Truck driver Wang Yonggang has never seen a baseball game or sung "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." He couldn't explain a sacrifice bunt.
But Wang's got a good eye for bats. His is a lightweight aluminum model with a long barrel and a sticky rubber grip. He treasures his Chinese-made club so much that he keeps it tucked under the seat of his rig.
"I need it for protection," said Wang, 32, a native of Inner Mongolia who hauls heavy equipment across busy northeast highways stalked by thugs looking to steal loads and siphon fuel. "There's local hooligans everywhere and they'll threaten you if you don't pay them money."
Wang has so far resisted using his stick — even the handful of times he's been shaken down for cash at roadblocks. But if he's ever attacked, Wang hopes that a few hacks of his fire-engine-red bat will scare away the criminals.
In recent years, the offensive tool of America's national pastime has become a defensive weapon of choice in China.
Though baseball has barely made a dent in the consciousness of Chinese sports fans, bats are a familiar accessory in a country where the pursuit of money at all costs and a weak faith in law enforcement have led many people to take matters into their own hands.
"Chinese people do not feel safe today," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People's University in Beijing. "There's a coldheartedness to society."
Before mass urbanization took hold and most Chinese lived on farms, people protected themselves with the family shovel, rake or hoe.
Today, city dwellers have few options. Guns are outlawed. Daggers and machetes require permits. Shanghai and Beijing even require buyers to register their names to buy a kitchen knife.
Bats are less lethal and thus more attractive, said Chi Yiwei, a manufacturer in eastern Zhejiang province.
"You make the wrong move with a knife and you could accidentally kill someone," said Chi, a self-described former hoodlum. "Hit someone with a bat, you'll likely just injure them."
Chi makes a steel-alloy club with a long, thin barrel of exceptional toughness. His website features a video of him smashing red bricks in half with his bat and running it over with a car. In both instances, the bat survives without a dent.
Chi said the breakthrough for the domestic bat industry came six years ago, when authorities banned the online sale of popular collapsible steel rods that fit into pocket-sized holsters.
That gave sellers the idea to turn to baseball bats, whose availability had grown after the industry shifted from the U.S. to China about a decade ago.
China is now the world's largest manufacturer of metal bats, filling orders for companies such as Van Nuys-based Easton Bell Sports and Hillerich & Bradsby Co., makers of the famed Louisville Slugger brand, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn. in Maryland.
Search today for baseball bats on China's leading e-commerce site, Taobao, and you'll find an abundance of options under "self-defense."
When anti-government riots erupted in Xinjiang province in 2009, young men took to the streets waving pool cues, steel rods and enough baseball bats to field a couple of teams.
It's no accident that piles of bats can be found for sale at highway rest stops, where they often command prominent positions at the entrances to convenience stores.
The Shanghai Morning Post recently reported that bats had become a handy tool for drivers hoping to intimidate people should they find themselves in traffic disputes.
Chen Hai, a Shanghai arts dealer, often travels with an aluminum bat lying across the front passenger seat of his BMW sedan.
"I haven't had to use it yet, but it makes me feel safe and prepared," said Chen, 35, who transports valuable artwork through rural provinces that neighbor Shanghai. "Things are unpredictable once you leave the city."
He considered buying a kung fu sword but decided it would be too unwieldy. So he settled on a 34-inch purple-and-green bat, meant for self-defense, that he found at a camping store for $8.
Such bats would never be confused with the $125 handcrafted Marucci wooden beauties swung by St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. Often thinner than conventional U.S. bats, many Chinese models would be useless on the diamond. Customers here don't seem to care. Who needs a tapered handle or fat sweet spot for slugging kneecaps?
Dou Kai, owner of a bat-making company, said his most popular seller was a 30-inch aluminum club resembling a fungo bat, a specialized baseball bat used to hit balls to fielders during practice. He also makes a 25-inch model of hard steel that looks more like a billy club and weighs 52 ounces — about the same as the heaviest wooden bats used in the big leagues.
"That one's purely for self-defense," said Dou, pointing to a stack in his workshop emblazoned with logos such as Commando and Ronin, a reference to the Japanese samurai legend.
Dou started making bats four years ago. Before that, he manufactured kung fu equipment — long spears, metal chain whips and stainless-steel axes — using skills his father handed down to him. His company also makes brass knuckles, nunchucks and throwing stars.
Then wholesalers started asking Dou if he could add bats to his lineup. So he sent workers to a bat factory to learn how.
Within months, he was churning out metal and wooden bats from two sheds in his hometown of Dingzhou, a bleak industrial city about a three-hour drive southwest of Beijing. His company, Shanren Sports, now employs 30 workers and produces 6,000 bats a month, about half of them for customers inside China.
"I spend more time thinking about how they can defend better. I'm not invested in the game," said Dou, a soft-spoken 35-year-old. He can demonstrate proper use of his martial arts weapons, but admits he'd be dumbfounded standing at home plate.
Baseball, known as "stick ball" here, has struggled to gain a foothold in this soccer- and basketball-loving country. China's national baseball team lost six of seven games during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; after the Games ended, the specially built stadium was demolished to make way for a shopping mall.
Many Chinese are surprised to learn that their country has a professional baseball league with seven teams. This year's champions, the Tianjin Lions, hail from northern China. The patchy grass and austere bleacher seating of their home field, Tian Ti Dodger Stadium, evokes little of Chavez Ravine.
Wang, the trucker, said he couldn't resist buying a baseball when he purchased his bat for about $9 at a sporting goods store. He figured he and his 8-year-old-son could give the exotic American sport a try before he took the bat on his next trip.
"Nobody could hit the ball," Wang said. "We kept swinging and missing."
Barbara Demick, Tommy Yang and John Lee in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.