Good showing in '08 Olympics will spur interest

GUANGZHOU, China -- Baseball has taken Jim Lefebvre from Dodger Stadium to the diamonds of Japan, the fields of the Dominican Republic, the manager's office at Wrigley Field and the remote recesses of Jose Canseco's mind.

Now that little white baseball has brought him 6,000 miles across our big blue globe to this thriving southern China port. The former teammate of Sandy Koufax, ex-batting coach of the Bash Brothers and Ken Griffey Jr.'s first manager is now the skipper of the Chinese national team.

The team's morning workout over, he is back at his hotel, waiting for his caprese salad lunch order and reading the front-page story in the English-language newspaper.

"The population figure is expected to hit 1.36 billion by 2010 and 1.45 by 2020 before peaking at 1.5 billion in 2033," Lefebvre reads to his lunch companions. "The current population is 1.3 billion."

He looks up from the paper.

"One-point-five billion people," he says. "Isn't that something?"

Lefebvre already had a good idea of the population figures -- those figures are essentially the reason he is here -- but they are so overwhelming that seeing them in print still takes the breath away. The numbers are even more impressive when you consider that the birthrate for boys in China is 10 percent higher than for girls, and 30 percent higher in some regions. We're talking an eventual talent pool of 800 million males. Granted, many of them are already older than Julio Franco, but that still probably leaves at least 400 million potential players. And not a single one represented by Scott Boras.

With no age or gender restrictions, the potential market for baseball merchandise is even greater. China's economy is growing so fast it is expected to pass Germany to become the third-largest in the world next year -- there is a Starbucks at the Great Wall and in the Forbidden City -- so imagine the replica jerseys sales (home, away and alternate Sunday) if baseball could find its own Yao Ming. Consider all the caps and T-shirts that would be purchased right out of the factory (no import fees). For crying out loud, just think about the bobbleheads.

One billion, 300 million people now; 1.5 billion people around the time Felix Hernandez could become eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Of course, there is just one small problem to tapping this enormous and growing market, one ever so slight challenge to overcome before signing a Yao Ming. There may be 1.3 billion people in China with another 200 million on the way, but the trouble is almost none of them play baseball.

Although Major League Baseball is working to change that.

Located on the Pearl River in southern China roughly 100 miles from Hong Kong, Guangzhou is the country's richest city (per capita income just reached $10,000). This is where Americans go to adopt Chinese orphans, and fittingly, Lefebvre and pitching coach Bruce Hurst are here to get China to adopt our national pastime. They are part of Major League Baseball's nearly worldwide envoy program that sends coaches all across the map to spread the words "play ball." MLB partnered with China four years ago to develop its national team and take it to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

And if they find a Yao Ming along the way, so much the better.

So on a damp, unseasonably cool January morning, Hurst studiously watches as 14 of the Chinese national team pitchers warm up on two outdoor basketball courts at a national sports training center.

"They say China has more 7-footers per capita than any other country, and 51 percent of the people are left-handed," the former Red Sox pitcher says. "So I keep looking for a 7-foot lefty, but I haven't seen a Big Unit yet."

China does have many 7-footers, but lefties are a minority just as they are in America, so instead of Randy Johnson or baseball's Yao, Hurst would be delighted to find a young Jamie Moyer. In fact, Lefebvre sees an entire staff of Jamie Moyers.

He doesn't have much choice. The national team's pitchers throw in the low 80s, and that might be on the fast gun.

"They can control the plate pretty well, though," Hurst says. "They can command half of the plate or a third of the plate. But command up and down is a problem."

Arm strength is an issue. While the heights of the Chinese pitchers range from around 6-foot to 6-3 or so, none would be mistaken for Roger Clemens from behind. They usually start out fairly well then lose a couple of miles off their fastballs within three innings. Determined to build up their arm strength, Hurst says he doesn't want them throwing off a mound until five weeks into this minicamp.

"We're not going to be driven by anything other than the results of their progress," he says. "If they start showing a little juice on their throws, we'll pick up the pace. But until then, we'll take it nice and easy and fight the boredom."

The pitchers would be stronger if they could throw more innings, but there just aren't enough opportunities. Basketball is so popular here that there is a photo of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson in one of the morning Chinese-language papers and an update on Kevin Garnett's suspension airs on the Chinese sports station. But baseball is strictly a non-revenue sport -- which helps explain why the national team pitchers are warming up on an outdoor basketball court.

"A good analogy for baseball in China is that it's the equivalent of rugby in the United States," says Ed Burns, MLB vice president for operations. "It's not a sport that's unheard of, but it's also not a sport you would attend unless you were related to one of the players. The Chinese Baseball League is not well-attended and not much attention is paid to it. But when they beat a team from Taiwan, it gets noticed."

