Xu's road to glory has speed bumps

2018-07-20 10:45:10China Daily Editor : Mo Hong'e ECNS App Download

Two years into his pro baseball journey on the other side of the planet, Xu Guiyuan is certain of two facts: 1) He needs to become more adept at hitting the fastball; 2) American beer is woefully bland.

He's working hard to solve the first one, and he's grudgingly accepted the second.

Adjustments are no problem for the young man who was 14 when he left his home in Puning in southeastern China's Guangdong province and moved more than 1,200 km to pursue his dream at the Major League Baseball's Development Center in Wuxi, Jiangsu province.

In 2015, the 6-foot, 190-pound Xu became MLB's first signing from the Chinese mainland when he inked a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles. He's currently patrolling left field and handling DH duties for the Aberdeen (Maryland) IronBirds in the Class A New York-Penn League.

"Very nice to meet you, and please say hello to all of my friends in China," the personable 22-year-old said during a telephone chat with China Daily on Monday-using perfect English.

"Playing professional baseball is my dream, and on the field I try to work my hardest and learn something new every day. But I also miss my home and family very much. I want to make my family proud, but they don't really understand how difficult baseball can be."

The kid's learning curve has been accelerated.

He played 48 games over two seasons with the rookie league Gulf Coast Orioles in Florida before being promoted to Aberdeen this spring, but the step up in competition has also stepped up pressure to deliver at the plate.

Heading into this week, Xu was hitting just .220, with 10 strikeouts to go along with a pair of doubles and three RBI in 33 at-bats. But it's still early, and he's not overly concerned about finding his stroke.

"This league is more advanced and the pitchers are very good," he said. "I don't like to think too much when I'm at the plate ... it's more like see the ball, hit the ball. I know I have much work to do in order to start hitting, especially the fastball, but I try not to put pressure on myself."

IronBirds manager Kyle Moore thinks it's just a matter of time before Xu-who goes by the nickname "Itchy"-zones in.

"His best strength is definitely his swing, which we love," Moore told China Daily.

"He has a very mechanically sound swing from the left side, which gives him a chance for good contact every time. It's just a matter of getting him into that groove where he can do it consistently.

"Making the adjustment to better pitching is his biggest challenge, but he's definitely going in the right direction. We're working on changing his rhythm so he gets a better look at the fastball. He's facing some big college kids who can throw 95 miles per hour, and when you've never seen that kind of speed before, it can be pretty intimidating."

Itchy is receiving some Hall of Fame help to get up to scratch: Seven-time MLB All-Star Tim Raines, who was inducted into Cooperstown last year, is the IronBirds' hitting instructor.

"Tim works with him every day in the batting cage, so we're pretty confident the kid will start finding some pop," said Moore.

In the meantime, Xu is making the most of the long bus rides between the league's 14 cities, which stretch from Vermont in the north to West Virginia in the south.

"All the new cities and the bigger crowds are exciting for me … especially New York, where we play in Brooklyn," he said. "I really like the night games, too. Some of the bus rides are very long, but I love to talk to my teammates to improve my English. Sometimes I have a beer with them, but American beer is much too bland for me."

Overall, China's MLB pioneer gets a high grade from his manager.

"Itchy has a terrific attitude in the clubhouse and with his teammates, always respectful and receptive," said Moore.

"I see the makeup of a kid who has the ability to fulfill his potential, and that's a great positive. My job is to help whoever the Orioles send me to become a better ball player, and Itchy makes that easy because of his attitude and tremendous work ethic.

"As long as he keeps that attitude, I don't see why he wouldn't continue to progress up the ladder."

With or without that woefully bland beer.


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