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Bringing baseball to Cambodia

Love of the game
LOVE OF THE GAME: Joe Cook watches high school players in Dothan, Ala., where he lives. He says he has spent about $300,000 on Cambodian baseball since the fall of 2002 — huge chunks of it coming out of his pocket.
(Kevin Glackmeyeer / For The Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The baseball ground rules are different in Cambodia.

A ball hit off the water buffaloes grazing in the outfield is in play, but a ball lost in the adjoining rice paddy is not. And timeout must be called whenever a motorcycle approaches on the dirt road that cuts through the outfield.

“You can’t put it in perspective with words,” said Jim Small, managing director for Major League Baseball’s operations in Asia. “You just need to see it.”

But even then you can’t always believe what you’re seeing.

Shirtless children in plastic flip-flops batting cross-handed. Adults who insist on trying to pitch with both hands wrapped tightly around the ball. And slides that aren’t so much slides as they are baserunners falling down, then rolling.

“Teaching baseball in Cambodia,” Joe Cook said, “it’s not easy.”

Cook, a Cambodian refugee who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide to escape to the United States, has spent the last five years trying to turn the former killing fields of his homeland into fields of dreams for a generation that has known little more than war, poverty and despair.

Along the way he’s lost his life savings, his car and nearly his marriage. And, Cook insists, some people in Cambodia would like to see him dead.

“I want to walk away from this. I do. But these kids,” he said, pointing to a photo of three shoeless children in torn clothes toting bats and gloves through a rice paddy, “baseball brings smiles to their faces.”

In December, thanks to Cook, Cambodia fielded a national baseball team for the first time in the Southeast Asian Games in Thailand. It was a milestone as inauspicious as it was historic: Cambodia’s first four hitters struck out without even touching the ball, and it took four games for the team to get its first hit.

By then Cambodia had been outscored, 67 to 1 -- which, according to Cambodian ground rules, added up to a tremendous victory.

“We didn’t win a damn game. But winning is nothing,” Cook said a month later. “The biggest deal is we showed up. We had the guts to be there. We’re satisfied with that.”

Whether they show up again, however, is anybody’s guess. Although the other five baseball teams that played in the Southeast Asian Games are supported by organized and relatively well-financed national organizations, the Cambodian team is supported largely by Cook and whatever donations his nonprofit organization can scrape together.

Lately that hasn’t been much. Two months before the games, Cook was far short of the $50,000 he figured it would take to get Cambodia to the competition.

He was also half a world away, in the tiny southeast Alabama town of Dothan, working as a chef at a Japanese steakhouse.

Mark Dennis, a Dothan businessman, helped Cook obtain more than $41,000 in loans, wiring the final $4,500 himself from a neighborhood pharmacy less than an hour before the registration deadline.

“It seems like he’s overcome so much to get to this point,” said Dennis, who last month took over the bookkeeping for Cambodia Baseball. “I just had a hard time seeing him fail that close.”

Despite the victory of showing up in Thailand, Cook hardly feels like a winner these days. He’s $41,500 in debt, and Cambodia Baseball has just $1,585 in the bank.

“I’ve spent all my savings,” Cook said, fighting back tears during a recent interview while sitting on a sofa in his cramped second-floor apartment. “I’m so frustrated. I’ve had enough of this. Do you know how stressed I am? It’s a disaster right now.”

The apartment’s carpet is shabby and stained, the walls grimy and in need of paint. The sofa, which sits next to a broken coffee table, is both an office and a bed for Cook, who leaves the bedroom to his wife and daughter. During his last trip to Cambodia in December, his 4-year-old Hyundai XG350 was repossessed and both the gas and electricity were turned off.

He wasn’t thrown out of the apartment because his boss pays the $450 monthly rent.

“I’m the grandfather of baseball in Cambodia,” he said. “Yeah, that’s great. But I live in a poor way.”

About the same time Cook dived headfirst into Cambodian baseball, he also filed for divorce from his wife, Veasna Puk Van. The couple quickly reconciled, but the new stresses are testing that tenuous truce.

“We talk about this all the time,” Cook said while translating for Van, who speaks little English. “She thinks it’s too much. She’s asked me to give it up. We don’t have anything.”

Major League Baseball has sent coaches to Cambodia, donated $10,000 in equipment and a container to ship it in and paid for Cook to fly back and forth from Alabama -- contributions worth more than $50,000 over the last two years alone.

Then when Small heard Cook planned to outfit his national team in second-hand uniforms donated from Little League teams in Dothan, Major League Baseball stepped forward again and got Majestic, the official supplier for big-league teams, to alter some stock Dodger uniforms, changing the cursive script across the chest from “Dodgers” to “Cambodia.”

“When I got to the field in Bangkok the Cambodians were working out on a practice field, and the first thing I was struck with was how great they looked,” Small said. “They looked like ballplayers. That’s the highest compliment I could give them.”

But in accordance with Major League Baseball’s policy regarding international baseball programs, Small hasn’t been able to give any money.

Local companies and schools in south Alabama have also helped collect, store and ship equipment to Cambodia, but few have donated cash.

And aside from some assistance with visas and other travel documents, the Cambodian government has been more a hindrance than a help, Cook said, greeting him with red tape rather than open arms.

