The Xu fits: O's, Chinese prospect make history
'Itchy Shoe' first to sign from Development Center in China
They call him Itchy. Or if the staff members of MLB's Development Center in Wuxi, Jiangsu, China, are feeling particularly clever, they call him Itchy Shoe, because "shoe" is how his surname is pronounced.
His real name is Xu Guiyuan, but in his first week at the MLB DC in July 2010, Xu named MLB All-Star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki as his baseball idol, and coach Dave Palese ran with it. But now, five years later, Itchy Shoe is running into history as the first player from MLB's three development centers in China to sign with a Major League club. On Monday, the 19-year-old outfielder/first baseman inked a deal with the Baltimore Orioles.
"Xu has been working hard at the MLB Development Center and we hope he'll be the first of many future Major League players from China," said Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. "He has excellent balance at the plate and very good left-handed power, which we think will play well at Oriole Park at Camden Yards."
Rick Dell, MLB's director of game development in Asia, has been watching Xu play for several years, and he agrees with Duquette.
"With Itchy, you have to like his hitting," Dell said. "He really swings the bat well and has been doing a lot to continuously improve. He's a lefty hitter with a good swing and good bat speed."
Xu was a two-time China National Youth Baseball League Most Valuable Player -- in 2012 and '14 -- as well as a two-time MLB Taiwan Elite Camp All-Star, in 2013 and '14. He also won the 2012 China National Youth Baseball League Home Run Derby and was the winner of the 2011 Shenzhen Baseball League Best Hitter Award and Most Improved Player honor.
For MLB, though, Xu's growth, improvement and success represents the success of their Chinese development centers. China had a rich baseball history in the first half of the 20th century, with Chinese teams traveling overseas to play, and American All-Star teams, including the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, traveling to China for exhibition games. But during China's cultural revolution, Mao Zedong banned baseball from 1966 through '76 as a symbol of Western indulgence. Following Mao's death, baseball was slow to regain its footing in China, despite the fact baseball, of all the sports, seems suited to Chinese culture.
"All the ethereal things about baseball -- no clock, the sacrifice, the journey around the bases that starts and finishes at home -- it all resonates in Chinese culture," said MLB vice president Jim Small, who oversees all of Asia. "I'm convinced that if baseball was around during Confucius' time, he would have been a huge fan."
In 2000, MLB's international ownership committee decided it needed a strategy for developing Chinese players, and in 2009, the first MLB DC was opened at the Dong Bei Tang School in Wuxi, with 16 local players. In 2010, the DC's first full year of existence, the team played approximately 130 games, which set the standard for years to come and is 100 games more than those played by the highest level professional teams in China. Now, MLB has three DCs in China, with the other two in Changzhou and Nanjing.
All are attached to academically strong high schools, with the goal of producing student athletes.
"Before we started the development centers, we discovered how much emphasis the Chinese place on education," said Small. "We knew the philosophy of the DC had to be education first, baseball second, or Chinese parents wouldn't let their sons attend."
To that end, MLB's Chinese student-athletes live in dormitories at the schools, attend classes every day and study halls at night, and play baseball after school and on weekends.
Last year, six of eight graduating student athletes went on to play baseball at Chinese universities. This year, there will be 22 graduates, 14 of whom have already committed to Chinese universities. Several others are still waiting to hear back, and the vast majority of those teens would never have had the opportunity to attend college if not for the DCs.
"Within the next three graduating classes, the byproduct of our development centers will be the overall improvement of the level of college baseball in China," Dell said. "We haven't had any Chinese players go on to American universities yet, but it will happen."
It was Dell who discovered Xu, as a 13-year-old left-handed pitcher playing high school baseball in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. When he came to the DC, it was obvious his hitting was ahead of his pitching. The then-skinny kid switched to playing outfield and first base, and he is now a 5-foot-11, 186-pounder with a body that, according to Dell, "has room to mature."
Scouts love a frame that can support added muscle, and 15 of them from 10 Major League clubs have visited the Chinese DCs, and the showcase days held in the fall and spring, since the ban on signing Chinese players was lifted in August 2014.
"Teams have to make a concerted effort to come to China to see our players," Dell said. "It's a very long trip, it's expensive and it requires a visa. You have to really care about going, and that really validates what we're doing over here."
Xu's signing was the icing on the cake. For the time being, Xu will stay in China and train with his team from the DC; currently, he is in Taiwan training with what Dell calls "The AAA squad," a group made up of the best players from all three DCs. Xu will likely go to Baltimore's Spring Training facility in Sarasota, Fla., later in the summer to be introduced to the Orioles. Then, he will return to China to finish his high school classes in the fall before reporting to the O's Spring Training camp next February, where he will be evaluated and assigned to one of Baltimore's Minor League affiliates.
Itchy, for his part, is a happy guy.
"Ichiro is a hitting god and I love hitting, and I want to work hard to be as good as he is," Xu said. "I am excited to have a chance to go to MLB and play baseball, and I'm happy the Orioles gave me this opportunity."