BEIJING—March 15 was what people conventionally call a great day for a ball game. A right-handed pull hitter might have disagreed, feeling the strong breeze coming in from the northwest. It was certainly a kind day for red flags, at least in Beijing. Along Chang’an Boulevard, by Tian’anmen Square and the Great Hall of the People, the national flags and accompanying plain red ones stood rippling off their flagpoles, aglow in clear sunlight against the blue sky.
From the other side of the country, in Lhasa, there were reports of flag burnings—and other things burning. It was unclear. The Internet was clogged. YouTube was blocked, and its Chinese counterpart, Tudou, had suddenly announced it was shutting down to work on its servers.
But whatever was happening was happening in Idaho, geographically speaking. At the Olympic baseball fields at Wukesong, on the west side of town, the San Diego Padres were playing the first of a pair of exhibition games against the Los Angeles Dodgers—as of this season, Joe Torre’s Dodgers. During the January press conference that announced Major League Baseball’s first appearance on Chinese soil, the former face of the Yankees dynasty seemed to hypnotizing himself into accepting his new affiliation: “As a representative of the Dodgers … proud to be here on behalf of the Dodgers … I am so proud to be associated with the Dodgers. …” (Such is life after the Steinbrenners, from generation to generation: Torre’s press-conference counterpart, Padres vice-president Dave Winfield, took the occasion to describe San Diego as “America’s finest city.”)
Now the teams, or spring-training travel-squad versions of the teams, were in China. I was still outside the park, in a taxicab, when the United States ambassador threw out the first ball. As traffic seized up on the boulevard, I wondered if I had been caught in an American-style pregame traffic jam. The real reason for the tie-up was pure Beijing: two cars, a black Honda and a red Buick, had collided, and by local custom the drivers had left them in the middle of the intersection, to preserve the accident scene. Traffic police have tried to promulgate a new rule telling people to clear the roadway, but the old habit continues. Baseball, like driving, is an idiom that hasn’t quite translated into Chinese. Earlier in the week, I wandered into a promotional event for this China Series in a downtown shopping mall. The host was a model wearing a miniskirt, striped tights and a purple jersey with a glittery gold Yankees logo—color-coordinated with a purple Boston Red Sox trucker hat.
And the Wukesong ball fields are temporary structures, to be dismantled after the Olympics, along with the venues for such other useless esoterica as archery and field hockey. When the main ballpark opened for an international tournament last year, the grandstands only extended from dugout to dugout. Now there were new sections installed on gravel beds all the way up the lines and around the outfield, held up by a thicket of shiny tubular beams and crosspieces, like scaffolding. Sheet-metal stairways rose through the underside, with no ramps or escalators. As I climbed toward my seat, a man rolled up in a wheelchair to the next set of stairs, tipped himself out and began pulling himself up the steps with his hands and feet.
The field itself was a lush emerald green. Later, when I had the chance to stand on it, I would figure out that it had been spray-painted. The Dodgers wore their changeless, brilliant whites; the perpetually tinkering Padres wore road uniforms in a sort of sand color.
It looked like a ballgame, mostly. The Dodgers’ jersey numbers—72, 76, 83—betrayed the fact that many of them would be flying home to join the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s. But Torre had brought center fielder Andruw Jones, at least. And at shortstop, wearing a big-league number 14, was Chin-Lung Hu of Taiwan, also known as Hu Jinlong of Chinese Taipei.
The Dodgers broke on top with a home run. The Padres tied it on a fluke play, when the Dodgers catcher lost control of a throwback to the mound. The Dodgers pulled back ahead. Hu struck out, lined into a double play, struck out again. He booted and bobbled ground balls.
“I thought that Hu seemed a little nervous,” Torre would tell the press in his postgame interview. Perched above the familiar, shadowed face, the Dodger blue of his cap looked unnaturally cheery.
“That’s what I wanted to see—Joe Torre in a Dodgers uniform,” a woman said mid-game, on the patch of walkway behind the stands that served as a concourse. A vendor squatted on the paving blocks, selling sandwiches and canned drinks. For 240 RMB, the vendors were letting fans carry a whole case of Yanjing beer off to their seats. Try that in the Land of Liberty.
On the other hand, whenever any spectator along the third-base line unfurled a sign, a man in a yellow windbreaker quickly moved in to inspect it. He spent a long time studying one held by a Red Sox fan, taunting Hank Steinbrenner.