Volume 76, Number 1 | June 6 - 12, 2007

Wang strikes out in Chinatown, where baseball is just ‘too slow’

By Lucas Mann

When Chien-Ming Wang takes the mound at Yankee Stadium, he shoulders more of a burden than just being one of the few bright spots on a disappointing team. Wang is just the third Major League Baseball player from Taiwan, and the fourth from China over all. (The only MLB player born in mainland China, Harry Kingman was the son of Western missionaries; his career lasted a total of four games with the 1914 Yankees.)

In short, Wang — who was last year’s runner-up for the American League Cy Young Award — is the first real baseball superstar in America of Chinese descent. Halfway around the world, kids are beginning to learn about this promising young pitcher with a devastating sinking fastball.

But what about the fans in Wang’s new home? For years, Manny Ramirez has been an icon to every young Dominican-American baseball player in Washington Heights. Could Wang climb up on a similar pedestal for kids in Manhattan’s Chinatown?

“I don’t know what it is,” said David McWater, who founded and runs the Lower East Side Gauchos, a youth baseball organization. “I have never had a single Asian kid try out for any of my teams.” Indeed, Chinatown, unlike almost all of the neighborhoods surrounding it — from Tribeca, to Greenwich Village, to the Lower East Side and East Village — is without a Little League, despite its large youth population. “One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is establish a Little League [in Chinatown],” McWater said. “I mean, that’s like 40,000 kids right there, if there’s any interest. There should be one there already.”

To look at Chinatown, however, it is easy to see one glaring problem when it comes to playing baseball.

“A lot of kids born in Chinatown grow up interested in baseball and they love Wang, but we have no park space, so it’s hard to maintain an interest,” said Jonathan Choy, president of the United East Athletic Association in Chinatown and owner of a sporting goods store in the neighborhood. “The two main parks, Columbus Park and Sarah Delano Roosevelt Park, don’t have the space for a baseball field. Basketball and soccer are much cheaper and easier. The main baseball field is at Murry Bergtraum High School, which you need a permit for and it’s always booked by baseball and softball teams from out of the neighborhood; so Chinatown kids can’t use the fields they have.”

It is, of course, a slow process to build interest in a new activity among a community not rooted in that tradition at all. Basketball, soccer and badminton are all followed with intensity in China, with global competitions being routinely televised.

“And those are all similar in that they’re fast sports,” Choy pointed out. “I think for a lot of immigrants who don’t know baseball, the slowness doesn’t make sense.” Still Choy said that a gradually growing interest is already apparent. For kids born in Chinatown, they’re now growing up watching Wang and the Yankees and that exposure has had some effect.

“We have had more [Chinese-American] boys come out for the team than ever before,” said John Carlesi, head coach of Stuyvesant High School’s baseball team. “Stuyvesant has always had a high Chinese population, but not on the team, but that’s changing slowly. I haven’t heard anyone directly mention Wang, but I would think that his presence has something to do with it,” Carlesi said. “I mean, most of the Chinese kids who come out are pitchers.”

Coach Rafael Lajara, at Bronx High School of Science, another school with a high Chinese-American student population, has noticed a similar trend.

“I honestly don’t know if they’re Chinese or Korean or what, but we do have a lot more Asian students trying out,” Lajara said. “I have five Asian players on my team right now, and in the past, a few years ago, it was one or two.”

If baseball is catching on with young Chinese-Americans, it’s clearly at a slow pace. Yet, more and more exposure of Wang’s success, along with Major League Baseball’s plan to start a training academy in China, should change the outlook on baseball in Chinese communities. Right now, however, the game and Wang need all the hype they can get.

“Wang has nowhere near the impact of a Yao Ming,” Choy said, referring to the Houston Rockets basketball star. “Immigrants don’t come to the U.S. from China with a built-in interest in baseball. People come knowing who Yao Ming is because basketball is popular and always broadcast in China.”

Fast sports rule

A growing interest in a sport also is dependent on having adequate facilities to nurture talent. There are now two YMCA branches serving Chinatown — the new Y on E. Houston St. and one on Hester St. — with plenty of basketball courts where kids can freely emulate Yao. Val Duval, who works at the sports camp the YMCA offers, says that baseball is just not a presence.

“They love to play sports, and basketball and handball are definitely the favorites,” he noted. “The kids don’t seem to like baseball too much.”

