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by W. Robert Pearson

My wife Maggie, our two-year-old son Matthew, and I arrived in China in 1981 as part of a rapidly expanding cohort of American diplomats surging into the country following the formal establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979.  We were excited to be in the early wave of American diplomats going back to China after 30 years of separation and enmity.  We also were prepared for some difficult times, but could only anticipate what would be facing a young American diplomatic family in Beijing.

US embassy 1981
Photo by W. Robert Pearson

China was just beginning its ascent from the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, and the reality of the past was all around us.  The average annual income in China in 1981 was $100. The Beijing air was thick with coal dust, and our hotel room attracted rats while we waited months for permanent housing.  One main dish at a Peoples’ Restaurant we visited was dumplings with coffee grounds.

Beijing neighborhood lane 1982
Photo by W. Robert Pearson

Our Chinese counterparts were both curious and cautious, delighted to be able to engage with us and also making excellent use of the impenetrable bureaucracy as necessary.  Washington was eager to make headway, and we, as did many Americans, saw a genuine opportunity to open new doors for shared benefit.  The sounds and sights, the scenes and senses were fascinating, and for us every day was challenging.  We considered it the most important gamble for American diplomacy in the 20th century.

But there was NO BASEBALL

Attribution Creative Commons

The Chinese Baseball Association was founded in 1982.  Today, China competes internationally.  With the Chinese breaking through in other sports such as basketball and golf, when might an American major league baseball team recruit a Chinese player? Does China have a secret plan to seek baseball hegemony? 😊 Might it not be helpful to relations to invite American and Chinese teams to play a university-level baseball diplomacy series in each country?

In Beijing in 1982, however, despite the founding of the Baseball Association, we could find no sign of the Greatest Sport, even a field on which it might be played.  After weeks of searching and inquiries with our Chinese cultural staff, we finally found a field at a distant institute.  There was no real diamond, just some grass and the outlines of base paths.  Undeterred, we started going there every Sunday afternoon to play pick-up among those who showed.  We always had a good time, but we were also always just playing among ourselves.

One Sunday, it all changed.  As we started play, another group showed up on the field, speaking Spanish.  Game On!  We thought we knew who they might be. We never mentioned our names, nor did they.  They came back the next week and the next and the next for weeks.  We always had a good game, exchanged pleasantries, and never talked politics.  We never asked them what country they represented, and they, of course, knew who we were from the beginning.

Then, one Sunday afternoon, they were not there.  They never came back.   Did someone tell them not to?  Did they decide it was risky for themselves?  We’ll never know, though we were happy to include the diplomatic flavor in our friendly games.  But we can with some pride claim to have been the first baseball competition in China and played our secret games on sunny summer afternoons in Beijing for the love of The Game.End.


Ambassador W. Robert Pearson
Ambassador W. Robert Pearson

Ambassador Pearson is a retired professional Foreign Service Officer who was director general of the US Foreign Service from 2003 to 2006, repositioning the American Foreign Service to meet the new challenges of the 21st century and winning two national awards for his efforts. He was US ambassador to Turkey from 2000 to 2003.  Ambassador Pearson served as executive secretary of the State Department and on the National Security Council in addition to assignments in China and NATO and other overseas posts.In 2008, he became president of IREX, an international development NGO based in Washington, spearheading its expansion to reach more than 125 countries worldwide, touching the lives of more than 1 million people. He retired after six years at IREX to pursue his additional interests in international affairs.

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