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POSTCARDS from China : The Coach

June 15, 1993|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO

I found Li Minquan where I left him, on a baseball diamond in Beijing, leaning on a fungo bat, watching China's national women's softball team as it practiced, smooth and strong, in the afternoon sunshine.

"That first time we played. Nearly all your players batted left-handed. You fixed it, right?" I asked him.

Li smiled. It had been a Saturday afternoon, probably in 1980. I played left field for a pickup bunch of Americans, mostly diplomats and reporters, delighted to find somebody to play against in a somber city notoriously short of diversion. The women won big, and it hadn't occurred to me until later that they had also pulled their punches.

It occurred to me that in a country that has liberally imported foreign experts for everything from advertising to zoology in the past decade, a foreign coach might have come to help teach Chinese play something as otherworldly to them as softball.

Backward thinking.

Nothing had changed, but everything was different. Transformation and continuity embodied by a wiry 57-year-old master of a foreigner's sport.

Li is Chinese, but he was born in Japan and brought a love of the game with him to China as a young man. He was head coach when the women's team was founded in 1979 and, with one timeout, has been head coach ever since.

It turns out he has built an international reputation since last we met. China was second in the world championship in 1986, third in 1990. Nearly 20 of Li's graduates are now playing abroad. One is at the University of Oklahoma.

Last year, Li of Beijing was asked to coach Verona of the Italian first division women's league. He lived in a village outside the northern Italian city.

"I was the only Chinese in the entire town," he recalled in beginner's Italian. He inherited a team that in 1991 finished 24th in a 26-team league; his imported-from-China softball coaching skills lifted it to third last year.

"My Italian friends call very often. They say that if I do not go back, they will send the Mafia to come and kidnap me," Li said with a come-get-me grin.

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