Diamonds in the rough

MURRAY GREIG -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:24 AM ET

Jim Small likes to think big. And as one of the architects of the World Baseball Classic, the vice-president of international market development for Major League Baseball is thinking a lot these days about how to channel talent from nations like China, South Africa, the Netherlands and Australia into the MLB pipeline.

When he looks at China, in particular, Small sees a vast, untapped pool in which the number of school-aged athletes is greater than the combined total populations of Canada and the U.S. That's enough to make even the most grizzled scout salivate like Pavlov's dog.

"Baseball was born in America, and now it belongs to the world," Small said prior to last week's opening round of the WBC. "But if our game is to be considered a true global sport, it needs to become more popular in some key countries - and China is at the very top of that list.

"With the Olympics coming to Beijing in 2008 and China having developed a strong professional league and a fast-improving national team program, this is a very exciting time for baseball in the Far East."

China's national team - which went 0-3 in Group A at the WBC while being outscored 40-6 - is under the direction of ex-big-leaguers Jim Lefebvre and Bruce Hurst, who have been charged with ensuring the host squad doesn't embarrass the Motherland at the Beijing Olympics.

National team players are picked from the six-team China Baseball League, a four-year-old pro circuit. For the past three years, Major League Baseball has hosted the Chinese national team's pre-season camp at the Seattle Mariners' training facility in Arizona.

"Going to America was like baseball heaven," Beijing Tigers' catcher and all-time CBL home-run leader Wang Wei said in an e-mail interview arranged by CBL vice-chairman Tom McCarthy.

"So much beautiful green grass, and such a big fitness centre! Walking into the locker room of an American professional team and seeing our names above our own stalls gave us an immediate rush of pride and energy. It put our minds onto a different platform regarding where we might be able to take baseball in China over the next few years."

Matching the competitive level of Japan and South Korea on the international stage is the immediate challenge for Lefebvre and Hurst during that time frame. And while China's poor showing at the WBC ranks as a disappointment, they still saw some positives.

LONG-TERM PROJECT

"I think our guys were a little nervous," Lefebvre said. "But dealing with pressure is part of being a professional. This was the highest level of baseball these guys have ever been exposed to. You can only improve by playing against better competition, so in that regard, this was a great experience for them.

"Developing Chinese baseball is a long-term project. This country represents the greatest untapped reservoir of athletic talent on the planet, and our goal is to uncover and develop some of that talent in order to make a respectable showing at the 2008 Olympics. But we also want to get kids playing baseball in the schoolyards."

That's also one of the goals of Major League Baseball International's Envoy Program, which has dispatched professional, college and high school coaches on four-to-eight-week instructional assignments to China and more than 50 other nations since it was started in the Netherlands in 1991.

The Envoy Program is designed to support burgeoning foreign baseball programs by providing assistance with coaching, player development and organizational assessment.

ALL AGES AND ABILITIES

During their assignments, Envoy coaches are put to work with teams of all ages and abilities and are typically tasked with everything from developing youth leagues to building a field, picking a national team or even umpiring games.

Another innovation is the MLB International Road Show, which made its first appearance in China last spring.

It's a mobile interactive fan experience, primarily designed to expose kids in developing baseball countries to the fundamentals and excitement of the game. Appearing at schools, shopping malls and sporting events, the Road Show features a batting cage and a pitching tunnel in which participants can test their skills, and a "discovery zone" where they can learn more about the game's rules, teams and history.

Since 1994 the Road Show has criss-crossed the planet, from the Czech Republic to Mexico, France to Australia and Britain to China.


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