Xu takes 1st step toward career in the major leagues

BEIJING (AP) — The hardest part of Xu Guiyan’s decision to sign a contract with the Baltimore Orioles organization was keeping the groundbreaking deal a secret.

The 19-year-old Xu this week became the first player from one of the MLB’s three development centers in China to sign with a major league club, opening a pathway both for Chinese players and North American teams.

“Before the signing ceremony, I haven’t said anything to my teammates and friends, I just reported this good news to my parents and my coaches,” Xu said. “When my teammates heard, many of them sent their congratulations and they are really happy for me. I hope they can also work hard so that I can see them in the field of competition.”

The outfielder-first baseman will stay with his team in China for now, apart from a trip to Baltimore’s spring training facility in Sarasota, Florida, to be introduced to the Orioles. The plan is, he’ll finish high school in China before reporting to the Orioles spring training camp next February, where he’ll be assigned to one of the club’s minor league affiliates.

It’s the first step in what he hopes will be a trail-blazing career.

“Now I have made the first step by going to the minor leagues, however, this is a big motivation and push to the development of this sport in China,” he said.

There wasn’t a big baseball culture in China when he was young, but as a lefthander in primary school Xu started closely following Ichiro Suzuki, the Japanese player who became a star during 11 seasons with the Seattle Mariners. So much so that his nickname, in English, is Itchy.

He explained that at the MLB development center in Wuxi, he was encouraged to watch MLB games on the internet, “and since then I have been the fan of Ichiro.”

“We are both left-handed, so I can learn a lot from him on hitting. Also he plays outfielder and used to be a pitcher, so I think I can learn a lot from him about playing baseball,” he said.

The learning curve is about to get a whole lot steeper, and Xu knows that if he succeeds, interest naturally will grow in his country of more than 1.3 billion.

“I have heard that many people compare me with some famous successful Asian players,” he said. “I admit that I do have some pressure but once I am out there in the field, I will only focus myself on baseball.”

Rick Dell, MLB’s director of game development in Asia, spotted Xu as a 13-year-old and has been closely watching his progress since. According to the MLB, when his Orioles deal was announced, Xu was a two-time China national youth baseball league most valuable player — in 2012 and ’14 — and he also won the 2012 China youth league’s home run derby.

“It is extremely gratifying to have Itchy Xu sign after the development work we have done here in China,” Dell said. “We’d like to think this is the beginning of many. There is no reason that this can’t be the beginning of a very great time in China where we are seeing players being signed by MLB from China.”

Xu already is aware he’s something of a pioneer, and is determined to make it to the majors.

“I cannot predict the timing of that but I can give the best of myself in every step,” he said. “As long as I make improvements every day, the opportunity will come to me. I will work hard for the day to come.”

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