July 21, 2006
NEW YORK — Jim Lefebvre saw plenty of strange things during his days as a major league player, manager and coach. What he witnessed in the fledgling Chinese Baseball League was beyond odd.
Because when the starting pitcher took the mound, the reliever went to the bullpen and began warming up, matching him pitch for pitch. For the whole game.
"By the time you brought the guy in, he had a sore arm," Lefebvre said. "When I asked why they did it that way, they said, 'We want him to get ready.'
"I think I should've told them how our relievers do it — they chew up a bunch of sunflower seeds, spit 'em out, sit around and wait to be called," he said.
Chances are, the 60 international players that Lefebvre, career saves leader Lee Smith, Hall of Famer Rod Carew and former Boston ace Bruce Hurst instruct later this month will be a bit more advanced.
The second European Baseball Academy will be held at the Italian Olympic training center in Tirrenia from July 27 to Aug. 18. The prospects are between 15 and 19 years old, come from 13 nations in Europe and Africa and play for their national or junior national teams.
"When I first started playing, you didn't get players from everywhere," Smith said. "Puerto Rico was about it."
Said Lefebvre: "Educating the world is our goal. You hope these players take the skills and go back to their countries and help spread the game."
Finding a future major leaguer might be a bonus.
Petr Chech, an 18-year-old catcher from the Czech Republic, has already signed with Cincinnati. He'll attend the academy and later join the Reds' fall instructional program.
At last year's camp, four players signed pro contracts — the Chicago Cubs took a pitcher from Italy, Minnesota got a pitcher from the Czech Republic and Seattle left with an outfielder from the Netherlands and an infielder from Italy.
Several of the players from last summer wound up in the World Baseball Classic. Lefebvre managed the Chinese team and Hurst was its pitching coach.
Smith, a roving minor league pitching coach with San Francisco, helped the South African squad. He's looking forward to his first trip to Italy.
"I hope to see some improvement in the guys I worked with," Smith said. "I know we changed some things when I went down to South Africa."
"The first couple of games, we'd be losing and I'd see the relief pitchers and the bullpen coach and the bullpen catcher packing up early and walking across the field in the middle of the game," he said. "I played for the Cubs, and we got beat down a lot. But we never left while the game was still going."
Lefebvre played in Japan in the mid-1970s after finishing his big league career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, He later managed the Mariners, Cubs and Milwaukee. In the last three decades, the former NL Rookie of the Year and All-Star has seen interest in baseball grow overseas.
"The Internet has had a big effect," he said. "When I was outside of Shanghai and talking about the major leagues, these kids knew who Manny Ramirez and Randy Johnson were.
"These kids say they want to play the major league style. And you know what the major league style is? It's the way Americans and Koreans and Dominicans and players from Puerto Rico and Australia and all over play the game," he said.
Prospects from Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Uganda will attend the academy, run by Major League Baseball International.
The camp starts the same month that Italy won soccer's World Cup. Some of the skills that young athletes learn in that sport translate to baseball, others do not.
"Players need to be able to run, and they can do that. Throwing overhand, that doesn't come naturally. So it's something they need to work on," Lefebvre said. "But that doesn't mean the relievers have to throw every pitch that the starter does."