Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Have I Got a Story to Tell!

Baseball and a Bottle of Red Wine

I got to the ballpark just in time to watch the end of morning workouts for the Cambodian National Baseball Team. The coaches were in the field hitting flies to the outfielders, the infielders were taking fielding practice, the water buffalo were grazing in the outfield, and Joe Cook, the man who brought baseball to Kampuchea (Cambodia) was standing behind the cage with a big smile on his face.

Joe left Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Wounded by a landmine and hiding from those who would have shot him on the spot, he reached Thailand and eventually made it all the way to Dothan, Alabama where he works as a cook in a Japanese restaurant. The locals didn't take to his Khmer name, so they just call him Joe Cook.

Joe fell in love with baseball and decided it was a great sport to bring home. He's spent everything he has made, and could borrow to develop this league. He has a few teams across the country and they play every day. 2-3 games a day take place at the rough field he built next to a rice paddy and behind a small village about 35 kilometers north of Kampong Chnang.

It wasn't easy to get there from where I work in Siem Reap. I took a 6 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh, spent the night at my cozy little hotel on the water front and hired a driver to take me on the 2 1/2 hour drive north to find Joe and the Cambodian Boys of Summer. (Actually Boys of Summer is a misnomer, since you can play every day of the year here.)

It cost me $180 to make the trip. $10 for the bus and $170 for the driver, Mr. Ryvann. Now there is another story in Mr. Ryvann. As we left downtown Phnom Penh he and I were talking, exchanging our resumes so to speak, and he said he had another friend from California he drove all the time, and asked if I knew Asad Rahman. I was speechless. As many of you know, Asad and I work together helping Aki Ra at the Landmine Museum.

My mother was right. Always be on your best behaviour. You never know when you will run into someone you know.

Anyway, Mr. Ryvann is a also a major in the Cambodian Air Force. He flies small planes, Cessnas and the like. But the Cambodian Air Force is grounded. They don't have enough money to keep the small fleet of planes, including 22 Mig 21s in the air. But he does still get his pay. $75 a month. That's why he is also a taxi driver.

We got to the field at 10:30 and I finally got a chance to meet Joe. I also got a chance to meet a couple of really great coaches who came all the way from California at their own cost to help the team. Tom Dill is the coach of the Notre Dame High School Baseball Team in Sherman Oaks, California. (He is a USC fan, so I didn't have too big a heart attack when I saw Joe wearing an ND hat). Tony Rondinella is a friend of his who couldn't wait to come over here and help Joe. They brought over 5 bags of equipment including gloves, hats and bats and balls. I brought over 80 t-shirts from the Dodgers, 175 balls from the Angels and 24 from the Palm Springs Power.

I forgot to bring my hat, so Joe gave me an extra one they had laying around. It said ND in big white print on the front. I looked at the hat. I looked at the cloudless sky, and decided the sunburn would go away faster than any pictures of me in that hat.

The balls were a good idea. The ones they were using were missing covers and beginning to unravel. Joe's built a pretty good backstop and that helps keep most of the balls out of the rice paddy that stands directly behind the field. But these guys can hit. And they sure can foul them off. It's fun to sit and watch the little kids chase balls. It's just like at a PS Power game. As soon as that ball goes behind the field or into the nearby lake, the kids are off as fast as they can to bring it back. But they do it for a different reason. If they run out of balls here, they quit playing. Ain't no Big 5 down the street. The nearest place to get balls is Bangkok. Or from supporters who are traveling over from the states.

The ground rules here a little different. Time is automatically called whenever a moto (motor bike), water buffalo, or buffalo cart passes through right field (See the picture at the top of the post). The field encompasses part of the village road, you see.

I guess the main thing you want to know is can these guys play ball. Yep. They play pretty darn good ball. They don't have the arm speed that American kids would have, but remember, we play ball from the age of 6 or 7 in the US and Canada. Most of these kids hadn't seen a baseball until they were in their teens.

The pitchers are throwing in the 70's and low 80's (they had a gun on them at the All Asia Games last year in Thailand). And they've got a catcher who is really good. I never saw him miss a throw, he blocks the plate well and can make the throw to second as good as anyone I've seen. The infielders are handling the ball pretty well and these kids took to coaching like a fish to water.

Tom and Tony watched them play a bit and realized the pitchers had no pick-off move at all. And the kids thought you stole on every play. It was a pretty wild game. Tom spent the morning working with the pitchers on pick-offs and when they started the game after lunch, you would have thought they'd been doing it all their life. Even picking off a guy trying to steal second.

I had to leave at 4pm since highway 5 is not very safe after dark, and it being monsoon season, we had a good chance of getting caught in the rain. And in a monsoon rain, you can't see more than a few hundred feet in front of you. Not good on a 2 lane road with pedestrians, motos, trucks, horse-carts, water buffalo, and cattle headed home. Not to mention the occasional chicken crossing the road.

We got back to Phnom Penh just as the sun was going down, and I went through my pictures. I can't wait to get back to see these guys again. I'm meeting Tom and Tony in LA when I get back and I'll bring some more of their equipment over in August.

A Bottle of Red
Friday afternoon, taking the bus to Phnom Penh, I got another one of those phone calls that stop your heart.

We had just pulled over for our potty stop in Kampong Thom when I got a call from the CMAA.

As you know, we've been working with the CMAA for most of the last year to certify CSHD as a demining company. We completed our registration in May and have been awaiting completion of CMAA's review of our demining application.

I took the call.

The signing ceremony for CSHD was to be held on Monday, 23 June at 10am at CMAA headquarters in Phnom Penh.

They wanted to know if I could be there with Aki Ra.

We'd be there if we had to walk naked.

I wasn't really dressed for a formal ceremony. Khaki cargo pants and a khaki shirt. I'd spent a good part of Sunday trying to find a nice shirt and maybe some better slacks, but everyone had Khmer sizes, not barrang sizes. Aki Ra had the biggest smile I've seen.

We met with HE, Mr. Sam Sotha and his staff and he and Aki Ra signed our 'Provisional Demining Certificate". It's good for 6 months. By then we need to secure formal certification, which will come after field inspectors from CMAA determine that CSHD is following their SOPs and conduction operations 'the right way'.

Then we opened a bottle of wine and toasted everyone.

It only took 30 minutes to sign the documents and take the pictures.

It only took years to get there.


1 comment:

James said...

Bill - I'm very proud of you and the entire LMRF team. Good job by all!!