Born and raised outside of Kansas City, Ray Chang couldn’t understand why speaking Chinese in his childhood home was required.
“Growing up in Leawood, Kansas, you don’t have any friends whatsoever that speak the language,” said Chang, the son of Chinese immigrants. “At the time, I’m thinking ‘This is ridiculous. I’m never going to use it.’”
Turns out he likely will use it for the rest of his life, thanks in part to baseball.
About the time Chang was a senior at Rockhurst High School, MLB started discussions about developing the potential of China’s 1.3 billion people. Since Mao Zedong banned baseball in the 1960s beacuse of its Western influence, the country had fallen behind neighboring Japan and Taiwan in baseball skill, popularity and success.
As a prelude, in March 2008 the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres play the first MLB game in China. Months later, while doing his offseason workout, Chang struck up a conversation with Jeff Bergermen, a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins organization.
“He had been working for the MLB in China,” said Chang, an infielder for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, the Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. “He was going back to work at a development center. He felt I might be interested, me being a Chinese-American.”
In 2009, when MLB opened a development center at Dong Bei Tang High School in the city of Wuxi, Chang sensed a major opportunity.
“They bring in coaches and players for a month, month and a half,” Chang said. “Wally Joyner, Prince Fielder have gone. Jeremy Guthrie went (in 2014).”
And for seven consecutive years, Chang has gone during his offseason, working one-on-one with campers on hitting and fielding. The most rewarding part?
“Being able to speak the language with these kids,” Chang said. “The coaches are American and don’t speak the language. Being able to have that relationship with the kids; you can see it in them. They come up to me, speak Chinese and I can speak it back. They ask me about American cultural or anything besides baseball. It helps me develop a much deeper relationship with them beyond baseball. That is what brings me back every year.”
Prior to assisting at the camps, Chang had been to China once, when he was 9. Then he couldn’t comprehend the importance of his visits.
“I drove to different cities to see aunts, uncles, cousins and my grandfather,” Chang said. “I make sure I see them every year. MLB wants me to stay a month, a month-and-a-half. I stay two months. My (relatives) are getting older. You want to cherish every moment you possibly can, especially since they live on the other side of the world.”
It also has given Change the opportunity to witness dramatic improvement in the ability of campers.
“When I first went over the game of baseball was still in the beginning stages,” Chang said. “In the past few years you can see changes in swings, personalities and overall knowledge. Six years ago a team that was up 15-1 would have a batter sacrifice bunt. A base runner would avoid contact with a fielder while sliding into a base. Now they aren’t bunting and the base runners are trying to break up the play. More importantly, they understand why they do it.”
What started with 16 players and one facility has grown to more than 100 players and two additional development centers, in Nanjing and Changzhou. On July 20, Xu (pronounced SHOO) Guiyuan became the first player from one of the centers to sign with an MLB team. The 19-year old left-handed outfielder, known for a powerful bat, inked a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles.
Meanwhile, Chang’s future might just be on the other side of the world
“I can see myself going over to China when my professional career is over and working with MLB over there full time,” Chang said. “I’ve been hooked on it.”
Above: Ray Chang, American-born son of Chinese immigrants, goes to China to help develop players. (Courtesy Barrett McClean/Pensacola Blue Wahoos),