One of the nice things about being the host country for the Olympics is that you get an automatic quota for every competition. For the 2008 Summer Games host, China, that meant fielding teams in sports the country wasn't traditionally adept in - like baseball.
The sport had been outlawed during Mao's cultural revolution, considered a luxury the country could do without. This dilemma was chronicled in "Out of Left Field: The Making of the Chinese Olympic Baseball Team," a documentary premiering this week and presented by local PBS affiliate, KAET-TV (Channel 8). The one-hour program details how the team - with help from coaches Jim Lefebvre (a former major league baseball player and manager) and Bruce Hurst (former Boston Red Sox pitcher) - progress from rookies to a competent team.
Many of their practice sessions - and thus much of the footage - took place in Scottsdale, where the facilities were more professional than the ones available in China.
"It's a great little story," says Greg Giczi, general manager of KAET. "This just happened in our backyard, why didn't we know about this?"
"Out of Left Field" executive producer and director Tom Jennings, of Los Angeles, did know about it, and had the foresight to start filming years before.
Q: What about this story appealed to you?
A: A friend of mine who is a news producer stumbled across this about four years ago. She said, "There's a really strange story going on, and I think it'd make a good documentary for you." So I went down there to a practice. Jim and Bruce were wearing the China uniforms, and everything was going through translators. I just thought, "This is a great story, this is unbelievable." These two American guys, who you wouldn't think would be international ambassadors, they love baseball, and they wanted to instill that passion in these players.
Q: This documentary is all about the "good" side of baseball. Is this a deliberate response to the fact that so much of what we hear about the sport these days is negative?
A: It was in the back of my mind because so much was going on in the last four years with baseball - various scandals and troubles and issues. I wouldn't call myself a huge baseball fan; I like the game, I certainly follow my home team in Cleveland, but there's this kind of innocence and magic to the game that takes you back. These guys had to go back to fundamentals so much, that it was kind of a reminder of those old days. Nobody was making a star turn on this team. They were all in it together. They just want to win a game because, to them, that'll be a victory.
Q: Similarly, there's been a lot of criticism of the Chinese government leading up to the Olympics, but this paints the country in a positive light, and avoids politics altogether.
A: As a journalist, it kept knocking at my brain, like, "Should I be bringing this stuff in?" I just felt like it would have been a very, very different kind of film. I didn't have the resources, and I didn't really know where I was going to go with it. For me, it would be taking kind of a step back from the task at hand. The deeper I got into the story, I said, "This is just fun."
Q: How did KAET get involved as the "presenting station"?
A: Thank God for KAET. They've been great. A friend of mine here in California went to Arizona State, and knows Greg Giczi. I was having great difficulty at the beginning of this year selling this film. ESPN, where I know some people, said, "We don't want your documentary, but we'll buy your footage."
Q: Are you going to be rooting for the Chinese national team at the Olympics?
A: I'm going to be the one guy in the United States cheering really hard for the Chinese baseball team. It's a perfect underdog story. They're at home, in front of their family and friends, playing a game that no one there understands. I hope to God they win a game. It's the "Cool Runnings" of the 2008 games.