Home > Other Sports, Sport News > Grassroots baseball gives Cambodian youngsters big dreams

Grassroots baseball gives Cambodian youngsters big dreams

By Terry McCoy
FOR THE PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW

Monday, January 10, 2011

Learning about technique
Terry McCoy | For the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
KAMPONG
THOM, Cambodia — Out in the flat plains of central Cambodia, an
unmistakable sound rises above a din of screaming motorcycles and
grunting water buffaloes.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
To Chun Heng, 16, the sound carries something exotic and addicting.
It’s hard to explain, he says underneath his stilted wooden hut, firing
another fastball at a brick retaining wall and gloving the ricochet. Thwack!
That’s what makes baseball, at its purest, beautiful to Chun. No
thinking required: throw, catch, hit, run. In these moments he can
forget that he’s bad at school, that he sleeps on a wooden floor, that
he has no real prospects for success.
Baseball is baseball, even in rural Cambodia — where despite little
American influence, crushing heat and a cultural apathy toward most
things new or foreign, America’s pastime has forged into the
countryside. Since 2005, four baseball fields have sprouted in places
that once were rice paddies, sparking a smattering of grassroots
baseball programs across the provinces.
Indeed, if you build it, they will come.
Preparing to play
Terry McCoy | For the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
So it went on a recent Saturday at a rural high school in Kampong
Thom province miles from Cambodia’s newest professional-sized park.
More than 30 seventh-grade students gathered to make sense of this
strange game of bats, balls, rubber plate things and … batter’s
helmets? About 10 Khmer die each day in motorcycle accidents —
frequently without helmets — but the danger posed by rubber balls at
this practice had every black-haired head under a helmet.
The students played until dusk, spilling English baseball vernacular into strings of Khmer.
Far removed from the simple joy at this practice, however, complications abound.
With the exception of some Latin American countries, baseball
doesn’t fit the developing world. That’s because the game necessitates
loads of stuff — “So much equipment! So much equipment!” gasped one
Khmer coach — and baseball’s American vibe doesn’t exactly groove with
places such as Cambodia. Hot dogs would be an unusual side to a bowl of
rice.
The best gauge of a grassroots baseball program is whether it
produces professional talent, said Jim Small, vice president of Major
League Baseball Asia. Results, in that case, aren’t great. The league
invested in 31 developing countries since 2005, but of them only Panama
and Colombia sent a player to a recent big league roster, MLB records
show.
“What’s the end game? Are we going to get a Major League player from
Cambodia? No, probably not,” Small said, adding that $100,000 in
resources went to Cambodia. “But I’ve seen the difference this game
makes for these kids, and we’re going to keep doing it. I don’t know if
baseball’s going to catch on or be wildly popular … but it’s the
right thing to do.”
There’s one more hitch. Few care or know about the sport here,
according to interviews with players, coaches, villagers and baseball
park developers.
Televisions broadcast soccer or boxing, but baseball? “Oh,” one man said, “you must mean cricket.”
“In Cambodia, no one pays attention to baseball,” said So Pisot, who
teaches Khmer literature at a high school near Kampong Thom’s baseball
field. “People don’t give any value to it here. We don’t have the
resources for baseball.”
Judging from the scoreboard, the Cambodia national baseball effort
needs more than just additional resources. At its first international
showing in the Southeast Asian Games three years ago in Thailand, teams
from Burma and Indonesia drubbed the Khmer squad in five games by a
combined score of 88-8. Results have improved little since.
So if Cambodia is too poor for baseball, there’s little interest,
and the entire concept of winning at the sport is as foreign as New
York City, how is it that baseball is growing in such a country?
Reports of the traction might be inflated, said Elaine Negroponte,
who initiated a grassroots baseball program in 2005 in a remote
northern province. The game was imported: returned refugees brought it
in, or Negroponte and other Americans bolstered interest in rural areas.
Baseball succeeded in other Asian countries, notably Japan and
Taiwan, because the sport grew organically, later “reflecting” the
national identity, according to research published by the United States
Sports Academy. The sport achieved this through global exposure,
government support and private-sector financing.
Although Cambodia isn’t in the same ballpark, the sport has
opportunity here, some baseball activists maintain.They say only one
thing needs to happen.
“The Dominican Republic has all these people who’ve made a fortune
at baseball, and if there was just one Khmer who got on a team and made
a fortune, everyone would want to do it,” Negroponte said. “They’d be
ripping them out of school and sending them to baseball camp.”
So every night at 5 o’clock, Chun Heng rockets pitch after pitch at
a crumbling brick wall amid chickens, dreaming of what boys in the
United States dream of: a chance at the bigs.
Categories: Other Sports, Sport News
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