Baribor district, Kompong Chhnang province – America’s national pastime, a chef’s obsession, cross-cultural relations and an international marketing scheme all came sliding together head-first Friday afternoon on a ball field carved from a rice paddy in a remote Cambodian village.
And in the end, some history was made.
It was amid much festivity, speechmaking and the occasional water buffalo wandering through the outfield that Cambodia’s first and only baseball diamond was officially opened on behalf of Bud Selig, commissioner of the US sports association Major League Baseball.
Representatives of the US Embassy, the National Olympic Committee and MLB stood alongside bemused locals in Porpel commune’s Kraing Khmer village as dozens of boxes of gleaming, new baseball equipment were donated to the youth of this farming village.
“Baseball unites us,” said Jim Small, vice president of market development for MLB, in his remarks. “Today is about hope and happiness and the joy of playing the greatest game on Earth.”
Such uniquely US sentiment was plentiful at the event designed for the village’s roughly 70 ball-playing boys and girls ranging from 6 to 20 years old. It featured a clinic on baseball fundamentals provided by three collegiate coaches from the US, and the first-ever exhibition game played between two entirely Cambodian teams.
As part of its foreign outreach program, MLB officials extended their commitment to continue providing resources and instruction to the fledgling program. “We don’t think of baseball as an entirely US sport anymore,” said Small, who was flown from Tokyo to attend the event. “We think of it as an international sport.”
But the day’s events raised as many questions as they did expectations. For locals, the affair was as much an oddity as it was philanthropy.
“It is a funny sport. I have never watched it and I don’t understand,” said Kemm Samnang, a 41-year-old farmer. “But I like it. I like watching the players running…. I also want to play, but I am too old.”
Baseball found its way to the undeveloped backwoods of Baribor district through the efforts of Cambodian-American Joe Cook. The 35-year-old, whose Khmer name is Joeurt Puk, was relocated in the US state of Tennessee after spending four years in refugee camps in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines.
“My mother was tortured by the Khmer Rouge,” Cook said. “I escaped in 1978 when I was 12 years old. I had a sponsor who brought me to Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was like a dream.”
In the US, Cook developed what he calls “a love and passion for baseball.” Like many immigrants, he participated in the sport to assimilate to a vastly different culture.
“I was separated from my sister during the war,” said Cook, who is a chef at a Japanese restaurant in the US state of Alabama and the father of two children. “In 2002 we found each other on the Internet and I came to Phnom Penh to see her. I asked her where she wanted to live and she said Baribor.”
Since then, Cook has been using his own funds to collect school supplies and baseball equipment for the area’s young people.
“This is going to be huge for these kids,” said Cook. “They need hope. They have no shoes, no flip-flops, sometimes they don’t even have clothes to wear. But when they come out here we give them something to play with. This is magical. It’s a miracle to them.”
Cook isn’t worried about the isolated location of his grass roots baseball movement. And he’s hardly embarrassed about the makeshift dirt diamond with a chain-link backstop, a pot-holed pitcher’s mound and motorbike trails crisscrossing the infield.
“Cambodia’s Cooperstown is Baribor,” said Cook, referring to the mythical birthplace of baseball in the US and the site of the MLB Hall of Fame. “In the US, baseball didn’t grow up in the capital; it started in the country. In Cambodia, it started in a rice paddy. One day there’s going to be a little Cambodian guy playing shortstop for the Atlanta Braves.”
But others, including Meas Sarin, secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, were more reserved with their enthusiasm. After all, Cook has only spent two weeks in Cambodia since first returning in 2002. He leaves again on Aug 10, entrusting the organization and equipment to his 30-member staff.
“The sport will evolve depending on money and time,” Meas Sarin said Friday. “We cannot include it in the country’s sports yet. We lack both human resources and equipment. We are not hopeful yet. We need to understand that it takes five to 10 years for a sport to reach an international standard.”
Baseball, a US cultural export since the end of the 19th century, is a multimillion dollar industry, complete with merchandising, television contracts and marketing plans. Nurturing newcomers—and new markets—to the sport is good for business.
“If baseball can work in Latin America and Africa, why can’t it work here?” said Small, whose MLB International has helped organize baseball programs in more than 100 nations. “As long as Joe’s around and he’s taking the resources and using them correctly, we’ll be there for him.”
In parts of Latin America, where the sport is played with near-religious fervor, baseball has been a way out of poverty for its elite players. The sport came to Asia in 1895 when stranded soldiers introduced it in the Philippines. Baseball is much-loved in Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
Still, it is unmistakably American. As the international opinion of the US has plummeted in recent years, baseball has had to stand on its own merits and relinquish its reputation as a paragon of US culture.
“When we first started doing this we really put the American part at the forefront,” said Rick Dell, MLB’s coordinator for game development in Asia and the Pacific. “Now we kind of put that at the back.