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China puts Classic in perspective

Lefebvre sees tournament as 'stepping stone' for improvement

"I think I can bring out my best by playing against them," said Chinese right-handed pitcher Kun Chen of Team Japan on Monday. (Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)

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TOKYO -- A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.

China manager Jim Lefebvre didn't have the proverb in mind when he and his team left China for Scottsdale, Ariz., to train for the World Baseball Classic, and he still probably didn't think of it when the Chinese stepped off the plane in Tokyo.

But ask him the kind of journey his squad has made leading up to the Classic, and he will tell you it is beyond description. And it is ongoing.

"People don't expect much from us, but the most important thing is to go out and play hard and enjoy the experience," Lefebvre said on Monday. "This is the first time our players have been on the field with such experienced players. You just go out and do the best you can."

China faces an uphill battle to make it out of Pool A, but the Classic is just another part of the journey that Lefebvre's squad began when he took over the program in 2002, building toward the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

"We just want to play the game hard and play the game right," Lefebvre said. "The important thing is we are setting our sights on getting better and better."

And his players can see just how good it could become this weekend against Japan and Korea in the Classic.

"This is a great stepping stone for us," Lefebvre said. "We're playing against the best in the world, so we will know exactly what we need to do. We still need to get bigger and stonger."

China shortstop Yufeng Zhang has a vision of a China that loves baseball as much as he does.

"Two days again, I was watching the Turin Olympics on TV," he said. "China did pretty well on the ice and snow, but we were not always good. In China, baseball is not popular yet. If we make a big effort, I think things will change in 2008.

"Chinese baseball will one day be as popular as the game in Japan. This is one of my dreams." But first, China will have to find some way to compete against Japan. "Japan is a great team," pitcher Kun Chen said. "I would like to learn from the way they play the game. I think I can bring out my best by playing against them."

Being on the same field as Ichiro Suzuki and the rest of Japan's stars on Friday will be special for Zhang as well.

"I idolize them," he said of the Japanese players. "They all have good parts, not just the pitchers. They have talent and offensive ability. I want them to bring their best so I can bring out my best."

Stephen Ellsesser is a reporter for The Japan Times and a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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