Little League baseball has a proud history in Hong Kong, but the territory’s budding baseball stars play under challenging conditions
By Paula Sailes
On a drizzly Sunday morning on a makeshift baseball pitch near Lion Rock, two groups of teenagers are playing their hearts out for the chance to be Hong Kong Little League Juniors Champions 2017.
Among the enthusiastic supporters is Owen Belman, CEO of Aon Risk Solutions North Asia, AmCham Treasurer and President of Hong Kong Little League. Owen comes from the U.S., but today his son is playing for a Japanese team, which also includes two local teenagers, one Korean American and one Taiwanese American. They are playing a local team from Sha Tin that won the championship last year.
“Watch out for this kid” he tells us as a teenager steps up to the plate “this is the best player in the league right here.”
The teams in the league reflect Hong Kong’s multicultural environment. There are the Korean and Japanese Baseball Clubs, the Tai Tam Baseball Club which represents the western community, and four local Hong Kong clubs from Ho Man Tin, Sham Shui Po, Sha Tin and Aberdeen.
“The parents get used to a lot of different cuisines” one father jokingly tells me, as a bag of teppanyaki beef jerky is passed through the crowd.
Little League has a surprisingly long history in Hong Kong. The organization was founded in 1972, back when the territory was still a sleepy British colony. Since then it has grown to include more than 450 children between the ages of 7 and 15. Its goal is to introduce baseball to kids of all nationalities and to teach them the value of fair play and hard work through sport.
Baseball is extremely popular across Asia. Travel through Taiwan or Korea and you’ll be struck by both the number and the quality of their fields. Korea has reportedly spent 10 million US dollars on a state-of-the-art facility outside Seoul which will host the regional Little League tournament for the next five years.
While Hong Kong’s adult baseball players are well catered for, the territory’s Little League facilities leave much to be desired. The field known as Lion Rock 2, where the Juniors championship is taking place, is owned by the Water Supplies Department and sits on top of a reservoir. To describe its surface as uneven would be an understatement.
“It’s pretty bad” Owen explains, "my wife is from Minnesota and we have a house there. Within a three-mile area there are two fantastic complexes which each have six to eight immaculate fields, they are very flat and they are maintained. The fields here have a lot of grass growing where it's supposed to be dirt, they are fundamentally not level so when the ball is hit it can bounce all over the place.”
Hong Kong Little League’s board is in the process of raising funds to level and grade the fields at Lions Rock and Ho Man Tin West, to re-sod the infield and outfield and put baseball dirt in the infield cutouts. Raising the money is only half the battle. All improvements need approval from the Water Supplies Department.
Peter Tung is in charge of the fundraising efforts. As a parent and volunteer he wears many hats: most recently, chief molehill flattener.
“The space is beautiful and it’s a great location. The only thing is that because we aren’t able to use fertilizers on the grass, a lot of animals, rodents, moles have dug in beneath the subsurface and made the grass really bumpy so obviously that’s quite dangerous. You need a flat area to make sure you have true roll on the baseball.”
Upgrading the facilities would make a tremendous difference to the league and to the children that play in it. Better facilities would mean fewer rainouts and more practice hours which could translate into an expansion of the league itself.
Owen is hopeful that negotiations with the Water Supplies Department will prove productive and that the proposed improvements to the fields will be complete by August 2018.
“It’s a shame that such a marvelous, international city as Hong Kong does not offer baseball fields meeting international standards for these kids to play on, and we hope to work with the Hong Kong government and Water Supplies Department to change this reality. It is impressive to me the number of local kids that are passionate about baseball - I just wish we could give them a world-class experience.”