BOSTON (AP) -Like a Marco Polo of the major leagues, Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino is off again to explore distant lands on baseball's behalf.
A longtime proponent of expanding the game internationally, Lucchino is leaving for China on Monday with a delegation from the commissioner's office. They'll meet with government officials, visit the Olympic baseball venue and take in a couple of China Baseball League games while trying to determine whether - how soon, really - a major league team could play exhibitions there.
``The commissioner is eager to get an MLB presence in China,'' Lucchino said Friday in an interview at Fenway Park. ``We have an interest in popularizing the Red Sox name and brand in Asia. But we also have an interest in being active participants in major league baseball's growth.''
Also making the trip are Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, San Diego Padres chief executive officer Sandy Alderson and Pittsburgh Pirates CEO Kevin McClatchy. Tim Brosnan, Jimmie Lee Solomon and Paul Archey will also represent the commissioner's office.
``It's a very high-level group that baseball has put together,'' Lucchino said. ``It's designed to demonstrate how serious our short-term and long-term interests are in the development of baseball in China.''
Lucchino was the president of the San Diego Padres when they made two trips to Monterrey, Mexico, for regular-season games. (They also played in Hawaii.) He pushed for the creation of the World Baseball Classic, and has campaigned to have the Red Sox play in Japan after they signed pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
But these days most sports are looking at China, both because the 2008 Olympics will be in Beijing and because its population is more than 1.3 billion.
The NFL scheduled an exhibition game there for 2008 before putting it off to focus on a regular-season game planned for London. Basketball commissioner David Stern has wondered whether an ``NBA of China'' might help the game capitalize on the popularity of Chinese star Yao Ming.
There are no Chinese baseball stars to market back home, but Lucchino said the sport is looking for major leaguers, and not just major league fans. After witnessing an explosion of interest in the Red Sox in Japan since Boston signed Matsuzaka, Lucchino knows that developing a Chinese baseball star ``is the best way to accelerate the growth and development of the game at every level.''
``Games are helpful, but you also want to grow the game at the amateur level,'' he said. ``There's no doubt that's the fastest way of developing an interest in a a country.''
Baseball traces its history in China to 1863, when the Shanghai Baseball Club was founded. But while the sport thrived in Japan and Taiwan, the Chinese associated it with their political enemies and essentially purged it from the mainland during the Cultural Revolution.
Things picked up again near the end of the 20th Century and, in 2005, China beat Korea to finish third at the Asian Championships. But last year at the inaugural World Baseball Classic, the Chinese did not win a game.
``It has a long history there, but it has up-and-down cycles,'' Lucchino said.
The Chinese are building a 15,000-seat baseball stadium in preparation for the Olympics, and the Americans want to keep it busy when the Games are over. The U.S. delegation will visit the Olympic venue, which is expected to be finished this summer, and a pair of ballparks in the Chinese Baseball League.
The trip also includes meetings with officials from the Chinese sports ministry and the U.S. embassy.
The baseball players' association is also planning a fact-finding trip to China ``to see how soon we can play games there,'' union head Donald Fehr said.
``It will be very soon, in my judgment,'' he said, adding that scheduling and the safety of stadiums are the players' main concerns. ``We're excited about the opportunity. Players have been for a long time.''

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