On a soccer field in the divided city of Urumqi, which was torn apart by deadly racial violence only a year ago, an ethnically mixed baseball team is training to become the national champion of China. 'We don't care about anything but the game'.

This story was published by the Netherlands Press Association, then the largest newspaper group in the Netherlands. 




in URUMQI, Xinjiang, China

06 JULY 2010

,,Baseball isn't too big here just yet'', says Parhat Ablat (23), the coach of the Urumqi University baseball team. The sport is actually quite small: Ablat's team is the only one in the region. The nearest team is in Qinghai province, over two thousand kilometers away. That makes it tricky to ever play an actual game against an actual opponent.

The situation is even more dire: the nearest real baseball pitch is also over two thousand kilometers away. The Xinjiang Airplane Cats, the name of Ablat's team, practice on the soccer field of Urumqi University.


The Cats are special. Not just because they are the only thirty persons playing baseball in Xinjiang, a vast region in China's extreme Northwest. The team is special because it is the only team in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi made up of both Han Chinese and islamic Uyghurs. The Cats mix up in a city and at a university which are deeply divided along ethnic lines.


,,When I started to coach the team three years ago, I just carried a table outside on campus and sat behind it'', says Ablat. ,,I put up some baseball posters around the table, and a couple of chairs. That's all it took for people to start asking me questions. I was able to convince most of the players I recruited at that time by explaining that joining the baseball team would mean an almost sure shot at playing in a national tournament, as we qualify easily by being the only team in Xinjiang. Plus it doesn't cost much to play. It's definitely cheaper than going to bars.''


The first months were tough. Ablat: ,,The Han people and the Uyghurs on the team didn't mix. They didn't talk to each other, not even when playing in the same team on the same field. All they did was complain about the others.'' Ablat's solution: to get tough.

,,Whenever I see two players argue, I make the entire team do ten laps around the field. Or I'll order them to do fifty extra push-ups. I want them to be serious about the game and to not be distracted by all these tensions that are present in this city.''


The team can't afford not to focus on the game, because something big is coming up: next week the Cats might be playing a real game against an actual opponent. That's when the National University Baseball Championships kick off in Shanghai, 3300 kilometers away on the other side of China.

It's been three years since the Cats played a real game. Usually, it's just practice games against fellow Cats. Ablat: ,,This upcoming tournament is really a big thing for us. It's been our sole focus for the past year. We all want to go to Shanghai and don't involve ourselves with the violent tensions that have erupted in the city between Han and Uyghurs. This focus caused my players to see one another as team mates, instead of as a Han or a Uyghur.''


Last year, Ablat graduated with a physics major, scoring the highest grades in his class. ,,I'm pretty sure I could have become a famous Uyghur scientist'', he says with a smile. ,,There aren't that many of us, you know. But as a scientist, it would be difficult for me to actively work to improve the relationship between Uyghurs and Han. I think fighting for that is a better use of my energy than locking myself up in a lab. Coaching this baseball team really allows me to try to improve the situation in Urumqi for everyone here.''


He picks up a bat and shows the team how to hit a ball. The first few swings are with actual baseballs. Then, it's balls made out of old newspapers weighed down with a few layers of duct tape. There's no money to buy more real baseballs.

Ablat: ,,The university cancelled our funding. The athletics director is not a baseball man. He's into badminton.''

With only one week to go, it's not even sure the team will make it to the tournament in Shanghai. They need to raise an additional ten thousand yuan to make it there. But Ablat is ever the optimist. ,,We have to make it to Shanghai. And we will finish well within the top five at the tournament, meaning next year the university will fund us again. In the end, we will make baseball huge in Xinjiang. It's the ultimate game for team players: that's exactly what this region needs.''