BADALING, China — Baseball's first big pitch to build a foundation in China began Thursday, an outing by the Padres to a twisting, hilly stretch of the country's most famous monument just north of Beijing. The Padres and Dodgers practice today in Beijing's Olympic baseball venue, with MLB's historic first two games in China on Saturday and Sunday.
It's all part of trying to give baseball a profile in China, cracking the sports market and maybe finding the baseball version of basketball's Yao Ming.
"The popularity of basketball here just went off the charts when Yao Ming got to the NBA," Padres manager Bud Black said. "That's what baseball is looking for."
Baseball's main pitchman Thursday was Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, who hiked up the Great Wall alongside Chinese tourists who had no idea who he was. He mugged for TV and answered questions from local reporters with a faint grasp of the game, which is called "bangqiu" — stick ball — in Chinese.
"Look at the view," Hoffman said. "It's unbelievable, isn't it? I think I'd feel pretty safe on this wall in the day when Mongolia was coming after 'em."
SUTCLIFFE HAS CANCER: Rick Sutcliffe, the 1984 NL Cy Young Award winner, has a curable form of colon cancer and will take a leave from his job as a major-league baseball analyst for ESPN to undergo chemotherapy and surgery. Sutcliffe, 51, was diagnosed during a routine physical and hopes to make a healthy comeback this year, ESPN said.
BLUE JAYS: RHP Armando Benitez isn't worried that he has a minor-league contract that will pay him $700,000 if he makes the major-league roster, and he's not concerned that he only signed Tuesday. Benitez, 35, is fully focused on his opportunity. "I'm here to help the team the moment they need me,'' he said.
CARDINALS: In need of starting pitching, St. Louis reached a preliminary agreement with Kyle Lohse on a $4.25-million, one-year contract. He was 9-12 with a 4.62 ERA with the Reds and Phillies last year. … Slugger Juan Gonzalez has a minor abdominal strain, slowing his attempt to return to the majors.
CUBS: Manager Lou Piniella dropped leadoff man Alfonso Soriano to second in the lineup and led off with shortstop Ryan Theriot. He said the main reason for the move was to protect Soriano's legs, which gave him trouble last year with hamstring and quadriceps strains.
Mariners: Ichiro Suzuki broke an 0-for-21 skid with his first hit of the spring, an infield single in a 3-3 tie with the Giants. The Japanese media who chronicle Suzuki's every move had been breathless over the drought. "I'm not sure what my next challenge is," he joked through his interpreter. "I'm sad to say goodbye."
Marlins: Left-hander Scott Olsen had another pain-free bullpen session, giving the team hope he will be able to start the season in the rotation. Olsen has not pitched since March 2 because of tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. He has thrown two bullpen sessions and will have two more before returning to the mound for the final 10 days of the exhibition season. Also, right-hander Sergio Mitre was examined by a specialist who determined surgery is not needed, but he's expected to be out until at least May 1 because of inflammation of the ulnar nerve.
MEts: Carlos Beltran played centerfield for the first time since having offseason arthroscopic surgery on both knees, and felt like he was learning how to play the position again. "The first fly ball, I felt like I didn't know what to do," he said after a 6-5, 10-inning loss to the Cardinals. "… I wanted to test it. Right now, nine innings, I'm not ready to play nine innings. Today's game will give me more confidence for next time."
Padres: Starter Greg Maddux took a line drive off his thigh and had to leave the game after two innings. He said he has a bruise and should be fine for his next start.
Phillies: Kris Benson looks more like someone who is going to help the pitching staff this season. The right-hander tossed four innings in a minor-league game. He allowed two earned runs on four hits and one walk while striking out four against Toronto's Class A team. He will do the same thing Tuesday, also likely in a minor-league game. "Everything felt good. I can't complain," Benson said. "It's a big step up from the last time. I used all my pitches."
Red Sox: RHP Curt Schilling went on the 60-day disabled list as he rehabilitates his right shoulder. The move cleared space to sign RHP Lincoln Holdzkom to the 40-man roster. Also, Boston released Doug Mirabelli, who had been the personal catcher for knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. That puts ex-Ray and Gaither High grad Kevin Cash in line to be the backup catcher, with the primary responsibility of catching Wakefield. In addition, Bartolo Colon pitched two solid innings in his first time on the mound for Boston and hit 94 mph.
YANKEES: LHP Andy Pettitte said his left elbow felt fine, one day after he was scratched from his start because of mild tendinitis. He is scheduled to throw a bullpen session today and start against the Red Sox on Monday. … Former manager Stump Merrill was back at Legends Field, one day after being hit just above the lip by a thrown ball during batting practice before a game against the Rays. Merrill, a special assistant to the general manager, was released from a hospital late Wednesday after a CT scan was negative. He had a root canal Thursday.
Best bet of the day
Braves at Phillies, 1:05, Bright House Field, Clearwater: Tim Hudson is scheduled to start opposite Francisco Rosario.