Regal Plastic center fielder DJ Suonandajie’s love of baseball started with throwing stones at cows.
Confused? It’s a bit of an odyssey, so let us explain Suonandajie’s nearly 7,500-mile journey to Rockhurst University and the Ban Johnson Collegiate League.
Baseball remains a niche sport in Tibet, an autonomous region of China nestled in the Himalayan mountains, where Suonandajie grew up in the Amdo province.
China is an emerging market for Major League Baseball, which invested millions of dollars in growing the sport there — including opening the first MLB Baseball Development Center 13 years ago in Wuxi, located near Shanghai in eastern China.
As scouts scoured the Chinese countryside for talent, some found their way to Suonandajie’s hometown after hearing stories of Tibetan boys with unusually strong arms from years of throwing rocks at yak.
“It’s a cow, but we call it yak,” Suonandajie said.
Yak are an important breed of domesticated cattle in Tibet’s snowy, mountainous regions, but they can also be stubborn, bothersome grazers.
“Yak have got to eat, but if you let them stay in one place they’re not going to go anywhere,” Suonandajie said.
That’s where the rocks come in as the yaks occasionally need persuasion to move along to another field.
“But they’re animals, so they’re not going to listen to you,” Suonandajie said. “You’ve got to pick up a rock and not try to hit them, but throw it near them so they’ll keep going.”
Suonandajie said he was selected among more than three dozen third-graders to begin playing baseball around age 9 and quickly grew to love the game.
Eventually, two more MLB academies were opened and, by seventh grade, Suonandajie moved to the academy in Changzhou, where Bill Thomas was his coach for four years.
Later, Suonandajie moved to the newest academy in Nanjing for his final two years of high school, playing for coach Ray Chang — a Kansas City native, who spent 12 seasons in the minor leagues after graduating from Rockhurst High School and Rockhurst University. Chang is a BJCL alum (Milgram Mustangs).
Over time as Suonandajie’s love for baseball grew, so did the realization that it could be his ticket to a college education.
Suonandajie was 14 when his father’s younger sister, an aunt with whom he had a “tight relationship,” died unexpectedly.
“I just couldn’t believe somebody could be gone like that without giving you any notification,” Suonandajie said. “I just couldn’t accept it. It just hit me so hard.”
During a heart-to-heart conversation amid his grief, Thomas recognized Suonandajie’s drive and desire to use baseball to make his family’s life better.
He promised Suonandajie that if he “busted his butt” on the field, when the time came he’d help foot the bill for his tuition to play baseball in America.
Suonandajie did just that, developing into one of the country’s top young outfielders. He even played for China’s Under-18 National Team and the U-18 Asian Baseball Championship six years ago in Taiwan.
Suonandajie made his first visit to the U.S. in 2017 when Thomas, who also coached the Chinese U14 National Team and oversaw baseball operations at the MLB’s development centers, brought a team to a tournament at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida.
The tourney was canceled, but Suonandajie wound up road-tripping with Thomas to Los Angeles, where he stayed several more months “just trying to understand American culture, so I can understand the language very well.”
It was during that time that he emailed Los Angeles Harbor College baseball coach Marco Alvillar, was offered a chance to try out and earned a spot on the Seahawks’ roster.
Suonandajie returned to China in April 2018 to obtain a student visa and enrolled at LA Harbor College during the fall semester with financial help from Thomas as promised.
“It’s kind of tricky, but everything in my life — when I think about it — it doesn’t work perfectly, but it works out one way or another way,” Suonandajie said. “It almost feels like a puzzle. When the time is right, it will happen.”
There certainly were times life in the U.S. was a culture shock — even, perhaps especially, for things most people take for granted.
Children in Tibetan culture are named differently than in Western cultures, so Suonandajie — pronounced “so-naan-dah-jee” — doesn’t have a first name, per se.
His given name is Suonandajie, but he picked his own first name to assimilate.
“I put DJ on my first name, because it seemed pretty cool,” Suonandajie said.
His first taste of college baseball in the U.S. was pretty cool, too.
“I loved it,” Suonandajie said. “I still remember, my first game I almost hit for the cycle.”
Suonandajie doubled and tripled in his debut with the Seahawks. Although he only batted .216 during his freshman season in the spring of 2019, Suonandajie finished with a .356 on-base percentage thanks to 19 walks and also had 11 steals and 21 runs scored in 35 games.
COVID-19 shut down his second college season, so he never played again for LA Harbor College.
After completing his associate’s degree in May 2021, Suonandajie worked jobs as a cook at McDonald’s and working the butcher’s counter at an Albertsons grocery store so that he could save money for the next seven months while waiting and hoping for his next opportunity.
“People always compare baseball with life, and I do believe that, because in baseball you’re not going to succeed every time, you’re not going to do a good job every time,” Suonandajie said. “But you never lose hope — you keep grinding and keeping going.”
He worked more than 80 hours per week and worked out as much as he could, but it was mostly cardio — he boasted that one time he ran 14 miles on a whim — since baseball training facilities were shuttered due to the pandemic.
Finally, Suonandajie caught a break.
“Ray Chang knew my situation, so he talked to Coach Gary (Burns), the baseball coach at Rockhurst,” Suonandajie said. “He introduced me to him and Coach Gary trusts him a lot. They have a really close relationship.” Coach Burns is a BJCL alum (Milgram) and a member of the BJCL Hall of Fame.
Once Burns offered Suonandajie a scholarship, he quit his jobs in Los Angeles and moved to Kansas City in January 2022.
After spending last spring on the Rockhurst JV squad, Suonandajie wanted somewhere to play this summer.
Rockhurst assistant coach Tom Dailey, a former BJCL manager, helped him find a spot with Regal, which needed a center fielder.
He’s still adjusting to college baseball in the United States, but brings a relentlessly positive attitude and endless energy to the field every day.
“Of course there’s a lot of difference,” Suonandajie said of baseball here compared to Tibet. “The level, the energy, the environment — I mean, everything’s different. But the bottom line is the same: There’s a guy who’s going to throw that baseball and you’ve got to try to hit the ball.”
Suonandajie — who speaks Tibetan, Chinese and English — is studying communication at Rockhurst and plans to pursue a master’s in education leadership.
He’d happily play professional baseball if it materializes as an option, but eventually hopes to return to China and become a college baseball coach.
“To be able to qualify for that job, you need a master’s degree,” Suonandajie said. “That’s something I would take, if that’s possible. If I can do that, then we can help the younger generation have the opportunity to pursue the opportunity for an education (through baseball).”
Obviously, the game has helped teach Suonandajie a lot — and he’s thrilled for the chance at every at-bat in the BJCL.
“It took me a while to get here, but I’m still hanging. I put in a lot of effort to get here, so I don’t want to give myself extra pressure. When I go there,” Suonandajie said, pointing to home plate, “I just want to have a good time.”