The baseball face of China
Five years after accepting the Herculean task of turning China into a baseball country, Jim Lefebvre — Mariners' manager from 1989-91 — felt like his team was home.
Seattle Times staff columnist
BEIJING — Late last week, Jim Lefebvre stepped off the bus, passed through the security screening, received his official badge and walked into the Olympic Village.
After five years of painfully slow growth, two steps forward, one step back. After all this time preparing the Chinese baseball team for the greatest spectacle in sports, Lefebvre and his players had arrived at their destination.
Five years after accepting the Herculean task of turning China into a baseball country, he felt like his team was home.
And, as Lefebvre looked around the village he saw his players practically gawking at their surroundings, and suddenly felt overwhelmed.
"It just hit me," he said. "This is one of those really rare moments in life. And I felt such pride. We had talked about this for so long. We had planned and practiced, and now we were walking into the Olympic Games."
Chinese officials have put a gag order on their athletes and coaches, leading up to the Olympic Games, but ordering Lefebvre (pronounced "La-fever") to stop talking baseball is harder than asking him to stop breathing.
He sat, sipping a cappuccino, and visited for more than two hours, eager to tell the story of this journey.
Lefebvre, who Seattle remembers as the Mariners' manager from 1989-91, likes his team, and he would like the rest of world, and especially the rest of China, to understand how far his players have come since his first meeting with them in 2003.
"With the Olympics about to begin, the Chinese officials have come to me and said no coach, or player, or manager can talk to the media," Lefebvre said. "So this, what I'm doing now, is against their policy. I asked them why we can't talk and they told me they didn't want to put a focus on their team and I told them, 'You know, that bothers me.'
"We have players who deserve some attention. We have a guy who played in the CBA [Chinese Baseball Association], quit the game and worked in the restaurant business for eight years. Now he's our best pitcher. That's a story that should be told."
Oh, Lefebvre has stories to tell. Stories like the four sore-armed pitchers, who had no business being on the mound but were flown to the United States, had arm surgeries that were paid for by a U.S. surgeon and are back on the staff.
(Two of his players — catcher Wang Wei and first baseman Yu Bing Jia — are farmhands of the Mariners.)
"It's not about me anymore," Lefebvre said. "I want to tell the stories about my players, but they won't let me. And that's a shame, a real shame."
But this story is about Lefebvre, because he has molded a team out of a gaggle of mix-and-match athletes. On its last tour of the United States, playing against college teams and teams in extended spring training, China finished 22-9.
The Chinese won't win a medal at these Olympics, but they could win a game, which would be a remarkable story considering where they were five years ago.
"The difference now is that they've learned to play the game," Lefebvre said.
When he arrived in China five years ago, at the invitation of MLB executive Sandy Alderson, the facilities were old and the long-neglected playing fields were more dirt than grass. Players had to walk almost a mile from their dorms to their diamonds.
Baseball wasn't important in this country. In the 1960s, Chairman Mao Zedong banned the game because, after all, it was the American pastime.
In his first days here, Lefebvre couldn't even find baseballs that were acceptable.
"We had these old balls that were coming apart," he said. "I told them I didn't mind it that the balls were old, but at least get the ones with the covers on. You know it was like, 'How far was that ball hit? I don't know, let's just follow the string.' The balls were awful."
And then there were the players. Many of them were track and field athletes, culled from China's sports institutes. They were runners and throwers who weren't good enough to compete in the specialties against the world.
Lefebvre said his leadoff hitter is a former sprinter. A couple of his strongest-armed pitchers are former javelin throwers.
Most of Lefebvre's players didn't start playing until their early-to-mid teens. And the first time he met his players at Beijing's Baxing Training Center five years ago, they seemed as somber as a last-place team in September.
All the players stood at attention, in perfect formation, with their hats off, looking at the ground.
"When we started, my No. 1 goal was to get them to have fun, to enjoy themselves, to enjoy the beauty of the game," he said. "When I first talked with them I said, 'The first thing we do is put our caps back on. The next thing I want you to do is look me right in the eye. Champions always look other champions in the eye.'
"I wanted them to talk to me. I wanted to pick their brains. I wanted to find out what they were thinking about. And when I told them that, they just kind of stared at me. Nobody'd ever asked them to do that before.
"I think in this culture, there is too much emphasis on the managers and coaches. It should be about the players. That's what I've tried to make it. And, you know what, now we are having fun."
Lefebvre has grown close to his players. He mentions a moment before a game in June, against the Keene Swamp Bats of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, as one of his warmest times with this team.
The players were standing in formation, waiting for their national anthem to be played on the public-address system, when they realized they had forgotten to bring the CD. They looked at each other for a moment and then, almost instinctively, belted their anthem a cappella.
"I mean they really sang it, and it gave me cold chills," Lefebvre said. "I almost started crying."
Next week, China will open Olympic play against Canada. No Chinese team will come into the Olympics with fewer expectations.
"Somebody was telling me this field is the strongest in Olympic baseball ever," Lefebvre said. "There are no pansies, no cupcakes, no softies any more. And I said, 'Oh, yeah there is. We are.'
"But seriously, we have a very daunting challenge. Our focus is on how we play the game. And the players are starting to believe they can win. That to me is really phenomenal. That's what I'm most proud of."
At 66, Lefebvre is in the twilight of his long, lush life in the game. And when he reflects on his career, his years playing infield for the Los Angeles Dodgers, his managing stints in Japan, in Seattle, Milwaukee and with the Chicago Cubs, he should look at his years in China as some of his finest.
He's changed the culture of Chinese baseball. He has created a place for America's pastime here. Maybe even Mao would be wowed.
Steve Kelley: firstname.lastname@example.org
Read his blog at www.seattletimes.com/Olympics.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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