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Lost in Translation
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Jim Lefebvre has still not recovered from his post-match explosion after he was called upon to comment on Team China's performance in the opening game of the Konami Cup Baseball Asia Series earlier this month.

His team squandered a 2-1 lead after the first four innings, allowing La New Bears, the reigning champion team of Chinese Taipei Professional League, to take a 12-2 victory during the game held in Tokyo Dome on November 9.

Lefebvre, the American team manager, talked to reporters like a machine gun and the translator was struggling to follow.

After minutes of non-stop elaboration, he dropped the microphone heavily on the table, making a loud noise in a small but packed interview room.

"He must be really angry," a Japanese reporter murmured.

No manger would be happy after such a dramatic downfall. Within 20 minutes the score suddenly switched from 2:1 to 2:10, basically determining the outcome. Lefebvre's side was not able to score another run.

Lefebvre had been expecting more. Under his four-year management, Team China has enjoyed fast improvement. Just before travelling to Japan, the team defeated European champions, the Netherlands, for the first time in history in a thrilling exhibition game on November 4 in Guangzhou.

The high-profile tournament in Japan just brought Team China back to the earth. After the 12-2 rout by La New Bears, the team had to settle for another embarrassing 13-1 defeat to South Korea's Samsung Lions before losing to the host team Nippon Ham Fighters 6-1.

In Lefebvre's eyes, the shortcomings of the Chinese players became more and more obvious after those defeats and proved to be a main obstacle for them to grow into world-class players. "They have no arm strength, I mean, in all positions," Lefebvre said.

Having stronger arms is what he has been persuading Team China to work on since he first saw the squad in the Daxing training centre in suburb Beijing four years ago.

By that time, the Chinese players were so small and thin that Lefebvre immediately brought the team back to the United States for workouts after spending just ten days in China.

However, it's not easy to change the minds of Chinese players who have been used to their old training methods.

Lefebvre soon found out when he is not around, the players always tried to avoid pounding the iron after arduous daily training. As long as they go back home from the United States, weight training is neglected proven by the lack of weight-gaining facilities in the Daxing centre.

"They don't appreciate it," Lefebvre confessed. "They said they are just too tired to work out."

'Change your attitude'

Facing such "laziness" among the always hard-working Chinese players, Lefebvre believes it was just a matter of "attitude".

"They think an Asian can not get strong. They just think they are weak," he said.

Lefebvre tried to prove they are wrong by citing the example of China's 110m hurdlers world recorder Liu Xiang.

"Is he a Chinese, you bet! Is he strong, you bet!"

The manager thinks if Liu can get strong and become the world's best, so can his baseball players.

"Change your attitude," he said.

"Getting strong is easy if you are willing to work hard."

Lefebvre said he has proved that more could be accomplished if his players are willing to following his instruction.

The team travelled to Arizona in January last year, focusing on weight training during their five-week stay and the players returned to China in March weighing an average of seven pounds heavier than when they arrived. Later in May, the team defeated South Korea for the first time to win a historical bronze medal in the Asian Championships in Miyazaki, southern Japan.

Despite such success, the Chinese still did not have enough trust and that frustrates Lefebvre who has a success career both as player and manager in Major League Baseball (MLB).

The 63-year-old was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1965 with the Dodgers. He was named to the National League All-Star team in 1966 and has been a renowned hitting instructor for many years. As a manager, he led the Seattle Mariners to their first winning season in 1990, and also skippered the Cubs and the Brewers.

"It hurts," he said. "Sooner or later, it's going to be your game. We can only guide you," he said. "When I go home, I want those guys to get going."

Olympic task

Besides players, the experienced skipper also needs to win more trust from the Chinese officials who started to worry about the prospect of the team which is under a pet project to shine during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games on home soil.

Although the sport remains in its early development stages in China and Lefebvre and pitching coach Bruce Hurst started the process of building a competitive team just three years ago, the Chinese camp was not as patient as Lefebvre pledged.

Shen Wei, secretary-general of Chinese Baseball Association rushed to Lefebvre right after the defeat to La New Bears and anxiously asked what was wrong with the team.

"I told them not to panic," the manager said. "There is a lot learning to do and a long way to go."

However, the Chinese camp has a good reason to be so anxious when the 2008 Games is only less than two years away.

"The team needs victories over high-profile teams to prove itself," Shen said.

Shen's attitude means Lefebvre will have to accelerate his build-up on China's Olympic team after his honeymoon time with the squad.

In the past four years, he has led the team to some success such as qualifying for the World Cup last year and beating Taiwan twice and South Korea once.

Lefebvre is just upbeat and believes the team will get ready for the Games on time.

"You are not going to be embarrassed like what happened in Japan. We are going to be a strong team in 2008," he said.

The Chinese team is now in Doha to participate the Asian Games. A win over any of the "Asian Baseball Big Three" - Japan, South Korea and Taiwan is likely to help the team to win a medal at the six-team tournament.

(China Daily November 30, 2006)

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