Driven by a desire to catch up with the growth of baseball in other Asian countries and a fear of getting embarrassed on the diamond at the 2008 Beijing Olympics—the host country gets an automatic bid—Chinese sports ministers have declared bangqiu an athletic priority. Which thrills Major League Baseball executives half a world away. "We have a number of markets we'd like to expand into," says Paul Archey, MLB's senior vice president of international business operations. " China is definitely one of them."
So last year, when China asked for help in preparing for the 2004 Olympic qualifying tournament, MLB obliged, sending Jim Lefebvre to manage the Chinese team and, more important, play the role of baseball apostle. Lefebvre, 62, was ideal for the role, and not just because he had managed three big league teams, served as a minor league coordinator and run a hitting academy. After an eight-year career as a Los Angeles Dodgers in-fielder, he played four seasons in Japan in the 1970s then managed another. Unlike many gaijin, Lefebvre slid headfirst into the culture, speaking the language, sampling every comestible. "You learn a lot when you leave your comfort zone and take off blinders," he says. "To help build up baseball in Asia was an opportunity I wasn't going to pass up."
While Japan and Korea put players in the majors and Taiwan once ruled the Little League World Series, the best Chinese players now participate in the country's nascent, four-team professional league, which is the rough equivalent of Class A ball. The sport was introduced to China during the mid-1800s but was banned during the Cultural Revolution. In a country where real estate is at a premium, diamonds are the rarest of commodities. There is one baseball venue in all of Beijing—a city of 13 million—and there are no youth leagues.
Lefebvre arrived in Beijing last October and found that while the players trained inveterately—"Chinese athletes are not allergic to hard work, I'll tell you that," he says—they seldom played games or held scrimmages. Thus their skills were fairly advanced, but the fine points eluded them. Lefebvre recalls that in an early intrasquad game, one team was staging a comeback with the heart of the order up. The rally died when a player took a huge lead off second base and got caught in a rundown. "What were you thinking?" Lefebvre asked through an interpreter. The player responded sheepishly, "I was trying to make something happen."
At the Olympic qualifying tournament last November in Sapporo, China crushed Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines by a combined 41-1 in the B Pool. In the A Pool, though, the team lost to Japan, Korea and Taiwan and failed to make the field for Athens. Still, the results were encouraging. "When the guys lost to Taiwan 3-1 and had chances to win," says Lefebvre, "you don't realize how much that means." What's more, outfielders hit the correct cutoff men, infielders executed perfect rundowns and base runners broke up double plays.
A proliferation of televised major league games—usually edited to fit in 60-minute slots—is helping to build appreciation for the sport. MLB recently announced a developmental agreement that includes funding and fostering youth leagues and coaching and umpiring clinics. Lefebvre thinks that within a decade, China can mint major leaguers. "There's realism, but there's optimism," says Lefebvre. "The guys I managed didn't see themselves as big league ballplayers; they saw themselves as pioneers."