Monday, August 01, 2005

Cambodian ballplayers turn rice paddy into "Field of Dreams"

A bush serves as a marker for home runs, motorcycles laden with goods cruise by second base and rice planters and water buffaloes look on as a ragtag collection of ballplayers embrace America's favorite pastime in steamy rural Cambodia.

The former rice paddy, cleared by the players to make a ballpark, is Cambodia's "Field of Dreams," where the children and young adults of Kraing Khmer village compete each day in the impoverished nation's first foray into baseball.

The unlikely spectacle of young villagers wearing a hodgepodge of uniforms donated by Americans, tossing balls and practicing their swings is the brainchild of Joe Cook, a Cambodian-American living in Dothan, Alabama, who introduced baseball to his former homeland two years ago.

"You can see the kids, so inspired with the game of baseball. Without that, they have no hope," said Cook, a 35-year-old chef and father of two. "They don't have proper uniforms or just wear flip-flops, or go bare foot ... but baseball is baseball, it doesn't matter if you're bare foot or flip flopped."

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with the World Bank estimating that 42 percent of its nearly 15 million people live on US$1 (euro0.83) a day or less. Baseball followers here would be hard-pressed to find a glove or bat available for sale in the country, much less be able to afford it.

Cook has spent about US$37,000 (euro31,000) of his own money to bring baseball to the Kraing Khmer youth. His efforts include building a local house for visiting baseball coaches and orphans who want to learn the sport, sending videos of baseball matches to the players to watch, and collecting donated equipment from many southern states to send to the village in northwest Cambodia _ which has no running water or electricity.

Cook landed in the U.S. state of Tennessee at the age of 12 as a refugee fleeing the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, blamed for the deaths of nearly two million Cambodians during the late 1970s.

He quickly took up baseball as a way to learn English, to make friends and fit into his new American setting.

When he returned to Cambodia a few years ago to unite with a sister he believed had perished under the Khmer Rouge, he saw children who weren't able to enjoy themselves like their American counterparts because they had to work on rice farms or tend to the family livestock, such as water buffalos.

Cook wanted to show them they could do something more with their lives, sharing with them a sport that had motivated him, given him confidence and a sense of professionalism.

"I see in their eyes. I look around and they need hope and they need opportunity," said Cook who speaks with a distinctive Southern drawl and whose legal name is Joeurt Puk. "They need to understand about other cultures, other countries, what is offered to them, what they can become."

The players also send Cook stats and videos of their matches so he can coach them via telephone and the Internet.

So far the players have responded enthusiastically to baseball.

"When Mr. Joe talked about baseball, we were surprised. This is strange for us because there was no baseball in Cambodia. We never heard about this sport before," Poun Phybo, a 23-year-old local, said through a translator.

"Everybody, all of us wanted to try it and then we were part of baseball," he said. "Then, in our minds, it was like we fell in love with baseball."

Cook's efforts got a major boost last week when Major League Baseball officials and U.S. coaches visited the village as part of its foreign outreach program to hand out much needed equipment in the form of crisp leather gloves, shiny bats, helmets and protective gear.

"Every year, we'll do five or six donations of equipment to people like Joe Cook," said Jim Small, vice president of market development for MLB International. "Places where, you know, baseball's not established but they need a little bit of equipment and we can put it in the hands of people like Joe Cook, that we trust that the stuff's going to go into the right hands and help kick start baseball."

Small acknowledged that Cambodia probably wouldn't have been on MLB's radar if it weren't for Cook.

"We probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him because the world's so big and there's only so many things that you can do to get baseball started," Small said. "We had no choice, we had to get involved. When you hear about what he's done and the fact that he's made such a commitment because he love's baseball, you can't turn your back on someone like that."

The American coaches schooled dozens of youngsters, some wearing a mix-match of jerseys, caps, cleats or pants donated by American high schools and universities, while others donned T-shirts, pants or flip-flops _ typical footwear in the Southeast Asian country.

Bill Thomas, assistant coach at California State Polytechnic University, led the youngsters through fielding exercises and calling out encouragement.

"The players are great, enthusiastic. They're just like sponges trying to absorb as much as they can," Thomas said.


At 10:23 PM, Blogger Joe Cook said...

Thank you for help post my article, it's very nice of you and I am very proud of you.

The entire of Cambodia Baseaball and I are very thankfull of you.

Thank you,
Joe Cook - Founder/Executive Director
(334) 790-5002 or email:, website:


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