National baseball league newcomers
After a three-year run, the Chinese Baseball League (CBL) is set to grow in a big way this season as two new teams join the previous four-team league.
The two are Sichuan Dragons and Team Hope Stars which are made up of under-21 promising players from around the nation. They will join the original four teams - defending champions the Beijing Tigers, regular season champions and eventual runners-up for the last two years Tianjin Lions, the Guangdong Leopards and Shanghai Eagles - to battle out 90 regular season games, 18 more than last season.
The league title will then be decided between the top two finishers of the regular season by a best-of-five championship series.
"The adding of the two new teams is the result of the growth of baseball in China and I believe it will further help improve the level of the game," said Hu Jianguo, head of China's national multi-ball administrative centre.
The newcomers will definitely bring added highlights into the league as the fans can shift their eyes from the traditional duel between Beijing and Tianjin, who have swept the titles in the previous three seasons. Tianjin won in 2002 by beating Beijing in the final, but the latter turned the tables in the following two seasons by edging Tianjin in the championships series.
"I know there are a lot of expectations on us and we will do our best," said Xu Dayong, headcoach of the Sichuan team.
While Sichuan fulfilled the league dream after some years of serious pondering, the league will be a huge challenge for Team Hope Stars, a squad organized by the Chinese Baseball Association aiming to scout for talent for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
The team includes 20 young players from Beijing, Henan, Jiangsu, Gansu and Fujian. Seven South Korean professionals will join in to help the fledglings face the much more experienced players from the other teams.
A coaching group formed by two South Koreans and two local coaches will be set up.
But even with this pro help, officials from Chinese Baseball Association say it will be a hard mission for the youngsters to win a place in China's 2008 Olympic baseball team.
"The main part of the 2008 team has been decided. Those youngsters can only win the chance (of joining) by giving a very good performance," said Shen Wei, secretary-general of the association.
"They will even have to battle to stay in the team because we will adjust the members frequently," Shen warned.