EAST MEETS WEST IN GRAND PRAIRIE


The Chinese National Baseball Team takes the field in North Texas

Containing three of the 50 largest cities in the United States among its 9,000 square miles, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country. Dallas sits to the east, Fort Worth to the west, with Arlington, Plano, Denton, Irving, Carrollton, Lewisville, and more scattered about.

The east side meets the west side in Grand Prairie, home to the American Association's Texas AirHogs. The independent minor league baseball team often gets lost in the shadows of some bigger counterparts: the major league Rangers play five miles down the interstate in Arlington, right next to the NFL's Cowboys and a short drive from the WNBA's Dallas Wings; the NHL Stars and NBA Mavericks play just the other way in Dallas; Frisco has the Ranger-affiliated RoughRiders, G-League basketball's Texas Legends, and FC Dallas of the MLS; and Allen and North Richland Hills have minor and junior level hockey. 

Before they were AirHogs, they were Beijing Shougang Eagles (photo credit: Minor League Sports Report)
Typically the American Association has some strict roster limits, including when and how many players can be added and dropped, how many can be veterans versus rookies, and of course how many can be on a team at a time (typically 22). Most teams have only two, three, or rarely four coaches.

But the AirHogs have nearly that many pitchers alone-- 19 in fact. Their staff list contains twelve coaches. When it comes to position players, there are a more-typical two catchers, seven infielders, and five outfielders, plus another three on the inactive or disabled lists. That's 36 players.  Whereas many players in the American Association have their previous team listed as another independent minor league squad, a college, or an affiliated minor league team, only a true international baseball afficionado will recognize the teams on the AirHogs' roster: Jiangsu Pegasus, Shanghai Golden Eagles, and the Sichuan Dragons.

In Grand Prairie, East is meeting West in more ways than just geographically: The entire Chinese National Baseball team is on their roster.

A month into the season, it's been a slow start. The AirHogs are permitted to have 22 players activated per game out of those 36. So lineups are constantly in flux to make sure everyone gets a share of playing time. As of June 17, the AirHogs are mired in last place in the AA South with a 5-23 record. Only one victory has been by more than one run, and they've allowed ten or more runs six times.

The season hasn't been without its bright spots though: outfielder Dillon Thomas leads the team with a .313 average, 5 homers, and 20 RBI, and infielder Chu Fujia has led his countrymen with a .269 average.  Meng Weiqiang has struggled at the plate, going 5 for 54, but he has a decent excuse: he's basically pulling an Ohtani, both pitching and playing the outfield and DH. He has two of the AirHogs wins and his 3.24 ERA is best in the starting rotation-- even better than former MLB first round draft pick Tyler Matzek.

Of the twelve coaches, four have significant big league experience, which is also a rarity at this level. Many coaches and managers played in the minors or had short major league careers like Brent Clevlen or George Tsamis. The AirHogs have former Mariners and Phillies skipper John McLaren at the helm, who managed Team China at the World Baseball Classic in 2017 and 2013 alongside AirHogs' hitting coach Jimmy Johnson and assistant coach Yi Sheng. Pitching Coach Larry Hardy threw for the Padres and Astros in the 1970s, followed by over twenty years coaching in the Blue Jays, Giants, and Rangers organizations, serving as an umpire observer for Major League Baseball, and even a stint as a coach for the Republican Congressional Baseball Team for their annual game in Washington. Bullpen Coach Kevin Joseph pitched for the Cardinals and their affiliates. And the longest tenured of them all is Garth Iorg, who spent 1978-1987 with the Blue Jays as an infielder, followed by coaching and managerial stints in the Blue Jays and Brewers organizations, as well as with the German National Team.

Regardless of the results, it's been fun getting to see the interactions between players and coaches of different backgrounds. Kevin Joseph actually speaks some Chinese himself; after he signed some cards for me before a game, he had a brief conversation with a player who looked at me and asked him something.

"He wants to see the cards," Kevin said.

So I showed Kevin's cards to the player and said slowly "That was him playing fifteen years ago," which got a wide-eyed "Whoa!" and a laugh from the player.

Some expressions are universal, just like the game of baseball.

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