WUXI, China - WUXI, China (AP) — There's a Babe Ruth in training right now. Here in China.
Well, the sturdy 13-year-old is really Luan Chenchen and his teammates call him "Baby Ruth," but someday, his coaches hope he might grow into the sort of talent that made Babe a legend.
Luan is one of 16 kids in the first class of Major League Baseball's first professional development center, part of a program in this eastern Chinese manufacturing center aimed at finding and nurturing future talent — and promoting the game in China.
"With any sport, the best place to start is with the kids," MLB president Bob Dupuy said Wednesday, inaugurating the center. "Then they grow up, and become fans and encourage their kids to play."
Basketball has boomed in China, helped by Shanghai-born star Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets. State television began showing NBA games in the late 1980s, and in 2004 the Rockets and Sacramento Kings played the league's first games in China, a pair of preseason exhibitions.
MLB is trying for a similar transformation.
After all, baseball has an even longer history in China: The game was first introduced in Shanghai in the 1860s. The sport quietly endured throughout falling dynasties, revolutions and other political upheavals, in part, historians say, because of the military's desire to build up grenade-lobbing muscles.
China has a seven-team professional baseball league and the national association says about 1,000 schools have teams, including 140 at the tertiary level. China has fielded teams at both the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic.
Still, few Chinese play or know much about the sport and games are rarely shown on television. Beijing already has demolished its own Wukesong Olympic baseball stadium, and the local professional league struggles to draw spectators.
Worse still, baseball has been cut from the Olympic program, giving the country's medal-focussed sports officials little incentive to back it.
In China, MLB has been running summer training camps for kids and supporting university baseball programs, among other charitable and cooperative efforts.
For its development center, it chose Dongbeitang High School, a new facility complete with a baseball diamond, thanks to the school's baseball-fan principal. There, the boys selected for the program attend regular classes, baseball training and English lessons.
"What did we learn last night?" asks Jeff Brueggemann, an Illinois-native who once played Triple-A ball and has moved to Wuxi to teach at the MLB center.
"Don't be late!" yell the boys, falling over each other in laughter.
"What else?" the coach coaxes.
"We love baseball!" they shout.
Brueggemann and fellow teachers Sam Lee and Rick Dell, former coach at The College of New Jersey, run the 12- to 13-year-old boys through a quick but strenuous practice. Apart from the coaches' shouts of instructions and encouragement, the only sound is the slap of ball in mitt.
The kids are like kids anywhere, says Dell.
Maybe not exactly. Demonstrating the kind of discipline rarely seen in an American group of teens, the boys' classmates, in identical blue and white track suits, sat watching, stock-still and silent, for at least two hours.
Most of the boys initially recruited for the full scholarship program, funded by MLB, come from nearby Wuxi, a city not far to the west of Shanghai. But some, like Luan, are from elsewhere. Luan's family lives in Lanzhou, a city in remote northwestern China.
Attending the school offers a way out of poverty for some of the students. For all, it's a hard-to-come-by opportunity to get an education, daily coaching and play dozens of games.
It's an investment that MLB hopes will pay off, too, with an expansion of the game from international strongholds in nearby Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and in Latin America. And with Chinese talent eventually finding its way to the United States — already nearly one-third of all registered Major League players are foreign born, though none are from mainland China.
"We're very excited to think that some of the youths here might grow up to play professional baseball," Dupuy said, "after hitting their first home runs here."