WATERVILLE — When Ruo Shui Li took a pitch off the shoulder, he gently tossed his bat toward his dugout and jogged to first base.

A member of the Bonkid youth baseball team from Beijing, China, Li was a relative newcomer to baseball, but he already knew one of the basic rules of the game. When you get hit by a pitch, don’t rub it.

Bonkid is participating in a two-week stint at a baseball camp at Oakland’s Camp Tracy. Monday night, the team played an exhibition game against a squad of Waterville Cal Ripken players.

Bonkid baseball coach Xiaoyan Tian takes a photo of his team before Monday’s exhibition game against Waterville Cal Ripken at Purnell Wrigley Field. Morning Sentinel photo by Travis Lazarczyk

Bonkid is the creation of Xiaoyan Tian. Eight years ago, Tian was looking for a sport his then 5-year old daughter could play. He focused on baseball, a sport on the fringes of popularity in China.

“The game is quite athletic. Players run, throw and jump. You need all-around ability,” Tian said. “I think baseball (players) are the most fit. It builds team spirit, and both girls and boys can play.”

That first season, Tian started with a t-ball league. Three kids showed up. The next season, he had 10.

“At that time eight years ago, I had to explain what baseball is to the parents,” Tian said.

Tian’s league continues to grow, but he faces difficulties. First, when Chinese students progress through third, fourth, and fifth grades, academic pressures mount. Second, many young Chinese athletes start to focus on more popular sports like soccer and basketball.

Tian has brought other teams to the United States to play games and learn the history of baseball. They’ve been to games at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium, among others. Tian and his players have been to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. They know what the game has meant to American social fabric. If he can instill some of that passion for the game into his players, Tian knows the game will grow in China.

Tian’s team found a connection to Waterville through friend Min Pullen, who hooked him up with Ken Walsh, the CEO of the Alfond Youth and Community Center. After a couple years of online conversations about baseball, Walsh invited Tian to bring his team to Maine, where it could train at the little Fenway Park at Camp Tracy and play a few games.

“One thing led to another. They’ve been here about a week,” Walsh said.

In the middle of the fourth inning, with China ahead 5-2, Waterville coach Brian Bellows said he was impressed with Bonkid’s play.
“They came and they’re ready to play ball. They’re playing good, fundamental baseball,” Bellows said. “They’re having a heck of a time. They’re chatting it up over there. It’s good to see.”
The teams played to a 6-6 draw.

Before the game, the teams shared a barbecue. They sat together in the Purnell Wrigley Field bleachers and ate — the language barrier prevented conversation.

When they began to play the game a little later, that language barrier didn’t matter. After all, balls, strikes, hits, and runs transcend language.

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