Shen Wei, the general secretary for China baseball, says there are 2,000 registered baseball players in the 14-18 age group and 400 registered players 18 or older. There are 200 elementary schools with baseball programs and 15-20 players on each of those teams. She says there are approximately 60 university teams. Little League baseball, meanwhile, says it had five leagues chartered in China last year with 29 teams and about 400 combined players. Add the six professional teams in the five-year-old China Baseball League and there are perhaps 8,000 players in organized baseball in a country of 1.3 billion.

There are even fewer places to play. Shen Wei says there are around a dozen regulation-sized baseball fields in the entire country, though several more are being built (elementary teams play on softball fields). The diamond on which the national team is training has a skin infield, a chain link outfield fence and no batting cage.

And then there is the matter of equipment. All you need for basketball is a hoop and a ball, but baseball requires bats and gloves and shinguards. Very few places sell baseball equipment in China, and when they do, the price could intimidate Alex Rodriguez. A Beijing sporting goods store offers bats and gloves for $300 apiece. And although minor league baseballs are manufactured in the Guangdong province in which Guangzhou is located, they aren't easy to find, either. As it is, the national team bats around old balls so worn you could barely make out the faded World Baseball Classic logo.

Correspondingly, there aren't many games. The Chinese Baseball League, for example, plays a 30-game schedule from April to July on the weekends, drawing crowds that range from a couple of dozen to a couple hundred. The lack of game experience is perhaps the biggest obstacle to developing a Yao.

"Say you get four at-bats a game, that's 120 at-bats a year. In the U.S., we play 162 games a year. At four at-bats a game, that's 650 at-bats a year, and that's not counting spring training,'' Lefebvre says. "So it would take about five years at the pace of the CBL to catch up to one year of major league baseball. They need more at-bats.''

Many of the best players are hurt from playing with sore and tired arms, thereby turning minor aches into serious injuries. Lefebvre says that when he first arrived in China in 2003, teams would have a reliever warming up when the game began and match the starter pitch for pitch. By the time the reliever entered the game in the sixth inning or so, he would already have thrown 70 pitches or more.

"I tell people that," Lefebvre says, "and they go, 'You've got to be s---ing me.'''

Fortunately, that relief strategy has been replaced.

The national team had so many severe arm injuries that MLB flew six players to Cincinnati last fall so they could undergo an assortment of arm surgeries.

Their best catcher, Wang Wei, is described by Lefebvre as a legitimate prospect, but he underwent Tommy John surgery. So did the No. 2 catcher, Zhang Zhenwang. Their best outfielder, Sun Lingfeng, an Ichiro-type player, needed arm surgery so badly that he was throwing the ball back to the infield underhanded during the World Baseball Classic. And right-handed pitcher Li Chenhao had the trifecta: Tommy John surgery, elbow surgery and shoulder surgery.

"He could have had a couple heart bypasses and maybe a heart valve replacement in the time he was under anesthesia," says Dr. Bruce Thomas, who oversaw the surgeries.

To help add experience and arm strength, the Chinese team will fly to Scottsdale, Ariz., this month for spring training. After that, MLB hopes to spread the team among extended spring training camps. The players simply need to get more at-bats and more innings.

The team's five-week training minicamp in Guangzhou is at a sprawling national training center for sports ranging from soccer to equestrian. Soccer players run drills on neighboring fields, cyclists train along the roadways and team handball players practice in a nearby gym.

Despite its name, team handball is nothing like the handball familiar to Americans. It is a fast, athletic game played with a ball on a large inside court. It's more like a combination of basketball and soccer. The Chinese handballers are all 6-2 to 6-5, powerfully built and extremely athletic -- attributes that draw Hurst and Lefebvre to the gym after baseball practice to watch them run, leap, crash and fire the ball at the net.

"We've got to find out what region of the country they're from," Lefebvre says as he leaves the gym, "and then we've got to get them playing baseball when they're 8 and 9 years old."

When Lefebvre first managed the then-hapless Mariners, the team slogan fashioned on bumper stickers and T-shirts was "I'm a Lefebvre Believer." Managing the Chinese team requires a similar optimism.

"We had a good practice today," Lefebvre says to the team at the end of a workout. "We're going to be the best in the world. The best in the world."

The Chinese players smile dubiously when Lefebvre's words are translated.

"Why not?" Lefebvre shouts. "Why not?"

Why not? Well …

"One of the things I caution and reinforce when I talk to owners is this is a long-term initiative. It's not going to happen overnight. We have a plan to help grow and develop the game. It's also ongoing, and we may have to deviate from that plan as we get into it. But there are a lot of opportunities there, a lot of things we can do."
-- Paul Archey, senior VP for MLB International

Ted Heid, director of Pacific Rim scouting for the Mariners, compares the Chinese national team to a good junior college team. The Chinese are competitive against the European teams but struggle against the traditional powers. China whipped opponents such as the Philippines and Pakistan (heavily bearded Muslims who bent to their knees and prayed at the end of one game) in the qualifying round of last year's World Baseball Classic and even was tied with Japan in the fifth inning of the WBC's opening round after sore-armed catcher Wang Wei hit the first home run of the tournament. That was it for the heroics. As Lefebvre says, "The game got a little away from us after that.'' China lost 18-2 to Japan and was soon eliminated from the WBC.

