China faces uphill climb in WBC

Lefebvre, Hurst working with inexperienced roster

Jim Lefebvre will manage the Chinese team in the World Baseball Classic.

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- National pride and bragging rights are two reasons so many of the best baseball players in the world want to play for their countries in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

But there is more to the 16-team event than self-esteem for Team China, one of just two teams expected to field a team completely void of players under contract to any of the 30 Major League teams.

The team that represents China in the WBC in March also figures to carry the torch into the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Jim Lefebvre, the National League Rookie of the Year in 1965 and former manager of the Seattle Mariners (1989-91), Chicago Cubs (1992-93) and Milwaukee Brewers (1999), and pitching coach Bruce Hurst, have been directing China's baseball development program for the past three years -- ever since the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing as the host city for the '08 Summer Games.

While MLB players dominate WBC teams from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the United States, the Chinese team is just getting its feet back on the ground following a quarter-century of inactivity during the nation's Cultural Revolution.

Team China arrived in Phoenix on Tuesday to begin a month of preparation at Scottsdale Community College. There are 33 players, ranging in age from 18 to 28, participating in the workouts and practice games, and the final 30-man roster will be set prior to their WBC opener on March 3 against Japan at the Tokyo Dome.

The contingent basically is an All-Star team selected from the China Baseball League -- a six-team league that plays 30 regular-season games (weekends only) and as many as five playoff games between May and August.

Weekdays are spent practicing, practicing and practicing.

"One of the things I have really enjoyed is their work ethic," said Lefebvre, who managed the Mariners to the franchise's first winning season (1990). "They are very bright and retain what you tell them. They are very coachable."

Lefebvre said China's team in the WBC would be fundamentally sound, a little short on power at the plate and on the mound and a group of players with, "a real love for the game." "They catch and throw the ball well and we work a lot on that," Lefebvre said. "Hitting-wise, we have to put the ball in play because we don't have a lot of power. They can bunt on a dime, but there are times when we will have to play for a big inning.

"Pitching-wise, we're pretty good when we throw strikes, change speeds and keep the hitters off balance."

But none of the pitchers throw particularly hard. The best fastballs reach home plate in the mid-80-mph range, so location is of utmost importance.

"[Hurst] has them throwing strikes and changing speeds," Lefebvre said.

One of the star players on the team is 5-foot-6 center fielder Sun Ling Feng.

"They call him, 'The Ichiro of China,'" Lefebvre said. "He's a slap hitter, smart and has a lot of speed. He can't throw a lick, but can really go after the ball in the outfield. He's fun to watch."

Sun, 26, finished fourth in the CBL in hitting last season with a .356 average (32-for-90) and led the Beijing Tigers to their third consecutive championship.

"At the international level, baseball is still very young in China," Lefebvre said, "but in time, I really think it could become the No. 1 team sport in the country."

The Chinese team has made huge strides the past couple of seasons.

The National Team captured an historic bronze medal at the 23rd Asian Baseball Championships this past May in Japan, an accomplishment that led to China qualifying for the World Cup in Holland, where it finished ninth in the 18-team event (the U.S. finished seventh).

"I have been involved with China Baseball for quite a few years now and no doubt the atmosphere around the team is different," said Yi Sheng, the senior Chinese coach on the staff. "Players are not cocky but confident. They believe in themselves and what the coaches are teaching. It is very exciting and quite an honor to be part of something very special that is going on right now with this team and China Baseball."

Lefebvre can see improvement.

"We have moved past some teams and even beat Taiwan for the first time, which was a big thing," Lefebvre said. "There are teams out there we can beat and we're getting to the point where we feel good about our ability to compete. We have made a big jump, but have a ways to go to catch the big guys like Cuba, Japan and the U.S."

Team China still has more than two years to become a more experienced, cohesive unit that would contend for an Olympic medal. But for now, compared to countries that have been playing baseball for more than 100 years non-stop, it might be safe to assume China has little chance of advancing beyond the first round of the three-week WBC tournament.

The event, sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) and backed by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, will feature the world's best players competing for their home countries and territories for the first time. Fans will be able to follow all the games live exclusively online at MLB.com.

First-round games will be played at four sites.

• Pool A, consisting of Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei and China, will meet at the Tokyo Dome, March 3-5.

• Pool B, featuring USA, Canada, Mexico and South Africa, will play at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Scottsdale Stadium, Spring Training home of the San Francisco Giants, March 7-10.

• Pool C, which consists of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama and the Netherlands, will play at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 7-10.

• Pool D, featuring the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia and Italy, will play at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., March 7-10.

The top two teams from each pool advance to the second round, which takes place at Hiram Bithorn Stadium (March 12-15) and Angel Stadium (March 14-16) in Anaheim. The semifinals and finals will be held at San Diego's PETCO Park March 18-20.

Tickets are on sale at www.worldbaseballclassic.com.

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