ACTON — In the smothering heat of an August evening, Acton-Boxborough Youth Baseball 12-year-olds played a game that was unusual for several reasons.
The stands, typically populated by team parents and grandparents, were full of spectators, many of whom knew none of the players. The Chinese national anthem, played on flute by Grace Chai, a student at Acton’s R.J. Grey Junior High, preceded the first pitch. Savory fare donated by a handful of local restaurants — including fried rice from Ginger Court, egg rolls from Bamboo, and chicken wings from True West — had replaced the usual candy and granola bars at the snack table. And not least, the visiting team had traveled 6,700 miles to play this particular game.
The visitors were members of Power Baseball Angels, a program for underprivileged boys from China, most of whom have lost their parents and live in orphanages or with relatives. Though the program — which receives sponsorship from charitable funds and Chinese corporations — is based in Beijing, many of the players come from remote regions of Tibet and northwest China.
Lei Li of Boxborough heard about the team when a friend asked her to help connect Power Baseball Angels with the local sports community. Li approached Ken Morse of AtBats, a baseball training center in Boxborough, and he put her in touch with the Acton-Boxborough Youth Baseball coaches. They immediately agreed to arrange a friendly match between the teams at Veterans Field in Acton.
Before arriving in Greater Boston in early August, the Chinese team visited Washington, D.C., and New York. While here they toured Harvard, swam at Revere Beach, and watched a Lowell Spinners game.
“This is a special program because it presents a very different way from how we usually donate money to underprivileged children,” said Li. “Participation on this baseball team helps these young people to grow up to be responsible individuals. And the kids on the A-B team will learn from these kids from China as well.”
Bernie Hodsdon, who coached the Acton-Boxborough team, agreed it was a learning experience for his young charges.
“Sports is a great way to teach lessons, and this is a fine example,” said Hodsdon, a biotech executive who lives in Chelmsford. “Sports teaches you about respecting yourself, your authority figures, and your opponents. Playing the same game with peers from a vastly different culture is fascinating for these boys.”
Lingfeng Sun, coach of the visiting team, said through a translator that it had been eye-opening for his players to witness American passion for baseball. “We’ve all been made to feel welcome and at home,” Sun said. “It’s very inspiring to see the enthusiasm of the fans.”
Boxborough’s Michael Cheng, a rising junior at Acton-Boxborough High School, was one of many locals who came to watch the game despite not knowing anyone on either team. “I think this is great,” said Cheng, who lived in Beijing as a child and speaks fluent Mandarin. “China doesn’t have a sporting culture the way we do in the US. It’s just a game to them. This is cool for the visiting kids to see.”
Ben Hirschberg of Acton, 12, whose pitching helped lead his team to a 3-2 victory over the visitors from afar, had been looking forward to meeting the opposing team ever since his coach first told the boys about the game. “I’ve never played baseball against guys from another country,” he said. “Even if you don’t speak the same language, you can come together in the language of baseball.”
Hirschberg’s teammate, Anthony Sturniolo of Boxborough, said it was fun to meet the visitors, though he wished the language barrier hadn’t prevented them from getting to know each other better. “I’d like to ask them how they’ve handled their situations,” he said, having been told by his coach that most of the boys were orphans. “It has to be hard losing a parent. But they still came all the way here to see the US and to play baseball with us. That’s cool.”