Tran Trung Hieu, third baseman for the Hanoi Capitols, faked a bunt to unnerve the pitcher. It worked.
The San Diego Hustle pitcher threw the ball in the dirt for ball-one. On the next pitch he took a little off his fastball to make sure it was in the strike zone.
Hieu, 10, smashed it clean — the distinctive sound of a bat hitting a ball signaling a hit in any language. As the ball rocketed into left-field, Hieu raced to first.
In the dugout, the rest of the Capitols broke into a cheer, the Vietnamese equivalent of “go, go, go, hitting, hitting, hitting.”
It was a moment of sports diplomacy— two groups of boys separated by language, culture and food but united in their love for an American game that only recently has been exported to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The Capitols, the first Vietnamese baseball team to visit America, are here for the United States Travel Sports Assn. World Series — 200-plus teams in eight divisions playing at several venues in San Diego County. The Capitols are in a division for players ages 11 and younger — the only foreign entry.
The Capitols’ organizer is Tom Treutler, an American attorney who lives in Hanoi and is married to a Vietnamese woman. He arranged for the trip and helped pay for it, along with financial support from a Vietnam-based securities firm. His 12-year-old son, Ben, is on the team.
“Our team is new,” Ben said. “We feel good and strong. We just need experience, we’ve got to play smarter.”
The Capitols have yet to win a game, neither in San Diego nor in the tournaments in Indonesia and Taiwan where they played on their way to the U.S.
Many of the American players have been playing baseball since their tee-ball days and have had the advantage of neighborhood batting cages, expensive equipment and expert coaching. Most of the Capitols have been playing baseball for about a year, some only for months.
Former big-league pitcher (and four-time All-Star) Troy Percival is the coach of the Riverside S.W.A.T. team that routed the Capitols at Little Padres Field on Thursday. He said it was a learning moment for his players to see the energy of their Vietnamese competitors.
“I told our kids that they should feel lucky for all the advantages they have in this country,” he said.
Some of the Capitols — like Hieu, whose father runs a computer company and whose mother is a dentist — come from prosperous families. Others do not. Some travel up to 90 minutes by bus to get to practice, even on days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity.
“Some of the families can’t afford to buy a baseball bat,” said Loc Tieu, a Vietnamese immigrant who lives in Irvine and is an extra coach during the tour. “It can break your heart.”
On the field, there are miscues: fly balls dropped, pitchers balking, runners getting picked off. The San Diego Hustle pitcher had a curveball that was a mystery to the Capitols, including Hieu who took a called third strike on his second at-bat.
The tournament has a “mercy rule” that allows a game to be halted when it gets hopelessly lopsided.
“Troy was a class act in the game he coached against us,” Tom Treutler said. “He saw the game was new for our kids and didn’t try to steal bases to run up the score. I felt he was rooting for our kids to do well.”
The Capitols’ skill level notwithstanding, competitors and umpires have noted their high spirits: never moping after a loss, always shaking hands and posing for pictures with rivals after a loss and never disrespecting authority figures like umpires, coaches and parents.
“Their enthusiasm is high, their attitudes are great,” said umpire Johnny Roman. “The only way you can learn this game is by playing, and that’s what they’re doing.”
Before coming to the tournament, the Capitols played a game in Garden Grove, where the Treutlers once lived. Garden Grove Pony Baseball President Tim Jacobson arranged for a coaching session and his league gifted the Capitols with jerseys, hats, batting gloves and bat bags.
“We wanted to make sure this was something these boys would remember,” said Jacobson. “How many kids get to fly 7,500 miles to play baseball?”
Signs of rapprochement between the U.S. and the Communist government of Vietnam can bring protest from the Vietnamese community in Orange County. But the Capitols’ game went off without a hitch and Jacobson was pleased to see that the crowd included many Vietnamese.
The team visited Disneyland and hopes to visit the San Diego Zoo before leaving next week for a baseball camp in Seattle underwritten by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. Food has been a challenge; the players have tried burritos and cheeseburgers but are longing for the rice and fish dishes that are staples in Vietnam.
Many have grown up watching American baseball on television. They have the moves and the confident attitudes of the stars. After he grabbed a line drive, Hieu displayed the nonchalance of his favorite player, New York Yankee first baseman Mark Teixeira.
Treutler sees baseball getting more popular in Vietnam, maybe never rivaling soccer as the national sport but gathering more players, teams and family support. More summer trips to the U.S. are a possibility.
“You want to learn to play baseball, you come to America,” said Capitols manager Phu Ngoc Pham.