- 15 Aug 08, 03:29 PM
For students of international relations, secret agents and troublemakers, there really was only one place to be in Beijing on Friday and that was Wukesong's baseball venue.
Opening the day's action on Field One was the game between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China, or Chinese Taipei as it is known during the Games, or Taiwan as it is known everywhere else.
The fixtures computer can be a cheeky monkey sometimes, can't it?
That followed over 20 years of on-off war for control of China. Today's game of grown-up rounders was played by nations still legally at war.
Such nastiness seemed a world away at Wukesong, though. With the sun beating down, the (mainly Taiwanese) crowd in good spirits and the game locked at 3-3 after nine innings, this was no occasion for discussing such matters as who really is the legitimate government of China.
Far more concerning was what happened when the game reached its second extra inning, the 11th.
I thought I must have nodded off when I looked up from my computer to see Chien-Ming Chang at bat with Taiwanese runners on first and second.
How on earth did they get there? Have I missed a couple of batters? Was that Genghis Khan vodka in Suzie Wong's really necessary?
China managed to get themselves out of that jam without conceding a run.
And then it happened all over again. There I was scribbling some notes when I looked up to see Chinese runners already on first and second.
It was at this point I realised the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) had been tinkering with the rules.
Having been voted out of the Olympic party with its cuddly cousin softball in 2005, baseball is in a hurry to leave.
Any game that reaches the 11th inning in Beijing will most probably end there as runs are practically guaranteed. Runners are placed on first and second and the coach can restart his batting line-up to get his best hitters at the plate.
Perhaps the biggest surprise here was that China and Taiwan failed to make the most of this helping hand in the 11th. They made up for it in the 12th, though.
First, Taiwan scored four runs to take a 7-3 lead and send their supporters into a thunderstix-banging frenzy.
They weren't so noisy 10 minutes later when my old friend Chien-Ming Chang's throw from right field hit a team-mate (who should really have been paying attention) and allowed a seventh and eighth Chinese run to be scored, ending the game.
Cue wild celebrations from the Chinese team.
Lefebvre, a former player and manager in Major League Baseball, was beside himself.
"I've played in a World Series and a lot of great games but today was the most exciting I've ever been involved in," he said.
"Today's victory is huge for China."
Not just Chinese baseball. China.
"It's one of those victories that we can look back at in time and say 'this really turned the programme around'," he added.
Whether Lefebvre is right about this win lighting a fire under Chinese baseball is debatable. He and his team are only really here because the hosts wanted to compete in every event at their Games.
China has no pedigree in the sport and with baseball joining tug-of-war and pigeon shooting as ex-Olympic events it is difficult to see a future for it in the People's Republic.
The key factor will not be this win, or any other success Lefebvre's charges achieve in this tournament, it will be in persuading the IOC to reinstate the sport as an Olympic event in time for the 2016 Games.
That vote takes place in Copenhagen in 2009 and Lefebvre can already count on the support of one IOC member, Cuba's Reynaldo Gonzalez Lopez.
Baseball is a banker for communist Cuba. The Caribbean island has won three of the four Olympic baseball competitions and come second in the other. Anything other than a fourth gold here would be a surprise.
But then that could be it. The IOC appears to have fallen out of love with a sport it only introduced in 1992 and baseball has not done much to win that affection back.
No MLB franchise has allowed any of its players to take part in the Games, depriving the US team of any real chance of success and numerous other countries of their best players.
It is a stance that typifies the home of baseball's attitude towards the international game. America's gold-medal performance in 2000 is a rare success on the global stage.
So it was hardly surprising when they lost to Cuba here. What was surprising was that this game also went to 11 innings after a 3-3 tie in regulation.
The Cubans made the most of the two-man head start and scored two runs with a single to right field. Needing two of their own to prolong the game the US could only find one, giving the Cubans a 5-4 win.
But the game's main talking point was not another American defeat to a country they continue to impose sanctions on, although that was mentioned, it was the US coach Davey Johnson's claim that Pedro Luis Lazo intentionally hit Jayson Nix with a fastball during that deciding 11th inning.
"The only thing I'm concerned about is how the game ended," said Johnson.
"I lost my second baseman when the pitcher threw the ball at his head. I don't see any place for that in baseball. I respect the way Cuba plays baseball but I don't like losing players.
"I'm a proponent of hardball in baseball but not in favour of throwing at a guy who was squared around to sacrifice bunt. No game of baseball is worth that."
Johnson, whose team has now lost two of its three games in Beijing, was right about that but completely wrong about the incident. The ball flew up off Nix's bat into his face.
Delighted with the win against their counter-revolutionary rivals, Cuban coach Antonio Pacheco was far from happy about Johnson's comments.
"I think that shows a lack of respect on the part of the US coach," he said. "My players are incapable of doing something like that."
I'm not so sure about that - Lazo, seeking a third Olympic gold, has a roguish glint in his eye - but this was clearly an accident.
Still, it did at least prove there is a bit of life left in Olympic baseball and showed once more just how important famous bilateral rivalries are in a multi-sport, multi-national event.
The shame for Cuba, of course, is that after Beijing it is going to have to find another way of tweaking Uncle Sam's nose on a sports field.
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