When kids hit homers in China

A popular film on a baseball program for Chinese orphans shows how the sport reveals that goodness “is always there.”

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
A 13-year-old third baseman cannot catch a foul ball during the Little League World Series Championship in August in Williamsport, PA.

Sports are regularly touted as a boon to the young – not just because they involve exercise. Sports can teach teamwork, patience, and learning how to lose (or not get your own way) gracefully. In the 21st century, sports also offer youth a break from digital screens.

Sports can lift young people’s attitude by raising their sense of accomplishment. In the late 19th century, institutions housing patients with depression or other mental ills often formed baseball teams. “The beneficial effect of the national game upon those whose minds have been depressed or disturbed is very marked,” noted one report in 1899. “The patients in whom it had hitherto been impossible to arouse a healthy interest in anything, seemed to awaken and become brighter at the crack of the sharp base hit.”

In China today, where baseball is a relatively minor sport, a documentary film released last year called “Tough Out” is telling the story of how youth baseball has transformed the lives of so-called left-behind children, orphans or those abandoned by parents unable to care for them. Sun Lingfeng, a former captain of China’s Olympic baseball team, formed the baseball program to help these children gain a better sense of themselves and to provide the opportunity for a brighter future.

The film has won popularity and acclaim in China. The young players have even been able to visit the United States. Some, Mr. Sun hopes, may eventually earn scholarships to colleges or even play professionally.

The film’s director, Xu Huijing, who knew nothing about baseball when he began the project, said he wanted to show that these children were not beyond help, that “human nature is good. ... No matter the circumstances, no matter how bad the situation, that ‘goodness’ is always there.”

Many youth baseball programs around the U.S. also aim to support underserved kids. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, former major league player Morris Madden has founded the Metro Reds, a program that makes baseball affordable and available to disadvantage youths. “We’re here not to make Major League Baseball players. We’re here to make major league citizens,” Mr. Madden told a local television station. “Nine out of 10 kids that come through our program at least start higher-level education after high school.”

Right now, the MLB playoffs in the U.S. are determining the two teams that will face each other in the World Series, beginning Oct. 26. Fans with patience for the more leisurely pace of baseball compared with, say, football or basketball, are being rewarded with displays of remarkable athleticism and grace, as well as mental skills such as poise and perseverance. At its best, the sport is not so much about who can achieve fame and fortune but who best exemplifies those enduring qualities.

Young people, even those seeming to be weighed down by poverty or low self-esteem, can find this higher gift that sports provide. When given the opportunity to express themselves on an athletic field, they can drop that baggage – and soar.

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