06/13/2018 3:34 PM
By Matt Smith | June 13, 2018
GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas – In a historic move, the Texas AirHogs announced a unique partnership with the Chinese Baseball Association (CBA) and Shougang Sports prior to the 2018 season.
With the goal of developing players in a new and competitive environment, twenty-five to thirty members of the Chinese national baseball program are playing on the AirHogs roster in 2018. The team has been rotating and transitioning the Chinese players into a system in which they can further develop their skills.
The team also features ten free agent spots filled by players from the United States, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic.
Dillon Thomas is an outfielder for the AirHogs from Houston, Texas who played in the Colorado Rockies system from 2011-2017. He plays an integral role on the team. With a .321 batting average, four home runs and 19 RBIs through 23 games, Thomas has established himself as one of the most dangerous hitters in the American Association.
“It’s definitely something new,” Thomas said of working with players and coaches from Team China. “There’s a little bit of a transition phase, in a sense. Their game is a little different than ours. American baseball is based on more power and attack. Their game is based more off of finesse.”
While the language differences can present a challenge, Thomas says that the team has learned valuable strategies for communication. He does not view the language difference as a barrier to team success.
“For the most part it’s just instinct,” he said. “That part doesn’t take too much out of the game. When you’re out there on defense, you react to the ball. I don’t tell the guys what to do.”
The team continues to grow together, and Thomas paints a picture of an optimistic and cohesive locker room.
“The atmosphere in the clubhouse is awesome. They’re fun guys,” he laughed. “You can tell when people are cracking jokes and stuff like that. You go in there right now and we’re all playing MLB: The Show.”
Asked about what he is looking forward to the rest of the season, Thomas answered, “Just continuing to grow as a team, to continue to play with these guys and become more familiar with each other. I think once that happens, our record and everything will improve.”
Li Ning is a catcher from Inner Mongolia, China who is in his first year playing in the American Association. Having started 10 of the games for the AirHogs this season, he has become one of the primary options behind the plate for skipper John McLaren.
Asked about working with the American players and coaches, he said, “Working with them has been good. The American players have been very enthusiastic to play with us, and they’re all easy-going guys.”
The 23-year-old has learned a lot so far this season by playing the American style.
“I have learned how Americans deal with situations in the infield,” he said. “It’s different than what we do in China.”
Moving to a new country with a different culture and style of play can pose some challenges for the players. Li plays for the Shanghai Golden Eagles of the Chinese Baseball League, which schedules about 25 games a year compared with the 100 on the card this season in the American Association.
“The biggest challenge for us in America is the competitive level. The competition level here is higher than anything we have in China,” he said. “The schedule is difficult and the velocity of the pitches here is difficult.”
Like Thomas, Li describes an optimistic and comfortable locker room atmosphere.
“Our relationship is good,” he said. “Sometimes we even hang out with the American players outside of baseball.”
Looking ahead, he said, “I’m looking forward most to better performances and the next win.”
The AirHogs – powered by Beijing Shougang Eagles will take on Lincoln and Wichita as part of the seven-game homestand this week. Visit AirHogsBaseball.com for more information. For the latest news, follow the team on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @TXAirHogs. Media inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org.
[FRONT PAGE PHOTO BY KAREN HARMON]