SARASOTA, Fla. -- It was drizzling on Itchy Xu's head, and a dark rain cloud accompanied the thunder over Ed Smith Stadium. Xu paid no attention to it. Instead, he smiled as he played catch with the teenage son of one of the Gulf Coast League Orioles' coaches. Next to
SARASOTA, Fla. -- It was drizzling on Itchy Xu's head, and a dark rain cloud accompanied the thunder over Ed Smith Stadium. Xu paid no attention to it. Instead, he smiled as he played catch with the teenage son of one of the Gulf Coast League Orioles' coaches. Next to him, shortstop Alexis Torres joked with him by chanting "Itchy, Itchy" over and over.
Gui Yuan "Itchy" Xu is just one of the guys playing Rookie ball here. Like the 34 others on the roster, he watches Orioles games at Camden Yards on television, allowing himself to briefly escape reality and think of what it'd be like for him to take that field.
But unlike his teammates, and unlike every other player in professional baseball, Xu is from China, which has yet to send an athlete to the Major Leagues. Xu is their lone pro ball representative.
"The P.E. coach, he just led me to the baseball team," Xu said, speaking of his 10-year-old self. "That's the first time I touched a baseball. I don't know what it is. I just continued to play, I just fell into it. Just crazy for baseball every day."
When he joined the Orioles organization, Xu told his coaches and teammates he wanted to be called "Ichiro." It was to honor the Japanese star-turned-Major Leaguer who was Xu's childhood hero and fellow left-handed hitter. But the nickname morphed into "Itchy" long before Xu knew what that word meant.
Xu plays first base and left field for the GCL Orioles. He's 20 years old, 6 feet tall and 188 pounds. Xu is batting .293, and that's after the current 2-for-27 slump he's been mired in since mid-July. He is still developing his understanding of a game that is not very popular in his country.
"Watching him during extended spring [camp] and now, he's learning about the game, more than you usually do," GCL Orioles manager Orlando Gomez said. "The situations of the game, baserunning, facing pitchers, playing the outfield, learning the bunt plays at first base. At the beginning, we tried everything. And the more we did it, he started learning about it."
Xu joined a development academy in China when he was just 14 years old. There were about 100 other athletes there with him. But when the scouts showed up, it was just to see Xu play. He moved to the United States three years later, convincing his family that he wanted to pursue his shot of playing professional baseball.
"'You can't stop me," Xu told his parents. "I want to go.'"
There have been challenges. Xu took three-hour-long Rosetta Stone language courses to begin learning English. He's strong with the language now, but far from fluent. Xu has to make time to FaceTime his family once a week despite a difficult time difference.
On the field, Xu is having trouble catching up with fastballs after beginning the season by feasting on opponents' offspeed pitches. The understanding of the game's intricacies don't always match up with his natural talent. He'll likely spend the rest of the 2016 season with the GCL club and hope for a promotion next year.
Xu is receiving attention with little proven success. He has a documentary camera crew that comes to the ballpark and is being profiled by numerous publications. Still, Xu is just one of the guys on his team, even though his story is unique, and he has the potential to help develop the sport in China far beyond where it is now.
"I'm just starting to learn the baseball experience," Xu said. "In China, we don't have a lot of baseball games. But here, we can play a lot of games, and I can learn a lot."
Sam Blum is a reporter for MLB.com based in St. Petersburg.