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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008
ODDS AND EVENS
China taking small steps to baseball success
By ED ODEVEN
BEIJING — Baseball is experiencing growing pains in China. In order to take a big step forward, China needs time to establish a foundation for the future.
By playing in the Olympics for the first time, the China national team paved the wave for future generation of aspiring players.
The team's final game of the Olympic baseball tournament ended on a sour note, a 17-1 loss Wednesday to traditional power Cuba. But the tournament gave China, which went 1-6, a good measuring stick for the future.
"They always say you have to crawl before you walk, and you have to walk before you run," China manager Jim Lefebvre said in the news conference at Wukesong Baseball Field.
The one-sided loss, Lefebvre said is a "reminder for today's game that we have to get better."
A generation ago, the same analysis was used when discussing Chinese basketball. The success of Yao Ming in the NBA and the establishment of the Chinese Basketball Association have made basketball a mainstream sport here in China.
Baseball hasn't taken that big step yet, but the Olympic experience is an important milestone.
"This is the team's first Olympics," Lefebvre noted, "and they've been together for five years. Today's game is a good reminder to the team that we've accomplished a lot, but we still have a long way to go."
Lefebvre is qualified to analyze the baseball scene in Asia, having served as China's skipper since 2005. He broke into the major leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was named the 1965 National League Rookie of the Year. He later played for the Lotte Orions and helped the team win the 1974 Japan Series. After his playing days, he's spent the past two decades as a manager and coach for several organizations.
"Without naming names, I can say that six of our players have a chance to get in the process to get in Major League Baseball's A-level, AA-level and work their way up," Lefebvre said. "To have six players is really good. Major League Baseball wants to work with the government to develop players in China, and that's why I'm here. I'm paid by the MLB to report on baseball in China."
The China Baseball League, not to be confused with Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League, began in 2003. It features six teams in 2008 and a short schedule that is not conducive to big-time improvement and the sort of major presence that the sport receives in the United States and Japan.
"I have listed different goals for the team," Lefebvre said. "No. 1, we have to get younger; No. 2 we have to play more games. Thirty games a year for the CBL is not enough. And these two goals will really get baseball moving in China."
I agree. The future of any sports is in its youthful talent, which helps any emerging league lay the foundation for a tradition of success. To make this happen, the CBL will need a bigger commitment from investors, and they will need to realize the need to expand the season.
People like Lefebvre are the sorts of leaders China needs on the baseball diamond. Individuals with common sense and an ability to see the big picture are the ones who will make baseball a success story here.
During the Olympics, there are numerous stories of China's sporting success and Lefebvre is quick to point out that wasn't always an Olympic medal machine.
"I've said it before and I'll say it again: There are great athletes in China," Lefebvre said. "What do they have now, 40 gold medals? It's just a reminder that it takes time.
"We talked about it yesterday, the girls' gymnastics team took 50 years to get the gold. We'll get there sooner. We need to develop young players so they'll be ready for the next Olympics."
Baseball and softball tournaments will not be held at the 2012 London Games. The IOC will consider putting the sports back on the Olympic program in Copenhagen during an assembly in October 2009.
Even without a tournament for at least eight more years, China has plenty of motivation to improve upon its Olympic record in upcoming tournaments.
"First of all, baseball is a world sport," Lefebvre said. "Just because we don't have baseball at the next Olympic Games, there's still the World Baseball Classic, a lot of baseball championships. Baseball will be back in the Olympic Games after the next Olympics."
But Lefebvre, 66, will not be at the helm when the team steps onto the field for its next game.
"I told the team today that I will not be their manager anymore," Lefebvre said. "I told them before the game that this is my last game. But I also told them that my heart will always be in China and I will always be there for them."
China has plenty of time to succeed or fail as a baseball nation. But remember this: Lefebvre played an integral role in laying the foundation for future success.
But it's only a start. Lots of work remains to be done.