Cook said he had spent about $300,000 on Cambodian baseball since the fall of 2002 -- huge chunks of it coming out of his pockets or those of family members.

But he can’t go on that way.

“I’m burning out. I can’t do this alone,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything with baseball in Cambodia anymore. Period.”

Father Frank Cancro, a Catholic priest in North Carolina who visited the first baseball field in Cambodia, chuckled when he heard that.

“He’s said that at least three times since I’ve known him,” Cancro said. “But he hasn’t quit.”

As a result, from a misshapen diamond carved out of the middle of a jungle near the village of Baribor five years ago, Cambodian baseball has spread to more than 50 teams in four age divisions in three provinces. Cook estimates there are more than 100 schools, 5,000 children and 2,000 adults playing some form of baseball in Cambodia.

But with regular trips to Cambodia too expensive and too difficult to arrange around his work schedule, Cook directs his fledgling coaches by Internet, downloading videos sent to him from Cambodia each night, analyzing them, then e-mailing back his comments. His website keeps track of the effort and solicits donations.

“I need 2 1/2 years to go to Cambodia,” said Cook, 37, a slender man with close-cropped black hair and wire-rim glasses. “To build structure, to build an organization, to teach coaches.”

Cook’s love affair with baseball began shortly after a Christian aid organization rescued him and what was left of his family from a Philippine refugee camp in 1983, relocating them to Chattanooga, Tenn.

Cook, whose legal name is Joeurt Puk (he began using Cook after taking his first restaurant job), said he spent nearly half his childhood in Cambodia living off tree bark, insects and grass in labor camps run by the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Along the way he lost his father and two sisters, was nearly killed when a booby trap exploded next to him, then survived an artillery barrage that pounded the road he and hundreds of others were following on their escape to a Red Cross camp across the border in Thailand.

“I was starving and I just wanted to end my life,” Cook said.

Arriving in Chattanooga as a 12-year-old, he was introduced to a number of marvelous things he had never seen before, such as a flush toilet, television, radio, the mirror.

And baseball.

“Seeing kids running around without having to worry about booby traps or gunshots, explosions. America was like heaven,” Cook said. “I didn’t know how to grip the ball. I didn’t know nothing. But baseball at that time, it was fun.

“I finally found myself happy in America for the first time.”

He eventually wed Van, a political refugee from Cambodia seven years his senior, in an arranged marriage that produced two children, a stocky 10-year-old boy named Ankorwat, after the ancient Cambodian temples, and a shy, dark-eyed 5-year-old daughter, Sumuri.

And though he had to start working at a young age, lying about his birth date on a job application and never playing organized baseball beyond Little League, he never forgot the transformative power the game had on his life.

And that wound up turning his life around again nearly six years ago, when he returned to the Thailand border to reunite with his sister Chanty, who everyone assumed had been killed by the Khmer Rouge.

“The community where I was at, it was like nowhere else I had ever heard of,” Cook said of the poverty he saw in Baribor. “I saw the happiness in their faces. And my heart just opened. The school got me. The community got me.

“That’s what changed my life. So I told the kids, ‘When I come back, I’m going to bring baseball. I’m going to bring the American gift.’ ”

A few months later he made good on the pledge, returning with enough second-hand bats, balls and gloves to field two teams. Working with some schoolchildren, he hacked a clearing out of the jungle, built a crude infield and a tiny pitcher’s mound.

The field had unusual dimensions, and just 20 players showed up for the first game on Nov. 26, 2002. Yet that was enough to give the sport the locals called “throwball” a foothold.

“It’s called baseball,” Cook repeatedly corrected, insisting the children use the English words for bases, bats, balls and everything else associated with the sport.

Fields -- along with English lessons -- soon started sprouting in other towns. Cook built a shelter for abandoned children and began providing meals and schoolbooks. He hired a pair of former teenage prostitutes to work as scorekeepers and administrative assistants after first teaching them to read and write. And then Cook, who started attending church shortly after arriving in the U.S., began offering Christian Bible study classes to a population that is more than 95% Buddhist.

“I’ve seen the benefit of this,” said Cancro, the North Carolina priest who visited Baribor. “I’ve seen the books and things that have gone to the schools.”

Cook insists the country’s insular government has cast a wary eye on him and his program.

“The government was very suspicious of what I was doing,” he said. “I guess I am in danger because I’m bringing American influence to the homeland. Baseball in Cambodia, it’s going to be a way of change.”

The government disagrees.

“No, no,” said a spokeswoman at the Royal Cambodian Embassy in Washington, who would give her name only as Chey. “If he was in danger, why would he keep going back to Cambodia? There is no danger there.”

But things are changing, just as Cook predicted.

Small, who was in Thailand for the Southeast Asian Games, said the poor, shy children he had seen in Baribor seemed different after putting on their sparkling white jerseys with their homeland written across their chests.

“How cool for them to have a chance to represent their country,” he said. “How many of us have ever been able to say that? [And] the Cambodian cheering section. There were probably 15 friends and relatives of Joe’s that had come over. Most of them had never been out of Baribor, let alone been on a bus before.

“But they were there to cheer their team. They were so proud.”

Which might be why Cook, at least so far, has been unable to quit.

“He’s overcome so much to get to this point,” said Dennis, the Dothan businessman. “He’s a little guy in a big adventure.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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