Chairman Mao banned the sport during China's cultural revolution as imperialist poison. Baseball, though, is a tough game to kill.
Dressed sharply in bright red and white uniforms with a stylish "C" on the chest, the Chinese national team is working out daily at Scottsdale Community College this spring 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 pitcher, 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. "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 9am 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 3pm to 4pm, 1996 Olympic gold medalist and former world decathlon record holder Dan O'Brien works with them on speed and agility. At 6pm, 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 9 or 10.
Baseball resurfaced in China 20 or so years ago, but the country is far behind Asian neighbors Japan, South Korea and Taiwan at the international level.
As the host country of the Olympics, China automatically qualifies for the baseball competition. Even so, China competed in the Olympic qualifying tournament two years ago in Sapporo, Japan.
Lefebvre's Chinese team dominated ``B'' pool foes Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines.
"But then we went got in the `A' pool with the big boys," Lefebvre said. "We didn't win any games, but we played very, very well."
The team is in its third annual six-week trip to Arizona. Later this year, China will attempt to qualify for the world championships, to be held in Holland. Lefebvre runs a camp in Italy that draws teams from 18 countries shortly before the world competition, and China will be among them.
Lefebvre and Hurst took over the Chinese team three years ago, and at first the players were a bit wary of their American teachers.
"There was a trust level we had to overcome," Hurst said. "We got that. I think at the Sapporo games they realized we were on their side, that we wanted to make them better."
Overall, the experience has been rewarding.
"They're fantastic. They're like sponges," Hurst said. "As far as understanding the concepts of baseball as a pitching coach, it's unbelievable. To a man, they all get it. They all understand what you're trying to say. You're not working with a dumb athlete. You're working with a very smart athlete."