Swinging Away

Baray district, Kompong Thom province – The players arrived in three cars and on a few motorbikes, turning off National Road 6 and pulling up to a barracks-like dormitory next to the home field of Cambodia’s national baseball team.

Two sweaty American coaches barked at the team—two dozen guys in their 20s and early 30s—as they changed into their uniforms and made their way to the field, across the road from the Boeng Samrith resort, owned by CPP parliamentarian Nhem Thavy, president of the Cambodia Baseball Federation.

American coaches David Palese and Bill Thomas instruct Cambodia’s national baseball team during a practice in Kompong Thom province earlier this month. (Enric Catala)
American coaches David Palese and Bill Thomas instruct Cambodia’s national baseball team during a practice in Kompong Thom province earlier this month. (Enric Catala)

The coaches—David Palese and Bill Thomas—ran the crew through batting practice and fielding drills, a scene that, given the location, looked surprisingly like a professional team’s baseball practice.

“If you come out and see these guys train all day long, you see the heart, see the passion they have,” said Mr. Palese, who along with Mr. Thomas has been traveling here annually since 2005 as part of a development program funded by the U.S.’ Major League Baseball.

Based in China, the pair train baseball teams from India to Singapore, but say they have a soft spot for Cambodia.

“Dave and I, we joke around,” Mr. Thomas said. “We always poo-poo it, we say ‘God, we have to go back to Cambodia, it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s hot,’ because we don’t want anyone cutting into our action, we want to keep coming back. We love it here.”

And compared to other developing countries where baseball is also in its infancy, the interest among locals is encouraging.

“We’ve had greater numbers here then we’ve had in any country,” Mr. Thomas said. “Dave and I were here last year on a Saturday and had 150 to 160 elementary school kids, we literally had 10 different groups teaching and coaching.”

 

A batter takes a practice swing. (Enric Catala)
A batter takes a practice swing. (Enric Catala)

Just a few years ago, it seemed like things were taking a turn for the worse for baseball in Cambodia. In 2009, Patrick Hruby, then a senior writer for the U.S.-based sports media giant ESPN, traveled to Cambodia to write a profile of Joe Cook, the Cambodian-American cook who brought baseball to the country in the early 2000s.

“I thought this would be a feel-good story,” the article begins. What Mr. Hruby finds is a much more complex situation. While there is no disputing that Mr. Cook is the father of baseball in Cambodia—having collected donations, assembled a team, created a field, gathered equipment, eventually taking a team to the 2007 SEA Games in Thailand—it wasn’t that simple.

Mr. Hruby wrote that there were two sides to Mr. Cook, the charming and disarming man who made people believe that baseball had a future in Cambodia, and another man who was angry and had a habit of alienating his allies. Neighbors said Mr. Cook was a philanderer, players and employees said they hadn’t been paid them for months, he took out a life insurance policy on a brother who supposedly died but by all accounts (apart from Mr. Cook’s) was still alive.

The article also details allegations that Mr. Cook made personal use of money donated to baseball programs he was overseeing. “Telling Cook’s story could mean the end of baseball in Cambodia,” Mr. Hruby wrote.

A player on the national team waits in the field in Kompong Thom province. (Enric Catala)
A player on the national team waits in the field in Kompong Thom province. (Enric Catala)

However, if the national team’s practice earlier this month was any indication, baseball is far from finished here, thanks largely to Mr. Thavy, the ruling party lawmaker and businessman who became a fan of the sport while watching Mr. Cook coach. In 2011, Mr. Thavy hired Tony Nishimura, a Japanese coach who spent almost two decades in Ho Chi Minh City managing Vietnam’s national team, to coach the national team and become vice president of the baseball federation.

Mr. Nishimura said that Mr. Cook stepped away from the baseball federation amid the allegations of misspending and mismanagement, but he still spoke highly of the effort he put into getting baseball started in the country.

“The story back then was very delightful,” Mr. Nishimura said of Mr. Cook. “He was a Cambodian refugee, and grew up in the states, and decided to support baseball in Cambodia. Of course it was not authorized by the government or anything, because he was supporting it with his own personal earnings. So financially, it was so bad.”

Asked about his management of money donated to the development of baseball in Cambodia, Mr. Cook said this week that he did his best with what was available.

“To me the way I spent money for baseball, I did the very best and it could’ve been done better if I had better staff, better operations.” Mr. Cook said in an online message.

