HONG KONG — If you’ve ever played Little League baseball, then this scenario will sound familiar. Your team is down and your coach isn’t happy about it. So he gathers all the players together for an impromptu pep talk.
The coach in this case is Shannon Argetsinger. During the day he’s the assistant to the attache of the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong. On the weekends, however, he coaches the Tai Tam Baseball Club Gamecocks and is president of Hong Kong Little League.
On this hot Saturday afternoon, Argetsinger’s team is dedicating their time to mounting a much-needed comeback. The 11- and 12-year-olds dig their cleats into To Shek Field, a diamond littered with so many pebbles that little league parent Janet Wynecki likens it to the surface of the moon.
“You get the To Shek pop ups we call it, so a grounder’s rolling at you and suddenly it’s airborne straight up in front of you, so you can take it in the eye or the cheek or something if you’re not careful,” Wynecki said.
To Shek Field is one of a handful of diamonds in Hong Kong and is aptly named. Pronounced daw-sek in Cantonese, it translates to “many rocks.”
“It was a field full of boulders that they removed to make the field,” explains parent Gene Bordelon, who hails from Arkansas.
While the infield resembles a minefield, the outfield resembles, well, I’ll let Wynecki and Bordelon’s wife, Ann, tell you what it doesn’t resemble.
“It’s not exactly like the outfield at Yankee Stadium,” Wynecki says.
“The grass is mowed about twice a season,” Ann Bordelon says.
And it’s spartan. To Shek Field boasts no dugouts, bleachers or concession stands. In one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets, its location is decidedly down-market: in the shadow of a freeway overpass and adjacent to a noxious water pumping station, much to the dismay of player James Simon.
“Whenever we play in the mornings there’s like a poop truck and everything so we get to smell it,” Simon says.
Trying To Catch On
Baseball may be a big hit with the Taiwanese, but the game hasn’t taken off in China. The Chinese Baseball League, which formed on the mainland in 2002, suspended operations in 2012. And here in tiny Hong Kong, rugby and soccer, leftovers from British colonial rule, still, well, rule.
While rugby receives generous government subsidies, baseball relies on parents’ generosity and the occasional corporate sponsorship. Most of the 450-plus kids who play Little League ball here are children of American, Japanese and Korean ex-pats who grew up playing the game in more baseball-friendly environments.
The contrast isn’t lost on Argetsinger.
“In the United States I had access to fields anytime I wanted,” he says. “If my son wanted we could go over to a field 15 minutes from the house, drive over there, not worry about having to pay a premium for parking and get out on the field and hit balls and play as long as we wanted to without any issues. I miss having that access to fields. Just to go out there and play.”
Outfielder Jason Choi says the limited access can’t stop him from practicing. Choi lives in Tai Koo Shing, one of Hong Kong’s largest housing developments — there are 61 towers, nearly 13,000 units and a lot of security guards roaming around. So Choi opts to stealthily toss a tennis ball against a wall near the estate’s quiet back gate.
“Like security guards don’t check it that often as the front gate, but at night you should play at the front gate because at the back gate there’s lots,” he says
And there are other ongoing issues for prospective players. Consider that after Little League ends at age 15 there are exactly two paths a Hong Kong kid with baseball ambitions can take: leave the territory or enroll at the one international school that fields a team.
“It’s a challenge for our kids who are really good and really have these aspirations of playing in college,” Argetsinger said. “It’s difficult because obviously they have to get game reps so that they can market themselves to college recruiters and coaches.”
Back In The Game
Argetsinger’s pep talk works. His team comes back and squeaks out a victory. Afterward, 12-year-old Peter Van Wingerden says, despite all the obvious challenges to playing baseball in Hong Kong, he wouldn’t want to play anywhere else. The teams here are divided by nationality, so every game is like an actual World Series.
“Like you have Japanese teams, Chinese teams, Korean teams, American teams,” Van Wingerden says. “And when they play each other it’s just better compared to, like, same cultural teams playing each other.”
Why is it better?
“Because it’s like a new experience, and you get to learn the different approaches and aspects of baseball,” Van Wingerden says.
“It’s been a good experience for our son,” Ann Bordelon says. “He’s a little bit more open-minded and accepting of things that are different from what he’s used to.”
And then, as Little Leaguer John McDermott says, there’s the invaluable experience of having cut your teeth on baseball’s most unpredictable and challenging playing surfaces: To Shek Field.
“So when you go back to America eventually,” McDermott says, “it will be easier to field the balls and other things like that.”
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