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Jim Lefebvre

By Murray Greig

September 4, 2004

For Jim Lefebvre, the transition from baseball to “Batman” was no sweat. So it’s only fitting that the 1965 National League Rookie of the Year and former TV henchman of Frank Gorshin’s Riddler character has been charged with transforming China into the world's next great diamond power.

"Nobody has asked me about being on “Batman” for years," Lefebvre chuckled after being introduced as manager of China's national baseball team at a Beijing media conference last fall. "When I think back to my days in L.A. there are a lot of great memories…especially of the guys I played with. The off-the-field stuff was fun, too. Appearing on “Batman” as one of the Riddler's gang was one of those things that just sort of fell into my lap, and it was a real enjoyable experience."

Teaming with Dodger outfielder Al Ferrara, Lefebvre played a headhunter in a classic episode of “Gilligan’s Island,” and went on to appear in episodes of “M*A*S*H,” “Alice,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “Midnight Caller.”

Lefebvre - nicknamed "Frenchy" - joined the Dodgers in 1965 as part of a switch-hitting infield that also featured Jim Gilliam, Wes Parker and Maury Wills. He started primarily at second base and demonstrated good power, hitting .250 with a .369 slugging percentage, 69 RBI and 12 homers, the lowest number of round-trippers to lead a pennant winner since 1947.

Jim's solid defense and timely hitting earned him the league's top rookie award, and the following season, en route to a career-high 24 homers and All-Star honors, he became the first Dodger in a generation to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game, on May 7, 1966, a feat duplicated by Parker a month later. In the opener of the 1966 World Series he homered off Dave McNally, accounting for one of the two runs the Dodgers scored in the entire four game sweep by the Orioles.

Lefebvre was a fixture in the Los Angeles infield until 1972, when he appeared in only 70 games and was released after the season. He left the majors with a .251 lifetime batting average, 74 homers and 404 RBI in 922 games, batting .273 in seven World Series games.

From 1973-76 he played in Japan, then returned to the big leagues as a coach for the Dodgers, Giants and A's. He was named manager of the Seattle Mariners in 1988, and after two losing seasons he led the M's to the first winning campaign in franchise history (83-79), only to be fired after the 1991 season. He went on to abbreviated stints as field boss of the Cubs (1992-93) and Brewers (1999), compiling a managerial record of 255-280 (.476). Recently, he was a finalist for the Dodgers batting coach position which eventually went to Tim Wallach.

Jim's exposure to Asian culture during his playing days in Japan made it an easy decision to accept the job as manager of China's national team in mid-2003. "China represents the greatest untapped reservoir of baseball talent on the planet," he said. "Our goal is to uncover and develop that talent in order to make a respectable showing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics."

Assisted by fellow former major leaguer Bruce Hurst, Lefebvre guided China to unprecedented success at the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament last November. The Chinese squad survived the first round by crushing Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines by a combined score of 41-1, then defeated South Korea 6-1 in the round-robin playoffs, before losing to Japan (13-1) and Taiwan (3-1). The losses ended hopes of competing in the Athens Olympics, but Lefebvre was undaunted.

"Developing baseball in China is a long-term project," he said. "Our ultimate objective is to make it part of the culture, to get kids playing in the streets. It's happened here with basketball and it can happen with baseball. We want to develop homegrown stars, too. It's only a matter of time before Chinese baseball has its own version of Yao Ming. That's what we're aiming for."

Murray Greig is a Canadian sportswriter and columnist at China Daily in Beijing. He's the author of five books, including the best-selling “Big Bucks & Blue Pucks: An anecdotal history of the World Hockey Association.”


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