DJ Suonandajie and other Chinese players eye the MLB draft

Kansas City, Mo. — Not one of the hundred fans at Ban Johnson’s final Summer League game felt compelled to leap from their lawn chairs to applaud when the batter known by the nickname DJ grounded out to second base. He dropped the ball down the first base line. It was a routine play that requires DJ, the team’s fastest runner, to suppress his urge to go for a triple and do what the situation dictated rather than risk going to third.

But when the news was relayed to Ray Chang, DJ’s high school coach, 7,000 miles away in Nanjing, China, Chang burst with pride.

“It’s amazing. I love hearing that,” Chang, who was born and raised in the United States, said by phone. “Our main focus is talking about game instructions and strategies because when these kids come to us, they’re so far behind where an American kid would be in terms of the experience of playing and watching the game.”

Chang is the baseball operations manager for Major League Baseball’s Player Development Initiative in China, a program that offers academic and baseball coaching from seventh grade through high school. The first development center was established in Wuxi in 2009. Additional centers were opened in Changzhou (2011) and Nanjing (2014). Chang, also the head coach of Nanjing Center, has been working full-time in China since 2017, when he retired from a 12-season minor league career that began in the San Diego Padres organization.

DJ, his former student, is a 24-year-old resident of Qinghai Province in the Tibet Autonomous Region, identified in visa documents as Fnu Suonandajie. Fnu is not a name, however, as it stands for First Name Unknown, the term the State Department uses for aliens with unknown first names. Suonandajie is not a surname: it was given to him by a monk in his childhood. He bridged this cultural gap by asking Americans to name him DJ.

At 5 feet 8 inches and 184 pounds, DJ plays center field and leads off the bat. He didn’t play baseball until he was nearly 10, but was discovered in 2011 by MLB recruiters scouting China for promising athletes to send to their high school program in Changzhou.

Recruiters were initially impressed by DJ’s foot speed and shooting accuracy, a skill he attributes to throwing rocks at domestic yaks to help stop them from grazing. According to him, this is a common task of the Tibetan children, the aim of which is to land the rock close enough to the yaks to surprise them and move them without hitting them.

MLB recruiters are working to open up the world’s largest market for a sport that few know about. The goal is to find players who can help build enthusiasm there, the way Chinese basketball player Yao Ming sparked interest in the NBA in China after he signed with the Houston Rockets in 2002.

No wonder DJ says basketball, soccer, tennis and table tennis would be his sports of choice if baseball didn’t come calling. Instead, he graduated from the Development Center’s high school program in Nanjing, where he was coached by Chang. He came to the United States, earned his way to Los Angeles Harbor College, and graduated from a community college last year with an associate’s degree in communications. Shortly before Thanksgiving, he was awarded a full scholarship to play baseball to Rockhurst University, a Division II school in Kansas City.

“I like the idea of ​​going against the pitcher, just me against him,” DJ said of his passion for baseball before the final Ban Johnson League game. “My first game in summer league this year, I took the first three at-bats, but when I got another chance, I said, ‘You got the first three, but I got this one,’ and I straightened it out. The ball hit the gap. I swung the bat and said to myself : ‘Got it.’ That kind of idea that you just don’t give up until the last pitch, I really like that.”

By attending college in the United States, DJ and several other players represent a new avenue in the development process that could ultimately lead to a watershed moment in MLB’s foray into China: the first-year player draft.

Previously, the path for players in the development center was to sign as an international free agent. The landmark was first achieved in 2015 when the Baltimore Orioles signed first-year developmental center Gui Yuan Xu, a position player who grew to love Ichiro Suzuki. Xu played 73 games over three seasons in rookie and Class A ball before being released.

Since then, six more developmental center graduates have been signed by Boston, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Five of them suffered the same fate as Xu, failing to make it to the lowest level of the minor leagues before their eventual release. Only Jolon Zhao, the right-hander in Milwaukee’s system, remains.

DJ will be one of at least nine seniors trying a different path this fall on a US college baseball scholarship. Two more graduates are considering scholarship offers.

After enrolling in college, they become eligible for the annual MLB draft, which begins Sunday and runs through three days. While MLB is in talks with the players’ union to create an international draft — the deadline for that decision is July 25 — the current system is limited to fans in the United States and Canada.

In addition to making it easier for Development Center graduates to be tracked and tracked by MLB scouts, Chang says there are other advantages to choosing a college option than signing as a free agent.

“Honestly, it’s a blessing for me,” Chang said. “Facing the shock of a new culture and the rigors of a 144-game minor league season, which is a lot more games than they played here in a season at 17 years old, is incredibly difficult. The college route allows you to spend more time in a new culture and better prepare yourself to play minor league baseball if you’re lucky enough to get that opportunity.”

He added: “These guys can compete, no doubt, but they have to adapt to a new culture and a longer season.”

The goal, which is to draft a Development Center graduate, could happen soon, according to Brian Minnitt, who was the Philadelphia Phillies’ assistant general manager overseeing the organization’s scouting and player development when he signed the Development Center graduate. International free agent in 2018. Minniti was recently named a board member of baseball’s international governing body, the World Baseball Softball Confederation.

“Any player development project, especially starting from scratch, takes time, but I think we’re getting closer every day to a Chinese player in Major League Baseball,” Minniti said. “From a scouting standpoint, every team is hungry for players with tools, and it doesn’t matter where they come from. If there’s a 6-foot-2 lefty with a really good arm, he’s going to notice.”

Actually, there is. Roger Reng, another Tibet native and Developmental Center graduate, is a 6-2, 185-pound lefty who will be a sophomore at Arizona Western College this fall. Through July 8, he had struck out 50 batters in 48 innings while walking just nine for the Casper Horseheads, a Wyoming Collegiate Summer League team.

With the 20-round draft on deck in the coming days, scouts are paying attention.

Brad Lefton is a bilingual journalist based in St. Louis. He specializes in baseball in Japan and Asia.

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