On the west perimeter of China's capital city, in a district called Wukesong, there were bountiful, desolate acres of dirt and ambitious plans for three important baseball fields. The 2008 Summer Olympics would be played there.
The first step was explaining this thing called baseball to the locals. What was baseball? They knew table tennis. They knew basketball because of Yao Ming. They knew a multitude of sports that are played in the United States, but baseball? What was that? What was a diamond if not a gemstone? What was a base and a mound and why grass and dirt?
Behold the wonder of Wukesong. The two-dozen players from each of the eight participating nations in the Olympics are the real story, but the facility and the people who made it happen are pretty close to a miracle.
"For two years, and now in my 20th trip to China, we've gone through a lot of materials and a lot of training to get to this point," recalled Murray Cook, MLB's head groundskeeping consultant and the field operations manager for BOCOG, which is staging this Olympiad.
"You're talking about a country not familiar with the game, and when you're trying to make MLB-quality fields, it's difficult.
"We're talking about what's first base, what's home plate. When we first started, second base was higher than the pitcher's mound. They drained it like a soccer pitch, because that's what they were used to. We said, 'We don't do it that way.' Water would have flowed across the mound to the plate."
In addition, the bullpens were at the very end of the dugout, and if you can imagine this configuration, the pitcher was throwing not down the line of the bleachers, but actually away from the field. In other words, the pitcher's back was to the field and he was throwing in a direction under the stands and toward Hong Kong to the south.
"This one was 10 times harder than other ones," Cook said. "No doubt about it. There was a big communications blip on learning the words. What is the Chinese word for batter's box? For home plate?"
Indeed, while Cook was talking, one of his 100-plus eager volunteers was on a quest around Field 2 to find the batter's box key as he instructed her.
That's a longstanding joke around groundskeeping crews.
Eventually someone tells them there is no key to the batter's box.
"I first came here in October '06, and then came maintenance training for the volunteers," Cook said, holding a handset and intermittently communicating with his crew. "Out of the more than one hundred volunteers, maybe 10 of them can actually throw a baseball. They're volunteering because it's the Olympics. You're starting from square one."
Once things started to take shape, locals saw the power and influence of Major League Baseball firsthand.
"We got some great Riviera Bermuda seed donated from the USA," Cook said, "and then just this past Friday we got 35 tons of Diamond Pro Soil Conditioner. It came on a slow boat to China, literally. It arrived the day of the first practice. You have to put it on for the stability of this clay.
"The mound material had to be shipped from San Diego. The mound and home plate clay is the same as on Petco Park."
The three ballfields are laid out in a row, with the Wukesong Olympic Gymnasium, which houses the basketball competition, across the way. There is Wukesong Main Field, which is across the street from the local hospital. Next to it is Wukesong Field 2, and on the other side of that is the Wukesong Practice Field. That one has been used by clubs on an alternating basis in the past week. No Olympic games will be played on it.
Two months ago, that field was a parking lot.
Three months ago, there wasn't a blade of grass on Field 2, where the United States team opened competition on Wednesday against Korea.
Technically, the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) is governing the development and maintenance of the Wukesong complex. "MLB listens to the Federation," Cook said. "It's beautiful. They've done a heck of a job to make these big-league fields," said U.S. manager Davey Johnson, well-traveled in international baseball this decade. "I've been in a lot of venues and this is first class all the way. I tip my hat to the Chinese."
John Ostermeyer, secretary general of IBAF, was sitting in the stands behind home plate at Field 2 on Thursday, watching U.S. right-hander Stephen Strasburg dominate the Netherlands. Cook was sitting behind him at the time, and Ostermeyer said, "Everything is just like it was supposed to be."
Then came a natural litmus test: rain. It came down steadily during the game, requiring the grounds crew to roll out the tarp twice. They handled it with flying colors, operating efficiently as a team and looking like they could fit in around a ballpark in the States.
"They did pretty well," Cook said, giving his own review. "They'll keep getting better."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less