An expat coach’s Olympic game plan

The American coach of China’s softball team fields controversies over loyalty, patriotism, and, oh yes, the sport itself.

By , Correspondent

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    Home team: Michael Bastian (center), a former Ohio State coach, joined the coaching staff of the Chinese National Softball Team in 2005. Since then, both sides have questioned his loyalty, but Mr. Bastian says that China has received him warmly.
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Conjure up an image of a typical softball coach and it likely resembles Michael Bastian: a bear of a man at 6-foot-2, with Popeye forearms, a respectable paunch, and the earnest manner of a red-blooded Midwesterner.

The Midwestern part might be a stretch, as the former Ohio State coach actually hails from Sacramento. But it’s all the same to the Chinese women in his dugout – as long as he brings along that coveted American expertise, and leaves his allegiance to his home country at the border.

In 2005, his first year on the coaching staff of the Chinese National Softball Team, “I’d be asked questions all the time about my loyalty to USA Softball and who I was working for,” says Mr. Bastian. “ ‘Don’t think of me as a foreign coach,’ I’d tell them. ‘I’m a Chinese coach.’ I even learned how to whistle and sing the Chinese national anthem to gain their trust.”

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It’s a funny image, the 250-pound Caucasian belting out “March of the Volunteers” with a team of diminutive Chinese nationals. But Bastian’s attempts to “act Chinese” ended right there.

For the most part, he played the brash American to the hilt – fighting with umpires and staring down opposing teams in decidedly un-Chinese behavior. Bastian recalls one of the first times he faced the Japanese team as a member of China’s coaching staff. Before the game, the Japanese players lined up on the foul line right in front of the Chinese dugout and started taunting his team.

“They had these chants that were meant to intimidate,” says Bastian, “that roughly translated to, ‘We’re aggressive, we’re in control, we are the leader.’ I walked out onto the field and laughed, and looked at one of the Japanese girls, like, ‘What does that mean? That doesn’t scare me.’ The Chinese leaders were embarrassed because I wasn’t ‘acting Chinese’ ... but in reality, they all loved it, because I was fighting for them.”

And that, Bastian continues, became just another part of his job: “As time went on, whenever there was a disagreement with an umpire, or an opponent was being too aggressive, it was always, ‘Michael, go fight!’ I became kind of the warrior for the team.”

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Bastian is part of a major push by the Chinese to win as many gold medals as they can as this year’s Olympic host. In hopes of coming out on top, the isolated country has swallowed its nationalist pride and brought in outside talent wherever needed. Aside from Bastian, a Lithuanian coaches men’s basketball; a Serbian oversees men’s soccer; and synchronized swimming is being headed by a woman from Japan, historically China’s greatest enemy.

For the most part, the reception has been warm; like a spurned lover, it’s the country left behind that feels hurt. Synchronized-swimming coach Masayo Imura (often referred to as the “godmother” of the sport) was labeled a traitor by many Japanese colleagues and fans when she took the China job.

Bastian has a similar story.

“When I joined up with China,” he says, “a USA Softball leader told me, ‘Michael, you will never be allowed to coach a USA national team in the future.’ I was blackballed. People called me a traitor.”

What hurt most for Bastian was the wedge it put between him and the American women he had coached for so many years. Bastian recalls of one player, “I’d trained her for eight, 10 years. I’m a part of her family, and she was
like, ‘You gotta understand that you’re the enemy now, and the way I play the game is that I hate my enemy, so when we walk on the field and you’re representing China, it can’t be the same.’ ”

Bastian claims that away from the field, he and this player are on good terms, but with other American players, the enmity goes further. “At the hotels or running into each other at airports,” says Bastian, “they treated me like they didn’t know me. It really hurt, because some of these people I’ve had relationships with for 10, 15, 20 years, and all of a sudden, now, because I’m helping softball grow and develop in China, they treated me like they didn’t even know who I was.”

Ronnie Isham, Director of National Teams for USA Softball, doesn’t deny that his organization takes a dim view of American coaches working with foreign countries, and even admits that such an act could be considered treasonous.

“It’s a lot lower-level than going to war,” Mr. Isham says in an east-Texas drawl. “But when you’re trying to develop a program and a team and an individual to be an elite athlete and contend for a gold medal, and you have somebody who’s your neighbor working with a foreign country to do the same thing, then yes, it is somewhat of a betrayal.”

When asked specifically about whether Bastian’s China experience will help him or hurt him in getting a position with a USA national team in the future, Isham professes an open mind. “I won’t say that it hurts him,” he says, but then, more emphatically, “I won’t say it helps him, either.”

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With China ranked 4th in the world, there’s a decent chance the Olympics will pit Bastian directly against the US. “My dream is to have China play the US in the gold-medal game,” Bastian admits. And as to where his loyalties would lie? The best word he can use to describe his feelings is “conflicted”: “It’s a very interesting feeling, because I’m a proud American, I love America, I love USA Softball, but –”

That “but” is the fact that the group that suffers most from America’s hoarding of coaching talent could be the sport itself: The International Olympic Committee has voted softball and baseball out of future Olympics, finding them too exclusively American for the world stage.

“This is the reason I’m doing what I’m doing,” claims Bastian, who believes softball and baseball would remain Olympic sports if American coaches were more willing to act as ambassadors for the game. Elsewhere, he says, in other major sports, national-team coaches don’t hesitate to move among various countries’ teams.

“Your number one job, if you’re a USA Softball coach, is to win a gold medal,” Bastian adds. “If you don’t have anyone to play against, there’s no honor, there’s no glory, and ... no gold medal to win in 2012. The bottom line is: We need to go out and teach the rest of the world how to play the game, or, internationally, we’re not gonna have a game to play at all.”

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