinese players since he took over the national team in 2011, and he admits that before the start of the 2018 season he “didn’t think we were ready for this”.
They’re all a bunch of skinny guys. First thing I said was, ‘We gotta get some calories in these boys’
Stewart Ijames, Texas AirHogs player
The team’s 10 non-Chinese players had their doubts, too. At the start of the season, the Chinese players struggled on the field, and the clubhouse felt divided. Stewart Ijames – a 29-year-old former Arizona Diamondbacks minor-leaguer – says that the first weeks of the season felt “like a middle-school homecoming dance”. The Chinese were in a clique and the outnumbered American and Latin-American minor and major-league veterans were off in theirs.
Communication was a constant struggle but, gradually, the culture shock wore off. Ijames earned the name “big brother” from the Chinese players. He liked to offer up advice. He also liked to encourage his Chinese teammates to eat more so they could bulk up, piling fried chicken, buttery mashed potatoes and the occasional protein shake in front of them. “They’re all a bunch of skinny guys,” Ijames says. “First thing I said was, ‘We gotta get some calories in these boys.’”
Ijames took a particular shine to 24-year-old Li Ning. Li is a competitor, Ijames says, even if his scrawny physique makes him look more like a team intern than the AirHogs’ starting catcher. And Li was eager to bridge the clubhouse divide, hanging out with the non-Chinese players on the road and becoming a devotee of Ijames’s favourite video game, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour.
Li speaks more English than most of the other Chinese players, which still is not much. When he and I talk, it is through an interpreter, and Li’s answers are rarely more expansive than a single word. As with all the AirHogs’ Chinese players, he has had to adjust quickly to playing a full season in the US.
The opponents are bigger and stronger. Pitchers are more prone to throw above 140km/h. In China, Li played just 20 games per season. Now, he is experiencing something close to the daily grind, even if he has only started in half of the team’s games, sharing his position with another catcher, Luan Chenchen, whom the non-Chinese players refer to as “Baby Ruth”.
The AirHogs started the season abysmally. At the beginning of June, their record was 2 won, 14 lost. But signs began to emerge that better times lay ahead. Scott Sonju, who runs the day-to-day operations of Neltex Sports, says that he knew things were looking up when an opposing pitcher tried to hit an American AirHog with the ball and the Chinese players responded by flooding out of the dugout and onto the field to come to his defence.
The season was punctuated by other small highlights that felt like major milestones. Perhaps the greatest came on June 30, when infielder Luo Jinjin came out of nowhere to put a perfect swing on a ball, lofting it into the stadium’s left-field stands. It was the first and only time in the season that a Chinese player hit a home run. As Luo rounded second base, he raised his fist in the air, celebrating like he had just hit a World Series-winning blast.
As Green, Norton and about 150 other fans awaited the first pitch of the AirHogs’ August 2 game against the Sioux City Explorers, the team’s broadcaster, Joey Zanaboni, was already hard at work, monitoring the chat box on the team’s streaming video feed and glancing up as an image of a waving five-starred red flag appeared on the stadium’s giant screen. The PA system erupted with the triumphant blare of the Chinese national anthem.
“The March of the Volunteers,” Zanaboni whispered, savouring the melody. “When we go to Winnipeg they play three national anthems – that’s pretty cool.”
Soon Zanaboni was squawking into his microphone. “Let’s kick these tyres, let’s light these fires,” he said as former Colorado Rockies pitcher Tyler Matzek threw his warm-up pitches for the AirHogs.
The night’s roster was typical. The starting line-up featured four American players and five Chinese players. The results were typical, too. The Americans accounted for four of the team’s six hits and both of its runs batted in. The AirHogs lost 6-2, but beating the Sioux City Explorers was not really the point. The team’s 30 Chinese players would be leaving two days later for the Asian Games in Indonesia, where they would come fourth in the final ranking behind Chinese Taipei, Japan and eventual winners South Korea, but above Pakistan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand. Twenty other players from the national team arrived in Grand Prairie to replace them over the season’s final weeks and while the side finished bottom of the 12-team league, the Chinese contingent will be back next season.
Down the trail is the 2020 summer Olympics, and bigger hopes for the more distant future. “They’re really looking to the 2024 Olympics,” Sonju says. “They understand that the development process is going to take a while.”
One of the men charged with the long-term development of the team is Ma Zhenxin, although everyone around the AirHogs refers to him simply as Mr Ma.
I have been told Ma owns several stadiums in China and he describes himself, through an interpreter, simply as a “team leader”. Ma sees Chinese baseball as being on the brink of a golden era. When I ask him when a player from mainland China will make the major leagues, he mentions that 16-year-old Jolon Lun, with a reported 152km/h fastball, is already in the Milwaukee Brewers system.
The Chinese have been reluctant to make too much noise about their season in Grand Prairie. But Ma assures me he sees a day when Chinese baseball will be ready for its close-up, and the majors would be wise to seize on the nation’s growing dedication to the sport sooner rather than later.
“There’s big potential if the major leagues sign a Chinese player,” Ma says. The marketing opportunities in China would be reason enough alone. And if that player became an international star, he would inspire a generation of Chinese children to take up the game. If everything went right, he might be to baseball what the Houston Rockets’ star Yao Ming has been to basketball – a global ambassador and a nearly unrivalled populariser, a figure who could bring his sport to millions of new fans.
And while such a transcendent player was almost certainly not on the field against the Sioux City Explorers, perhaps, with a little luck and a lot of work, he will be soon.
Reprinted with permission of Texas Monthly magazine.
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