The six-year-old Alex Chan Cheuk-hei had just finished dim sum with his grandmother in Ma On Shan when he stepped outside to his first sight of a baseball match, on a school field.
Nearly two decades later, via high school and university in the United States, Chan is a pitcher for a Hong Kong team aiming to be “best of the rest” at the Asian Games.
Dave Ho, chairman of the Baseball Association of Hong Kong, China (BAHKC), hopes it can help familiarise today’s children with the sport, rather than relying on youngsters like Chan stumbling on it by chance.
The Games represent a challenge, too. Hong Kong are in a group with defending champions South Korea, and Chinese Taipei, both boasting professional stars.
“The top countries [also including Japan, China and Philippines] are established,” Ho said. “Our goal in Hangzhou is to finish sixth. We are improving, but so is everybody else.
“It’s very stressful for the coaching staff, they know it is a measuring stick. And it is important for funding.”
Chan, who trains and plays full-time, is an outlier in the 43-strong squad, under head coach Au Hok-leung. The rest are bankers, social workers, students and government officials, drawn largely from a three-tier domestic structure.
Hong Kong has a few thousand adults and children playing baseball. Chan and sister Cassy began playing after their post-dim sum encounter, helped by explainers from US-born mum Susan. Alex joined Sha Tin Baseball Club, before moving to Virginia, aged 13, to board at Miller School of Albemarle.
His school coach was Billy Wagner, a long-time Major League Baseball pitcher, and described in an American Baseball Coaches Association article as “the grittiest coach in America”.
“He was a big inspiration throughout high school,” Chan said. “He taught us so much about baseball. After difficult games, I remember his advice: ‘Learn from it [clicks fingers], then turn the page.”
Chan did not make the roster in his first year at Davidson College in North Carolina, “but I would go to the field when the team wasn’t practising and keep training”. It paid dividends but midway through his debut season in his second year, Chan put his studies first and “put baseball behind me”.
He regretted it and began playing again five years later after an invite last year from Hong Kong’s Taiwanese coach Cola Yeh Ming-huang.
“Hong Kong is home, I love it, and this gave me an opportunity to come back,” the 25-year-old said. “I started to train in the US. I would go to a field with a bucket of balls and throw them against a net to get my arm back in shape.”
He is in the gym four times a week, to complement five team training sessions, with his parents supporting him so he can pursue his Hangzhou dream.
Weekend boot camps were held in Guangdong to help the team prepare, and the association has plans to arrange matches over the border, too, with limited space in Hong Kong restricting some players to six to 10 games per season.
Ho champions Baseball5, a small-sized version, as a gateway to the sport and has secured Hong Kong hosting rights for the 2024 World Cup. He is on a mission to professionalise local baseball, hence a recent a shake-up of the governing body.
“The board used to be only people from the baseball ecosystem, but of the 17 current members, eight or nine are from baseball backgrounds,” Ho said. “The others bring different expertise: doctors, lawyers.”
The BAHKC, which celebrated its 30th birthday in March, employs 10 full-time staff. It receives government funding and is a Tier B sport at the Hong Kong Sports Institute.
“It is a five-year programme, with funding for players’ and coaches’ elite training, and we hope they continue to renew,” he said.
Foreign coaches have been brought in – “we needed guys who could share experience of playing in the big leagues, but also understand our limitations in Hong Kong”.
“We had North American coaches who didn’t connect with the players. Cola is an excellent communicator.”
At the 2018 Asian Games, Hong Kong won two matches to finish sixth, following barren returns in 2010 and 2014. Chan puts the improvement down to the coaches, the support and players’ dedication in practising for three to four hours after work.
Ho wants Hong Kong players to be role models, and they will visit schools to tell their stories from Hangzhou. If Chan imparts his with the joy with which he recalls that dim sum lunch, Hong Kong will probably have done all right.