“But baseball is new in Cambodia, nobody knows how the leagues run, and how to organise the tournament. But the government were not helping out whatsoever. For my own fund? Yeah I spent money for baseball, but again, it could’ve been done better.”

 

Since Mr. Cook left the picture in 2011, the sport has not spread far from Kompong Thom—there are a couple youth teams who occasionally visit from neighboring Preah Vihear and Kompong Speu provinces. However, Mr. Thavy and Mr. Nishimura have big dreams for baseball.

“Our goal is to grow baseball in Cambodia, make it sustainable, to do that we have to develop players, rules, regulations, junior leagues,” Mr. Thavy said during an interview at a cafe in Phnom Penh’s Aeon Mall.

“Then you have to get the public involved,” he said. “When we have those two groups together, then I can say ‘baseball in Cambodia is growing and is sustainable.’”

National team players joke around during a break from training. (Enric Catala)
National team players joke around during a break from training. (Enric Catala)

There is plenty of room to improve. According to the ESPN article, Cambodia was beaten in all five of its games with Mr. Cook as coach during the 2007 SEA Games, losing by a combined score of 113-13.

The lawmaker hopes that the national team can build an international profile before the SEA Games comes to Cambodia in 2023, encouraging the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia to choose to include the sport on the list that will be played in the Phnom Penh games.

“I want to make sure we can win some games, whether we get medals or not, we have to win some games,” he said.

“The earliest we can make our presence known is 2019,” Mr. Thavy added. “[If] we show the Olympic Committee in 2019 and 2021 that we can [win], they will include it in the program in 2023 when Cambodia hosts the SEA Games.”

 

Since Mr. Cook left, Mr. Thavy has at the very least brought stability to the national team.

Players are paid between $120 and $180 a month, with food and accommodation covered by the federation. The dormitory rooms next to the field look like what one would expect from a bunch of young men looking after themselves: personal items and clothes are draped over beds, spilling out onto the floor.

The federation makes sure the team is properly fed, with meals consisting of rice with soup, stir fried meat and vegetables, or grilled fish. Across the road from the field is Mr. Thavy’s resort—an upscale affair situated on the shore of Boeng Samrith, or Bronze Lake—that the team uses as a meeting place.

Players take a break during a practice. (Enric Catala)
Players take a break during a practice. (Enric Catala)

The team also has gloves, bats and baseballs. “The equipment is very expensive,” Mr. Thavy said. “A glove could be $200 to $300, a bat could be $100. I’ve seen a bat that costs $300. We cannot afford that. So we need to go to donors.”

The players practice twice a day, from 9 to 11 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m., and schedule occasional games against international opponents, mostly friendly tournaments against Thailand. The team also coaches children from local schools and Christian organizations who come to training camps hosted by the federation.

Mr. Thavy, a devout Christian, said he is trying to recreate something similar to the sports ecosystem that his own children grew up with while living in Texas in the 1970s.

“I was working there and my son was involved in games, things like that. Of course, we were in areas around churches, which had enough room for baseball, football,” he said. “So they used to play after Sunday services. So when I came back [to Cambodia] in ’93, my thought was ‘why not a sport, some kind of sport that can be transferred and brought over.’”

The players on the national team, many of whom began their careers in baseball under Mr. Cook, have come to see themselves as something like missionaries for the sport.

Seng Von, a 33-year-old from Banteay Meanchey province, said he was the brother-in-law of Mr. Cook and started playing baseball with him more than a decade ago.

“In 2002 we had no equipment,” he said. “Just a baseball glove, and a bat we used to hit palm fruit with.”

A player carries bats to the team’s dormitory. (Enric Catala)
A player carries bats to the team’s dormitory. (Enric Catala)

Having played as an outfielder for the national team until 2007, Mr. Von now helps coach the team and umpire scrimmages.

Yuon Tith, 27, began playing baseball on a field that Mr. Cook set up in Kompong Chhnang province when he was in ninth grade. The second baseman’s parents weren’t thrilled with the idea of him pursuing the sport as a career, but warmed to the idea once he started making a steady salary.

“Now my parents support me and they encourage me to play this sport,” Mr. Tith said. “In the future, I want to become a coach for other teams in Cambodia.”

Mr. Cook may have left Cambodia, but it is clear that without him, the national team would not be where it is at today, and may not exist at all. Mr. Nishimura said the former manager was welcome to come back if he felt so inclined.

“We still respect him as the founder of the federation,” he said. “And if he wants to come back and help the federation, we are happy for him to do that.”

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