Chairman Mao banned the sport during China’s cultural revolution as imperialist poison. Baseball, though, is a tough game to kill.
Shouts of ‘‘wo lai!’’ (‘‘I’ve got it’’) and ‘‘bern lei!’’ (‘‘throw it home’’) echo across the practice fields of Scottsdale Community College this spring.
Dressed sharply in bright red and white uniforms with a stylish ‘‘C’’ on the chest, the Chinese national team is working out daily under the tutelage of Jim Lefebvre, the one-time scrappy Los Angeles Dodgers infielder and former major league manager whose goal is to mold a team that won’t embarrass the host country at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
‘‘They want to put a very competitive team out there, and that’s what they’re here for,’’ Lefebvre said before the 23 Chinese players — ages 21 to 27 — began a series of drills and speed work. Three Chinese coaches also are part of the group.
Lefebvre and pitching coach Bruce Hurst, a former Boston Red Sox reliever, are paid by Major League Baseball, which is anxious to expand the sport to the estimated 1.4 billion Chinese, most of whom know nothing about the game.
‘‘If we can get one of these players to the big leagues, hopefully it would create the Yao Ming effect in baseball over there,’’ Lefebvre said, referring to the NBA’s Houston Rockets center from China. ‘‘Everybody is playing basketball in China. So our objective is to develop them in everything — scouting, recruitment, selecting coaches and getting them the training and competition that they need.’’
From 9 a.m. until noon each day, the players go through skill development training — fielding, throwing, hitting. Instruments measure the speed of the ball off the bat as well as throwing strength. From 3 to 4 p.m., 1996 Olympic gold medalist and former world decathlon record holder Dan O’Brien works with them on speed and agility. At 6 p.m., they are back at the college for two hours of weight training.
The team is made up of the best players from the fledgling Chinese Baseball League, which will expand from four to six teams this season. They come from all sections of the vast country, and most took up the game around the age of nine or 10.
The best player might be Wang Wei, a 26-year-old catcher with a powerful bat and a lightning, 1.8-second throw to second. That’s in the Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez territory, Lefebvre said.
‘‘He’s got all the physical talent,’’ Lefebvre said. ‘‘He just needs to play more, because he could be a great player. He’s got tremendous power.’’
Through interpreter and team consultant Sam Kao, Wang said he began playing baseball at age 9, and wanted to be a catcher ‘‘because you get to wear all the gear.’’
Compared with other sports, Wang said, ‘‘baseball seems like an art to me, an artistic game, the thinking, the skill, everything.’’
As for playing in the major leagues, Wang smiled and said, ‘‘That’s every baseball player’s wildest dream.’’
Slick second baseman Liu Guang Biao, 27, would make a good coach, Lefebvre said. Of his trips to America, Liu said with a smile, ‘‘I really wish I could stay here.’’
Liu has seen the vast improvement in the team since Lefebvre and Hurst began coaching them.
‘‘We have more advanced training, and all of us get to experience that,’’ Liu said. ‘‘It’s something that we never had before, how you handle game situations.’’
Wang said Lefebvre ‘‘is a very good, excellent professional coach.’’
‘‘Of course he has more advanced skills to teach us,’’ Wang said, ‘‘and the knowledge of the game, and also he can teach us the culture of baseball.’’