Still, Lefebvre says the team is much improved over the past four years and it has even beaten Taiwan twice in the past two years. It feels a strong rivalry with its Asian neighbors that fires its competitive instincts. It's optimistic but not unreasonable to think China could beat the European entry in the Olympics and perhaps steal a game against a stronger opponent.

"The final scores in the WBC weren't pretty, but for five or six innings, China held its own,'' says Paul Archey, the senior vice president for MLB International. "They just didn't have the depth or the experience. China even [tied the game] against Japan. It gave you a glimpse of what could happen."

Third baseman Sun Wei is an example of the passion these players have for the sport. He began playing baseball when he was 10 years old and his school had the sport in its athletic program. When baseball was no longer offered, he continued to play, practicing with a teacher after class, sometimes only with two players. He is 30 years old now and hopeful that the team can play well enough in the Olympics to bring attention to the sport he loves.

"[Former Chinese political leader] Deng Xiaoping said that to get a good soccer team, you need to start as kids," Wei says through an interpreter. "Baseball needs a Chinese leader who says baseball needs to start with kids. That will be the day baseball gets going. In Cuba, Castro likes baseball, so they're pretty good at it."

There is some movement in that direction. A high school for baseball players recently started in Wuxi, a city of 4 million people northwest of Shanghai. It's a start, and Archey says MLB also will likely open some baseball academies here in coming years. The strong hope is the Olympics will stir additional interest.

"If, by chance, we can be successful in the 2008 Olympics, it will be a critical point for China baseball," Shen Wei says through an interpreter. "My personal opinion is if we can get a system in place where baseball is in the curriculum in elementary schools, middle schools, high school and college, baseball will be successful. If we don't, baseball will be in trouble.''

So far, only one Chinese player has ever signed with a major league organization. The Mariners signed pitcher Wang Chao in 2001, but it is fair to say that the signing was a disappointment on both sides. He was 0-2 with a 5.14 ERA in rookie ball over two seasons and returned to China.

When will baseball find its Yao?

"I don't know when but not now," second baseman Liu Guangbiao says. "As things are right now, it's impossible to say. But in Taiwan and Japan, baseball is very popular. So if it gets more popular in China and an increase of players gets involved, then maybe in 10 years.''

Patience, Archey emphasizes, is crucial.

"One of the things I caution and reinforce when I talk to owners is this is a long-term initiative. It's not going to happen overnight," he says. "We have a plan to help grow and develop the game. It's also ongoing, and we may have to deviate from that plan as we get into it. But there are a lot of opportunities there, a lot of things we can do.

"It took a while even with the Chinese Baseball Association. This was right after Yao Ming signed, to appreciate it. We had to say, 'Baseball is different.' We're not going to find a Yao Ming who will go directly to the majors.''

Having scouted in China at least a dozen times, Heid knows baseball here as well as any American. He's not sure when or if baseball will find its Yao.

"Maybe never," he says. "A lot of countries have never had a major league player. Look how long it took Korea and Japan to have a major leaguer, and baseball is big there. So it's hard to say. If it were to happen, I'd have to say it would be a young player coming over to the U.S. and working his way up through the minor league system. So he would probably come over at age 17 or 18 and probably take six or seven years to develop. So you're talking 10 years in the best-case scenario. And he would have to have the desire to go through all that.''

Archey says MLB has invested millions in its China program and is committed to the long haul here. It just opened an office in Beijing. The cost of MLB's investment in China isn't outrageous compared to the cost of fielding one major league bullpen -- the Chinese pay for their own training in China, but MLB picks up the tab when they visit Arizona -- and the payoff could be huge. You only need a small percentage of players from a nation of 1.3 billion to develop a market justifying the investment. Basketball certainly learned that (the NBA has four offices in China), and even the NHL has started a Chinese program.

"What I know about baseball is that it's a great game,'' Archey says, "and kids like playing it.''

So perhaps the Wuxi school will be the first of many such schools emphasizing baseball. Perhaps the national team will upset enough teams in the Olympics to earn needed attention if not a medal. Perhaps impressed sports ministers will get excited enough to fund baseball programs through the nation's school system. Perhaps Li Chenhao will recover from his trifecta of injuries so spectacularly that future Chinese pitchers will be saving their careers by undergoing what becomes known as "Li Chenhao surgery."

Perhaps then we'll see a Yao Ming in baseball.

As Lefebvre says, "Why not?''

And after that? Well, baseball is also starting an envoy program in India. There are more than 1 billion people there too, and they already know how to swing a cricket bat.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is back up at a slightly different address, jimcaple.net, with more installments of 24 College Avenue. His new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is on sale now.