'I will be next': Zhao looks to become 1st native Chinese player to reach MLB

Right-hander participating in Brewers' Minor League spring camp

March 9th, 2022

PHOENIX -- The only Mandarin speaker at American Family Fields of Phoenix is looking down at his phone in frustration.

Jolon Zhao, the right-handed pitcher from Beijing, has already navigated more challenges than your average 20-year-old. He came to America in 2018, signed with the Brewers and made his professional debut all before his 17th birthday. In 2019, Zhao had Tommy John surgery and began the grueling year-long rehabilitation. He lost 2020 entirely because of the coronavirus pandemic, and unlike the other Minor Leaguers who got back to work in 2021, Zhao lost most of a second season because of pandemic-related problems securing a work visa.

He finally made six appearances in the Arizona Complex League late last summer before a stint in the Arizona Fall League. Then he spent this past offseason living and training alone in Phoenix. Put together, it’s a lot for a young man learning a new language and culture.

On this day, however, the challenge is his phone. Zhao has agreed to do an interview during the Brewers’ early Spring Training camp, and he likes to use a translation app to ease his nerves. The idea is to take a question in English, then speak his answer into his phone in Mandarin for help. But the app is not working.

Zhao’s frustration lasts only a moment. He puts his phone back in his pocket. He is the only player from mainland China in affiliated baseball, and like so many hurdles he has cleared so far, he is going to face this one directly.

“OK,” Zhao says. “I’ll try it in English.”

According to the database at Baseball-Reference.com, only one player born in the Chinese mainland has made it to the Major Leagues. Harry Kingman, born in what is now known as Tianjin to American missionaries, had four plate appearances for the 1914 Yankees before a long career in education and public service.

In 2007, MLB founded a development program in China to foster interest in the sport. Zhao emerged in 2018 as a top prospect with a 95 mph fastball. He traveled to the U.S. to pitch for the Alexandria Aces of the Cal Ripken Collegiate League, which played a 40-game schedule of teams in Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C. A video posted via Twitter by the popular Pitching Ninja caught the eye of Brewers scouts, including Taylor Green, who had played throughout the Minor Leagues against Ray Chang, now an executive with MLB’s development program in China.

While he was on a scouting trip in Colombia, Green reached out to Chang.

“He was able to put us in contact with Jolon’s family through a translator,” Green told MLB.com in 2020. “Jolon was in Maryland playing in that summer league, his parents were in China and we were in Colombia. Trying to navigate the process was just an incredible thing -- from three different continents -- it was quite an experience.”

Green tells the story of finalizing the contract, which required notarized signatures from the parents because Zhao was a minor. It’s a harrowing tale of overcoming the time change, language barriers and chasing better cell reception. Green was in a taxi as the deal got done.

“I’m in the car, I’m on the phone with the translator trying to make sure the deal’s good to go, and there are 15 or 20 minutes left before the notary closed where they were going in China. I finally get reception, and sure enough we get pulled over by the Colombian police,” Green said. “I’m thinking that I can’t get off the phone because if I lose reception and lose the family, we’re not going to get the deal done.”

Zhao was officially a pro ballplayer, and the Brewers later announced his signing with much fanfare along with two other Chinese players -- pitcher Ian Yi and infielder YongKang Kou, who are no longer with the organization -- during a ceremony in Beijing. It marked the first time an MLB team signed three Chinese players at the same time.

Green, meanwhile, was forever hooked on scouting. Weeks after the hectic signing, Zhao was pitching at Rookie-level Helena as a 16-year-old.

“Ever since that point -- it was pretty early into my international scouting experiences -- I’ve been all in,” Green said. “I love it. I want to do this the rest of my life after that. It was so exciting.”

Who needs a translation app? Once he begins speaking, it becomes clear that Zhao, who sometimes goes by “Lun,” has advanced command of the English language.

“I would say my first year coming here, my first and second year, it was really hard,” he said. “I didn’t know any English. I didn’t know how to live here. A lot of people helped me; players, teachers. Everybody helped me, and I got used to it here. [It has been] three years already, and everything is better.”

Technology usually helps. Occasionally in the clubhouse or in the training room, Zhao uses the phone app to ensure everyone is on the same page.

But he tries to limit those instances to need.

“Yes [it helps], but I cannot, every time I talk to people, take out my phone and use a translator,” he said. “That’s not going to work.”

“This is a well-motivated kid,” said Brewers vice president and special assistant Eduardo Brizuela. “He wants to be the best version of himself. He works hard, he asks questions, he wants feedback. Most important, he tries to out-work everybody else around him. He understands the pressure of being the only Chinese player in our organization right now and he wants to represent at a high level.”

Eduardo Brizuela, the Brewers’ VP and special assistant to the GM/baseball operations, with Jolon Zhao

Zhao had time for extra study in 2019 and ’20 while he was sidelined by surgery and then the pandemic. Once he finally was cleared to return to America in 2021, Zhao logged 8 2/3 innings in the Rookie-level ACL and seven more innings against much more advanced hitters in the Fall League. Walks were a problem in that small sample. It’s on the list of things to clean up in 2022.

Last week in Phoenix, Zhao faced hitters for the first time this spring. He pitched to the scouting report, said his catcher, 2021 Draft pick Wes Clarke: “Gross” stuff, to borrow Clarke’s adjective, but still working on consistent command from pitch to pitch.

“His curveball? Whew,” Clarke said, shaking his head.

Even at such a young age, Zhao is a role model to other Chinese ballplayers. In an email, Chang said that over the years Zhao is one of seven players from MLB’s China development program to sign with a Major League organization -- but the only one currently active in a system. Hopefully, more will follow. Chang cited six players who are currently on baseball scholarship at U.S. universities.

“When I was a kid, I saw some people play here and said, ‘I want to follow him,'” Zhao said. “‘I will be next.’ … I was always thinking about competing and trying hard and learning. I wanted to be them. ‘I want to be next.’ I always think about that.”

Zhao’s next challenge will be a full Minor League season. Because of his injury and pandemic circumstances, he has thrown 17 innings in four years of pro ball, including 15 2/3 innings in the last three years.

“After surgery, my body feels strong. I feel good,” he said. “I’m working hard here, working a lot. I’m just ready for everything, ready for this season.”

What are his immediate goals?

“I would say just challenge myself, go to a high level and work as hard as I can,” Zhao said. “I mean, trust myself.”