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Team China spreads baseball wings

Team China spreads baseball wings

TEMPE, Ariz. -- A baseball family that has taken four years to build will soon be spreading its wings, taking another step in a master plan designed to make China an eventual hotbed of talent, possibly producing a future Ichiro or Dice-K.

For the past three weeks, the China National Team, under the direction of manager Jim Lefebvre and pitching coach Bruce Hurst, has been practicing at Scottsdale Community College and playing games against Minor League teams conducting Spring Training in the Valley of the Sun.

Team China, comprised of many players who will represent the country at the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008, dropped an 11-4 decision on Saturday to Class A Cedar Rapids, a Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim affiliate. It was the third game in a five-game tour that includes a game on Sunday against an Oakland Athletics' farm team in Phoenix. The finale is set for Wednesday against a Milwaukee Brewers Minor League club.

But that's just the beginning of what could become a yearly routine for Team China.

When the Minor League clubs break camp next week, most of the 35 Team China players will join nine MLB organizations in Arizona and Florida for two weeks of extended Spring Training. MLB will release on Monday the clubs involved in the program and where each of the Team China players is headed.

"Collectively, we're not ready to compete with these teams on a day-to-day basis," said Lefebvre, a former MLB player and manager. "Our guys just aren't experiencing the thrill of winning often enough, and if our players go play with better players and see how they train, it will broaden their view."

Each of the participating organizations will have at least two Team China players on its expanded Spring Training roster -- the first time in MLB history that big-league organizations have participated in a program quite like this.

"Major League Baseball has done a tremendous job of supporting this," Lefebvre said. "It's something that has been done in the past with Japanese coaches, but this is the first time it involves players."

The Team China players will play for their respective teams for about two weeks, then return to Arizona and discuss their experiences.

"Our kids are getting better, they really are," said Lefebvre. "They just need to play with and be around better players. They also need to play more games every year. We'd like to play 200 games between now and the Olympics. It will be tough, but that's our goal."

The chances of Team China winning a medal are slim. Actually, forget it. But even being able to compete on the same field with the best teams in the world would be significant, because it's what happens after the Games that will draw the most MLB interest.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story calling China the "last frontier" for finding and developing baseball talent. Major League Baseball has more players from foreign countries than any other professional sport and continues to grow internationally.

"China's participation as host of the 2008 Olympic Games is an enormous opportunity to increase the visibility of baseball in China," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "We hope that Major League Baseball's assistance in training the China National Team will help China compete well at the Olympics and beyond."

Since being hired four years ago to build China's baseball program, Lefebvre has been molding the national team into a cohesive unit that plays sound, fundamental baseball. He sees progress being made. Players are getting bigger, better and closer.

He mentioned Qi Ze, a 6-foot-2, 187-pound first baseman, who is just 22 years old with big-league power.

"He can hit a ball nine miles," Lefebvre said. "Kids are getting bigger and are starting to drive the ball. But it's not like going to a restaurant and ordering power. These kids just need to play. They have to get their 500 at-bats a year to become better players."

As the team moves closer to representing China in the Olympics, it continues to build camaraderie.

"This team is closer than any team we've ever had," Lefebvre said. "Madame Shen [of the Ministry of Sport] told me, 'You've made this into a family.' That's the ultimate compliment and meant an awful lot to me, and also demonstrates what MLB has done with this program. We're all involved in this."

But the "family" will soon be branching out for a few weeks to play for different teams.

"We're breaking up the family to make them better," said Lefebvre. "When it's all said and done, they will have grown, and we'll talk about what they learned."

Slightly more than a year ago, Team China learned -- the hard way -- just how far it must go to compete with the worldly big boys of the sport.

The team was invited to compete in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, and it definitely was an eye-opening experience. Team China lost all three of its Asia pool games by a combined score of 50-6.

"It was tough, I'm not going to lie to you," Hurst said. "It was a level of competition they were nowhere near ready to compete against, and they were a little shell-shocked and jelly-legged afterward. But I told my guys to think about what they got out of this -- that now they know what a good pitch looks like to a good hitter.

"I told them they made some good pitches to some good hitters and got them out. I told them they also made some bad pitches to good hitters and they can start to see what the margin of error is. That's very valuable information."

Less valuable, perhaps, is the bit of trivia that came out of the first-of-its-kind event, which will be held again in 2009 and every four years afterward.

"In our own way, we made a little history," Lefebvre said.

It came in the fourth inning of the WBC opener against Team Japan, the eventual champion. Team China catcher Wei Wang hit a two-run homer to right-center, giving Lefebvre's team a 2-0 lead.

"Wang will always be known as the player that hit the first WBC home run," Lefebvre said. "And he's from China. How 'bout that."

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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