Bat’s Right!

Source: Global Times
June 12, 2010

Play ball!
When the Chinese softball team bats at the International Softball Federation’s 12th Women’s World Championship in Venezuela this summer it will have a recognizable fan at hand. The team’s former coach, Michael Bastian is flying to Caracas for the 10-day competition to offer encouragement to a team he prepared for the Beijing Olympics.

Bastian, who first came to China in 2003 as a coach on the US team, reckons China stands a good chance at the games, which start on June 23. His encouragement will be vital given his old charge will be up against top seeds Japan and the US. But the Chinese women are well placed, partly due to their coaching by Bastian, who revolutionized the ball methods of a Chinese side known for discipline but lacking creative thinking.

A leading coach of the game since he started out coaching his hometown team in Sacramento, California Bastian today runs the Fastpitch School (TFS), an academy training softball players and coaches and scouts talents for American teams.

Bastian brimmed with a near messianic enthusiasm for his game when we talked while he was in Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series Championship Series. During the phone call he explained how his 2005-2008 coaching time in China stirred a love affair with the country’s culture and people in the tall, hulking Californian’s heart.

His appointment to the Chinese role didn’t come without animosity from the softball fraternity in the US, which accused him of betraying his former comrades. Being ostracized hasn’t affected

Bastian who after a lifetime spent conducting clinics and symposiums for softball teams across the world has clearly taken up the challenge of growing the game in China. Cultivating the game here is about more than sport: “I see it also as a way to improve understanding between locals and the outside world.”

Coaching the Chinese team was an honor, said Bastian, who set up the Chinese Softball Foundation (CSF) to give back. The Foundation assists Chinese softball players in getting a scholarship at American softball oriented colleges. The organization draws on generous sponsorship from Jim Easton, founder of the sports equipment maker that bears his name. So far the Foundation has assisted five local players move to US colleges on softball scholarships – the students do a normal academic program but also train after classes.

The CSF currently watches over three student-athletes attending college in the US. Chang Xiaoxue is currently attending Utah State University, located in Logan, Utah; while Xing Lu and Chenxi Jiao are both attending Highland Community College, located in Highland Kansas.

Bastian spent a good part of April with each of the three current CSF student-athletes in the US, travelling from Logan campus of Utah State University to watch the progress of Chang Xiaoxue before spending a weekend with Chenxi Jiao and Xing Lu in Highland, Kansas.

Bastian spotted Chang’s talent while coaching the national team in Beijing. He praises her progress in the US, and the cross-cultural journey she’s taken. On the Chinese Softball Federation’s website he wrote “America is still a place where dreams come true for little girls from around the world! Congratulations to Chang Xiaoxue and her family!”

He hopes that players who choose to play softball on US campuses will return to China to share knowledge and grow the game here. Chinese players learn much, says Bastian, but face a culture shock, not least in how the game is played in the US. Whereas coaches are impressed by the discipline and respect of Chinese players they also remark on their inability to think quickly and make tactical decisions. “The girls tell me how they find the game faster and much more strategic.”

Making dreams come true hasn’t been without its problems. While he’s worked well with the state-approved Chinese Softball Association so far – they supported him bringing players to the US – he’s also worried that they see his Foundation as “competition.” That’s not the case, he stressed. “We all just want to grow the sport in China.”

Chinese softball faces a bleak financial future since state funding was axed after the sport’s exclusion from the 2012 Olympics. The cash cut-off has him “scared” said Bastian. But he’s encouraged by the efforts of Major League Baseball – any encouragement of ‘ball and bat’ games in china is good news for softball here, he believed.

There’s also of course help at hand from the Chinese Softball Foundation. Bastian has kept close tabs on China, going back in China March 2009 for the National Games. There’ll be plenty willing to meet him when he visits Beijing in August. That’ll be just in time to give the national team encouragement for their next test, the Asian Games in Guangzhou.

Bastian’s legacy could be far more significant. If he succeeds in popularizing softball in China and neighboring countries the sport stands a good chance of being reinstated in the Olympic Games. International softball authorities have identified Europe and Africa as priorities for development of the sport in order to win over local Olympics officials. The sport retains a “minor” following in Europe compared to soccer, conceded Bastian. The game’s presence in Africa is even more tenuous: During his time in Cameroon as a coach Bastian helped build the country’s first softball field.

At a daily Utah State training session, Chang Xiaoxue concentrates hard till she hears the “thwack!” of metal on rubber ball. Decked out in baseball-style stirrup socks and spiked shoes, Chang is thousands of miles from home following her dream and her favorite sport. Softball survives in China, thanks (as so often in Chinese team sport) to the talents of the national women’s side. And to the persistence of an energetic coach and friend, Michael Bastian. He has a message for his old friends in China: “I want to continue to be a part of your life and continue to help you. I will never forget you!”