Jim Lefebvre certainly gets around.
He's been a National League Rookie of the Year; he's been an evil henchman for a guy in a green leotard; he's played and coached professional baseball in Japan; he's managed Major League Baseball clubs; he's been a headhunter on "Gilligan's Island."
A colorful career, to be sure, but he's not done just yet. Lefebvre is currently the man in charge of China's national baseball team. It is his job to get the host nation playing a respectable brand of baseball ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But with just 270 days left before the Games begin, it seems like his team sometimes takes two steps forward and then one big one back.
"No, we're close but we're not there yet," said Lefebvre when asked if the team was where he was hoping it would be at this stage. "Pitching is the name of the game at any level---big leagues, Japanese leagues, high school, whatever, it all comes down to pitching. We need more speed, we need better pitching, so we still have a ways to go."
This was made painfully clear when his club was completely overwhelmed Friday at Tokyo Dome, losing 13-0 to South Korean champions SK Wyverns in the Konami Cup Asia Series. This came a day after a 9-5 loss at the hands of Taiwan's Uni-President Lions, a game the Chinese were winning until they gave up six runs in the seventh inning.
"If you're going to play with the big boys, you have to throw strikes," Lefebvre said. "The truth is we look good one day, bad the next. You've gotta be consistent in this game."
Lefebvre, a fun-loving 65-year-old California native, was approached about managing China's national team by Sandy Alderson of the MLB commissioner's office prior to the Athens Olympics in 2004. He says leading the team has been an interesting experience for both himself and pitching coach Bruce Hurst. Former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin has also joined the team as a bench coach, working primarily on defense.
"Obviously it hasn't always been a smooth ride and we've had some lumps along the line dealing with the different culture, the level of competition, where they want to go, what they want to do," said Lefebvre, the NL Rookie of the Year in 1965 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. "It's been an up-and-down road."
For Lefebvre, who managed three clubs in the bigs (the Mariners, Cubs and Brewers) and who also played and coached here with the Lotte Orions in the 1970s, this job is about more than just saving a little face for the host nation next summer.
"The No. 1 motivation for MLB is to grow baseball in China," Lefebvre said. "It's not all about the Olympics, although the Olympics are very important to the Chinese and we're putting a huge emphasis on that, but also it's about what's going to go on after the Olympics."
Lefebvre says Major League Baseball is hoping to grow in popularity in China the way the NBA has, and to do that they need one thing.
"I'll mention one name and you'll know exactly where MLB is coming from: 'Yao Ming,'" said Lefebvre. "When he made the NBA he just ignited interest in the sport in the country and everyone started playing basketball. The interest in basketball is phenomenal in China because of one man making the NBA. We're looking for one player that's going to give us that Yao Ming effect in baseball."
So far, says Lefebvre, they're still looking, although he sees a few kids coming up in the system who could make the leap "if they continue to develop, get the opportunity to go to the States and play in the minors, get their 500, 600 at-bats, get their innings."
But for now, Lefebvre bemoans the lack of games his team plays--about 30 a year compared to 162 in MLB and 144 in NPB--and the lack of a real baseball culture in the world's most populous nation.
"Baseball is still a low-level sport (in China), not nationally recognized. People just don't understand the game, they don't understand anything about it. They have no sense of history, who's who."
Too bad, since they might be interested to know that the man running their baseball team was once part of the Riddler's crew on the original "Batman" TV series in the 1960s. A fan of the Dodgers was a casting director in Los Angeles, getting Lefebvre several small roles on shows like "Gilligan's Island" and "M*A*S*H" in the offseason.
When asked which was a tougher job, preparing China for the Olympics or trying to outwit the Caped Crusader, Lefebvre doesn't hesitate.
"My acting career was soon forgotten, but China is a real challenge for all of us, it's an ongoing thing from game to game, from moment to moment," he said. "There's no question that this challenge in China surpasses anything that happened in my acting career."
(IHT/Asahi: November 10,2007)