Chinese Olympic Hopefuls Drill With Dodgers

    In the Olympics the host nation gets to compete in every team sport. That means that China can do this in 2008 because the games are being played in Beijing. That includes baseball which presents a problem because in the thousands of years that it's been around China has managed to avoid the game.

Present a baseball to the average Chinese and about the only thing he could determine is that it doesn't look edible.

    It was the same case with Greece in the last games played in 2004 in Athens. You couldn't find nine people in the whole country who ever heard of first base, never mind who plays there. The Greek solution was to come over here and round up a team of descendants of their land who had emigrated, then have their children discover the game.

  That's not going to be the Chinese way. No, they want home-grown talent to field so in preparation they've assembled a group who at least have some idea of what a strike zone is.

They've hired onetime Dodger Jim Lefebvre as their coach and even competed in the World Baseball Classic. There it was three games and out, the team batting average was .185 and the ERA was 9.72. Clearly, there's work to be done 

   Major League Baseball is helping out in that regard and, as part of that, so have the Dodgers. When regular spring training ended and the extended camp started up at Dodgertown, among the participants were two pitchers from the Chinese national team- Bo Tao and Hongrui Li.

    They participated in most drills and received instructions from Craig Bjornson and Casey Deskins, the two pitching coaches on hand. Admittedly, it was awkward at first because they speak no English and an interpreter didn't arrive until more than halfway through their three weeks in camp.

    Still, they say they learned a lot although they really couldn't get acquainted with their teammates given the language barrier.  They liked the food, though.

   Li is a 20-year-old righthander from Beijing, who's 5-11, 175. Tao is a 24-year-old lefty from Ho Nan who's 5-11, 180. Both pitched in the World Classic, both did okay and their reward is this trip.

    Speaking through interpreter Yunming Edge, they stress that they're merely candidates for the Olympic squad but obviously they're among the better players in their country or they wouldn't be here. And they've been playing the game since they were and Tao puts his hands down at knee height in an internationally understood gesture, about that tall.

    China is crowded with 1.31 billion people, the most populated nation on earth. So, how may play baseball? The two estimate about 2,000. Hey, there's that many in a couple of Little Leagues near you. Clearly, they need a Yao Ming to stir some interest

.    There are three levels of play for the beginners, middle and advanced. The first two go about the game the same way we do here, go to school and play. If you're good enough to reach the advanced level, though, you are yanked out of school and put into a camp where Lefebvre and associates work with you. In the cases of Li and Tao, both were university students at one time. Now, they're full-time ball players.

  Both have been tried at other positions before settling on the mound. Li was a catcher before while Tao played the outfield.

.    Clearly, China is not going to be favored to do well in this sport in the 2008 games and the twosome are in agreement on the 'why'. "Experience", they chorus. "We need to go out and compete against the good teams like Japan and the U.S. If we can do that, we'll be much better."

  And, maybe, get a few thousand more young athletes picking up a ball and a bat instead of playing basketball (which is big, big in China) or soccer (which is big, big everywhere but in this country.)

  There are some organizations who have suggested the China will be the next major source of international players working their way over here although it's hard to visualize at the present rate of progress.

  In the meantime, though, there's players like Li and Tao who, when asked what they'd like to do in the future, are in agreement - they want to play professionally, either here or in Japan. In that they are no different from young hopefuls wherever they reside on this planet.