Marshal Coleman, who runs the Majors Division of the Downtown Little League, one of the youth baseball leagues closest geographically to Chinatown, said, “I think Chinese-American kids always enjoyed participating in baseball. I myself have coached several Chinese-American kids in eight years.” However, “several” kids over the better part of a decade still reflects just how slow a process the assimilation of baseball into the New York Chinese community is.

At Columbus Park, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, kids who had just gotten out of school were getting ready to play pickup games. The park features a playground for smaller children, two full-court basketball courts and two half-court ones and a mini-soccer field squeezed into a patch of artificial grass at the back. Each space was filling up in a hurry. Three boys had beaten the rush and were shooting around on one of the half-court hoops. Holding a basketball in his hand, 11-year-old Aaron said he guessed baseball was O.K.

“I like basketball, though,” he said eagerly. When asked if he’d ever play in a baseball Little League he said, “No, definitely never.” He said he has one friend who follows the Yankees, and he’s heard of Chien-Ming Wang. But baseball does not particularly interest him or his friends, who — upon overhearing the conversation about baseball — became bored and returned to their game.

All over Chinatown, people were out and the courts were filled.

In S.D.R. Park, on the south side of Grand St., between Forsyth and Chrystie Sts., there are four basketball courts and two handball courts. Each had a game going on, with kids waiting on the sides to play next. On the north side of Grand, there’s a small soccer field, where a pickup game had formed. The one baseball field in the area, Murry Bergtraum’s new complex, along the F.D.R. Drive by the Manhattan Bridge, was empty. Its base paths were pristine, its fancy new scoreboard shut off. Down the block, at the intersection of Monroe and Market Sts., a small public softball field — with no bases and patchy outfield grass — was also conspicuously empty.

Meanwhile, the handball courts behind the field were seeing plenty of action. Two young boys, one named Jin, the other James (although he made a point of claiming that “James” was a fake name) waited their turn on the court. James wore a clean new Yankees cap.

“Oh, this,” he said, pointing to his hat. “It’s just for style. And, I mean, I’m a New Yorker.” James claimed to completely dislike baseball. Jin was less harsh, but acknowledged that he couldn’t really get into it.

“People I know don’t mind [baseball],” Jin said, “but the most popular sports are probably basketball and handball.” The disconnect that Choy spoke of was readily apparent in the way the pair described baseball.

“Too slow, not enough scoring, takes too long, boring,” James said, with finality. His friends, including another four kids standing around the court, nodded in agreement.

But what about Wang? Both boys knew who he was and said they thought most of their peers did, as well. But asked if they cared how well Wang did, they laughed.

“Sorry,” Jin said, “it’s just not that interesting. People talk about him, but not like the way they talk about Yao — and Yao’s not even that good anymore. He’s got no hops.”

One boy on the handball court wanted to know if Wang was really Chinese. He had figured that the pitcher, like Hideki Matsui, an outfielder for the Yankees, was Japanese.

None of the kids at the court ever had played baseball on a team.

Wang makes Time 100 list

All of this is striking, considering that Wang was just named to Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people of 2007, for the potential effect his success could have on the global landscape of baseball. While Wang may indeed change the way future generations of Chinese-Americans, especially those in the Yankees’ home city, look at baseball, one gets the sense it will be a long process.

Of course, the tastes of an entire immigrant group cannot be lumped together. Yuri Akiyama, who teaches English as a Second Language at Murry Bergtraum High School, pointed out, “Most of my immigrant students are from Downtown Manhattan, which means they are originally from Canton or Fuzhou, where they do not know anything about baseball. Immigrants from Taiwan are more concentrated in Flushing, Queens, and I’m sure you would get completely different opinions from them.”

Indeed, her Chinese immigrant students all gave blank expressions when asked about Wang. Asked if they felt pride about having a Taiwanese baseball star gaining success in America, one said, “We really don’t care at all.” These high schoolers, all originally from Canton or Macau, in southern China, liked sports and said they regularly played basketball and ping-pong after school. They followed the National Basketball Association and liked watching soccer and badminton, as well. But, they couldn’t see baseball ever catching on in their neighborhood. As one junior said, “We just don’t really get it.”

Back at the playground at Monroe and Market Sts., James and Jin got ready to take their turn on the handball court. As he walked to the game, Yankee cap still on his head, James was asked for his last name. He stopped and smiled.

“Actually,” he said, “it’s Wang.”

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