China Hits The Field

Since baseball became an Olympic medal sport in 1992, two Olympiads have been held in countries that could plausibly be called “baseball nations.” Of course the U.S. was host in 1996 in Atlanta, and then Australia played host in 2000 in Sydney. Even calling Australia a “baseball nation” might be a stretch, as the home ballpark for the baseball tournament, Homebush Baseball Stadium, was regularly used more for livestock shows than for baseball.

At the other end of the spectrum are Spain (Barcelona, 1992) and Greece (Athens, 2004), where the sport hasn’t taken root and where the future for the sport isn’t considered rosy.

Then there’s this year’s Olympic host, China. Major League Baseball has been heavily involved in getting China ready for the ’08 Games, from helping maintain the field at the venue (which it also did in Athens) to selecting coaches for the team. Former Mariners manager and ex-big leaguer Jim Lefebvre has been in charge of China’s baseball team since fall of 2003 under an agreement with the Chinese Baseball Association, with ex-big leaguers Bruce Hurst and now Steve Ontiveros serving as pitching coaches. (In contrast, Greece’s Olympic team in ’04 was bankrolled primarily by Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a Greek-American, and managed by White Sox scout John Kazanas and North Florida coach Dusty Rhodes.)

Lefebvre has brought his Chinese teams to the World Baseball Classic, instructional league in Arizona and tours of American summer college leagues, all with the goal of getting the host nation ready for the 2008 Games.

So, is China ready? Lefebvre seems to think so, as he says China went 17-7 against teams in extended spring training this year and played well in a six-game tour of the New England Collegiate League.

“Suddenly they got it,” he said of his players. “For five years, the Olympics were just kind of a dream. It was a picture out there somewhere. They never really could see it. But now they see the finish line. It’s right in front of them. And that’s what really kind of turned them on.”

Some History, Just Not Recent

A summer college tour and extended spring training may not be quite enough to prepare a nation such as China, no matter how large, for Olympic competition. China, after all, was starting virtually from scratch in baseball.

Baseball came to China in the second half of the 19th Century, and according to the Chinese Professional League website, baseball had a solid following in the country with several college teams playing regularly in the first half of the 20th Century. However, communist Chairman Mao Zedong outlawed baseball in 1959 as “too Western,” so Lefebvre was basically re-introducing baseball to the world’s largest nation.

“The opportunity to jump-start it in a great nation like China is very gratifying,” Lefebvre said. “To know that you’re going to have some kind of impact on that down the road. It’s their game. But we’re there to consult them and to really help them kind of find their own way. And that’s what it’s all about.

“Sooner or later I’m going to have to leave. And the greatest compliment I can have to know that someday that China will be a power, which I think they will be. When they put their mind to something, they can do almost anything. To know that you had an impact, obviously makes you feel really good.”

Just as obviously, MLB’s involvement in China’s national team is more about establishing a foothold in the Chinese sports market than it is about helping China contend in the Olympic baseball tournament. The NBA is the dominant American sports property in China, as China has long had solid national teams in that sport and has produced NBA star Yao Ming. Millions of Chinese watch NBA games and buy NBA apparel, and MLB would love to follow that example.

It started on its way with an exhibition series in Beijing this year between the Padres and Dodgers. It will continue with the Olympics, but where it goes thereafter may depend in part on how the Chinese team performs. MLB’s field and stadium consultant, Murray Cook, hinted at this in his blog from Beijing as he was preparing the stadium for the Games. He took time to visit the basketball venue and wrote, “China LOVES basketball . . . when China plays.”

Boo-Wang Battery

China’s fans will see some talent on the field for its national team, according to Lefebvre and his new pitching coach Ontiveros, who replaced Hurst when the Red Sox hired Hurst in its farm department.

“We do have players that I think can pitch and play at a Double-A level right now,” Lefebvre said. “For the entire team collectively I’d say we’re more at an A level right now.”

China’s top player may be 6-foot-3, 225-pound catcher Wang Wei, whom the Mariners have signed. Wang, 26, put his name into international baseball lore by hitting the first home run in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Lefebvre said Wang has “tremendous power . . . he’s big and strong and can throw; he’s got a plus arm.”

In a press release, Ontiveros said he was focusing on teaching command and movement, rather than focusing on velocity, as China hasn’t developed any power arms yet. He said most of his pitchers top out in the mid-to-upper 80s.

“We can’t give up 12 runs a game because we are not going to score that many,” Ontiveros said. “We need to keep the games close. I think we will be very competitive in games when our pitchers do well.”

China’s top pitcher is lefty Boo Tao, whose fastball reaches the upper 80s and who also throws a good changeup. He’s a good pitcher, Lefebvre said, possibly a big league reliever if he had the chance.

But Tao is not Yao Ming; neither is the catcher Wang. Lefebvre says that’s the goal, but that remains somewhat far away, despite the progress that’s been made.

“We’ve come a long ways,” Lefebvre said. “We realize that the challenge we have in front of us, in the Olympics against great teams like the USA, Cuba, Japan. Korea is really a strong country. It’s going to be very tough for us to even think about a medal.

“But what we’re trying to do is build a future. And hopefully if we play well, then we’re going to jump-start the sport over there. Our goal is to find that one Yao Ming that’s going get things going.”

Los Angeles Times reporter Kevin Baxter interviewed Jim Lefebvre for this story.