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China's Swing at a Cultural Revolution

Chinese come to America to hone baseball skills under major-league tutelage.

February 20, 2005|From Associated Press

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Chairman Mao banned the sport during China's cultural revolution as imperialist poison. Baseball, though, is a tough game to kill.

Shouts of "wo lai!" ("I've got it") and "bern lei!" ("throw it home") echo across the practice fields of Scottsdale Community College this spring.

Dressed sharply in bright red and white uniforms with a stylish "C" on the chest, the Chinese national team is working out daily under the tutelage of Jim Lefebvre, the one-time scrappy Dodger infielder and former major league manager whose goal is to mold a team that won't embarrass the host country at the 2008 Bejing Olympics.

"They want to put a very competitive team out there, and that's what they're here for," Lefebvre said before the 23 Chinese players -- ages 21 to 27 -- began a series of drills and speed work. Three Chinese coaches also are part of the group.

Lefebvre and pitching coach Bruce Hurst, a former Boston Red Sox reliever, are paid by Major League Baseball, which is anxious to expand the sport to the estimated 1.4 billion Chinese, most of whom know nothing about the game.

"If we can get one of these players to the big leagues, hopefully it would create the Yao Ming effect in baseball over there," Lefebvre said. "Everybody is playing basketball in China. So our objective is to develop them in everything -- scouting, recruitment, selecting coaches and getting them the training and competition that they need."

From 9 a.m. until noon each day, the players go through skill development training -- fielding, throwing, hitting. Instruments measure the speed of the ball off the bat as well as throwing strength. From 3 to 4 p.m., 1996 Olympic gold medalist and former world decathlon record holder Dan O'Brien works with them on speed and agility. At 6 p.m., they are back at the college for two hours of weight training.

The team is made up of the best players from the fledgling Chinese Baseball League, which will expand from four to six teams this season. They come from all sections of the vast country, and most took up the game around the age of nine or 10.

The best player might be Wang Wei, a 26-year-old catcher with a powerful bat and lightning, 1.8-second throw to second. That's in the Pudge Rodriguez territory, Lefebvre said.

"He's got all the physical talent," Lefebvre said. "He just needs to play more, because he could be a great player. He's got tremendous power."

Through interpreter and team consultant Sam Kao, Wang said he began playing baseball at age 9, and wanted to be a catcher "because you get to wear all the gear."

Compared with other sports, Wang said, "baseball seems like an art to me, an artistic game, the thinking, the skill, everything."

As for someday playing in the major leagues, Wang smiled and said, "That's every baseball player's wildest dream."

Slick second baseman Liu Guang Biao, 27, would make a good coach, Lefebvre said. Of his trips to America, Liu said with a smile, "I really wish I could stay here."

Liu has seen the vast improvement in the team since Lefebvre and Hurst began coaching them.

"We have more advanced training, and all of us get to experience that," Liu said. "It's something that we never had before, how you handle game situations."

Wang said Lefebvre "is a very good, excellent professional coach."

"Of course he has more advanced skills to teach us," Wang said, "and the knowledge of the game, and also he can teach us the culture of baseball."

Baseball resurfaced in China 20 or so years ago, but the country is far behind Asian neighbors Japan, South Korea and Taiwan at the international level.

As the host country of the Olympics, China automatically qualifies for the baseball competition. Even so, China competed in the Olympic qualifying tournament two years ago in Sapporo, Japan.

Lefebvre's Chinese team dominated "B" pool foes Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

"But then we went got in the 'A' pool with the big boys," Lefebvre said. "We didn't win any games, but we played very, very well."

Before Lefebvre arrived, the Chinese style was patterned after that of past Japan teams.

"We have to re-educate them a lot," Lefebvre said. "They're only used to one little style of baseball, which is get them on, bunt them over -- I don't care if you're 10 runs ahead or 10 runs behind. It's a very slow, predictable philosophy. We've got to teach them about playing more of an aggressive, more of a speed game, and play for the big inning."

The team is in its third annual six-week trip to Arizona. Later this year, China will attempt to qualify for the world championships, to be held in Holland. Lefebvre runs a camp in Italy that draws teams from 18 countries shortly before the world competition, and China will be among them.

Lefebvre and Hurst took over the Chinese team three years ago, and at first the players were a bit wary at first of their American teachers.

"There was a trust level we had to overcome," Hurst said. "We got that. I think at the Sapporo games they realized we were on their side, that we wanted to make them better."

Hurst's only complaint is that the players simply listen.

"I guess if there's one hurdle, it's that they don't ask enough questions," Hurst said. "They just accept things. I don't know if it's an authority thing, to have a dialogue. I want feedback from them. I don't know if it's cultural, that they don't question their coaches."

Overall, though, the experience has been rewarding.

"They're fantastic. They're like sponges," Hurst said. "As far as understanding the concepts of baseball as a pitching coach, it's unbelievable. To a man, they all get it. They all understand what you're trying to say. You're not working with a dumb athlete. You're working with a very smart athlete."

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