When the Chinese baseball team takes the field as the host nation at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, St. George native Bruce Hurst can take satisfaction in his four-year involvement in getting the Chinese pitchers up to speed literally and figuratively.
The former Major League pitcher, who starred for nine seasons with the Boston Red Sox before concluding his career with the San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies and Texas Rangers, served as the Chinese national team's pitching coach and assistant to national team manager Jim Lefebre from 2003 to 2007.
It was a four-year period laced with mixed emotions and successes, which ended when he and Lefebre himself a former MLB player, coach and manager parted company over coaching practices and philosophies.
"Jim and I had a difference of opinion in developing pitchers. They needed a new voice, a new set of eyes and that's not all bad," said Hurst, adding "especially now, I'm a little sad I made some great friends, especially with the kids."
His "kids" are the Chinese national team players particularly the pitchers and the ones he'll be watching with close interest during the Summer Games.
You remember Hurst, the speed-changing southpaw who formed a formidable one-two punch with Red Sox teammate Roger Clemens and went 33-9 from 1986 to 1988, including a franchise second-best 56 career Fenway Park victories. He was set to be named World Series MVP in 1986 before an improbable New York Mets rally in the ninth inning of Game 6 resulted in a seven-game Series title for the Mets.
He now splits his time between his Gilbert, Ariz., home, his new job with the Red Sox as a special instructor for player development and his involvement with MLB International.
In fact, it was the tie with the latter that took him to China in the first place.
When Chinese baseball officials contacted their MLB International counterparts about possible coaching candidates interested in helping the '08 Olympics host enhance its national-team program, Lefebre and Hurst happened to be standing side-by-side when the call came. Together, they were Beijing-bound five years before the start of the Summer Games.
The first couple of years, Hurst would arrive in China several weeks before significant baseball competitions and tournaments, train with the team for four or five weeks and then return to the United States as the Chinese players returned to their pro teams.
After that, the involvement became more long term and full time, trying to keep the national team together longer and including trips to the United States to play in the Instructional and Arizona leagues last spring. The U.S. tour included playing several games against Dixie State in St. George ironically on the Dixie State field that bears Bruce Hurst's name.
His first impression of the national team's pitchers upon arrival in China?
"Not a lot of arm strength, not a lot of speed," he recalled. "They had some body awareness and, at first glance, reasonably clean mechanics initially, although video work showed more flaws. And none were 100 percent healthy."
The latter was due to overuse, the result of Chinese coaching methods in practice and games, using the pitchers "pretty aggressively," Hurst said. In practice, it was not uncommon for a young pitcher to throw 300 pitches in bullpen work three to four times a week, he said, or having potential relievers throw pitch-for-pitch with the starters during a game.
"It takes its toll, and then they use the best pitchers to pitch the whole game," said Hurst, adding that in games of major importance, the Chinese coaches would "use top-tier guys exclusively, at the expense of developing the second tier."
Hurst helped tweak and redirect coaching practices with the Chinese team, such as their workload. A philosophy of "less can be more" was instilled, in which longer practices not focusing on pitching speed were replaced with quicker, crisper workouts geared toward shorter but high-intensity stretches.
At times, the coaching, practicing and involvement paid off for China, which for the longest time played a distant fourth to Asian opponents Japan, Korea and Chinese Taipei.
At the 2005 Asian Games, China upset a good but young Korean team en route to an unexpected bronze medal. "It was the first time since we were together when the Chinese team had the Chinese media calling them to ask what had happened," Hurst said. "It was a big deal for them."
The next year, reality returned in the form of the 2006 World Baseball Classic, with China unable to advance out of the first round against an Asian opponent.
But now comes the Summer Games, with all eyes and attention focused on China.
Hurst will watch with interest to see what magic Lefebre can do with the host team. He calls Lefebre an "animated, high-intensity" individual, with whom he remains on amicable terms despite their differences and Hurst's departure.
During the Olympics, Hurst will reflect on players' pride being on their national team.
"It's a pretty cool event for them to represent their country," he said, noting their affinity for their national anthem. "They love it and sing it. It's pretty tender for them."
He'll remember with fondness Madame Shen Wei, the secretary general for Chinese baseball who as the government liaison for the sport was "one of the toughest ladies" Hurst has known but also showed a tender side to the players and often "mothered them."
And then there's Yi Shing, a Chinese baseball assistant coach who learned English by listening to BeeGees music and watched nonstop American baseball movies like the Drew Barrymore/Jimmy Fallon comedy "Fever Pitch" in hopes of learning the nuances of the game.
"Coach Yi is one of the greatest human beings he has a great heart and is very compassionate," Hurst said. "And he loves the game. He'll watch ("Fever Pitch") over and over and over again and ask what this meant and what that meant."
But the interest keeps going back to his "kids," particularly his former cadre of pitchers, with whom he stays in contact with via e-mail.
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