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China trying to catch up in softball

July 22, 2007|From the Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — China's Olympic softball team is playing for more than a medal.

The players need a top finish at the 2008 Games in their own country to secure the future for themselves and their sport.

Michael Bastian, the American coach who's been trying to improve softball's lot in the world's most populous country, doesn't like to consider what will happen if the team comes away from next year's Beijing Games without finishing on the podium.

Bastian finds himself and his team in limbo as they prepare for the Olympics, unsure of whether the program will continue after the Games end next August.

"I think without the sport being in the Olympic Games in 2012, I really don't know if there will be a national team in China anymore from what I'm hearing," said Bastian, a member of the Chinese team's coaching staff. "I don't know if they're going to give us the same type of funding they've given us.

"If we can win a medal, I think maybe some good things would happen and we might be able to get through that period having it not being an Olympic sport. That's tough."

China is among the teams trying to catch a dominant United States squad in international softball. The U.S. has won all three Olympic gold medals in the sport, which was voted out of the 2012 London Games but could be reinstated for 2016.

The Chinese finished fourth at last year's world championships and again at this week's World Cup of Softball, putting that coveted medal within reach. Bastian, a former professional and college coach in the U.S., was brought in to teach an aggressive, Western style of softball to help with the pursuit.

To immerse the team in American softball, Bastian arranged for a 20-game tour through the National Pro Fastpitch league that ends this month and gained clearance for 19-year-old pitcher Zhou Yin to play for a California community college last season.

Both are signs of China's increased commitment to the sport as the Olympics approach.

Beyond just getting approval for the two-month U.S. tour, Bastian was overwhelmed by support for the team's travel arrangements. When he asked for funding for vans, he was told instead to secure a more expensive bus and fly between cities even if they were within driving distance.

"It's unbelievable the excitement that the whole country has, that the government has, the Chinese Olympic Committee. I can honestly tell you I think we have an unlimited budget," Bastian said.

However, there is no guarantee beyond next summer.

Jiang Xiuyun, the vice president of the Chinese Softball Association, said the head of the country's Olympic committee considers softball a part of its long-term plans.

And while Jiang said she couldn't definitively speak about the national team's future, she personally believes a team will continue to exist for competitions including the world championships, Asian Games and World University Games.

Jiang, speaking through an interpreter, said the world championships held last year in Beijing brought additional attention to the sport in China and an Olympic medal would spark even more interest in softball. She said China has introduced T-ball for boys and girls, and slow-pitch softball leagues aimed at office workers. It also hopes to grow the sport in schools.

"The Chinese are working hard. They're trying to promote and develop the sport," International Softball Federation president Don Porter said.

A crucial element could be whether Bastian and China's other coaches can help the team win a medal by outplaying Australia, Canada and other teams in the top tier chasing the Americans.

To do that, Bastian believes his team will need to improve on offense. China was comfortable enough with its pitching after last year's world championships -- where the staff had an 0.32 ERA and its three losses came by a combined 4-0 score -- that it left aces Lu Wei and Yu Huili at home to train while it seeks depth during the U.S. trip.

But the team had only three extra-base hits in six games at the World Cup.

"You can see right now our mentality is to bunt first and then hit second, and that's not going to work in today's game," Bastian said. "You have to hit to bunt.

"We are sadly going back into what I call old China softball, where we're trying to play the short game too much and then maybe try to hit some."

That strategy worked more than a decade ago at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where China won its only Olympic medal -- a silver -- in the sport.

Bastian believes the key to improving the offense is more mental than physical. He bought boxing gloves last year and had the players do some light sparring in an ongoing attempt to overcome a lack of aggression he considers a part of the Chinese culture.

"If you don't tell them to try to hit a home run, they won't try to hit a home run," Bastian said.

For the future, Bastian has approached the National Pro Fastpitch league about allowing the Chinese team to compete on a regular basis. He holds out hope that the sport will continue to grow in China and around the globe, regardless of what happens beyond Beijing.

"China has gotten into my heart and my soul," Bastian said. "They're wonderful people and their culture has taught me a whole bunch. It's changed me.

"I'm going to help these girls and softball in China after 2008. Now what does that mean? I don't know."

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