The Unlikely Rise of Baseball in Cambodia

| © Pete Ford

Down a potholed side road off National Road 6, in Baray district, Kampong Thom province, some two hours north of the capital Phnom Penh, lies a sight alien to most people in the country.

Surrounded by small homesteads farming rice and cassava, with palm trees forming the only consistent break in the horizon, is Cambodia’s national baseball field.

“This is my way to relax, this is my hobby,” says Nhem Thavy, a businessman and Member of Parliament for Kampong Thom province for the ruling Cambodia People’s Party. Sitting in the shade between home plate and first base, he was watching the final innings of the U15 National Championship match between two teams from Phnom Penh. The three hectares of fenced—in shortly-mown grass is the first step in Thavy’s vision to see baseball played in every province across Cambodia.

Baseball from the US

Baseball enjoys rabid popularity in parts of East Asia. A university professor from the United States first brought baseball to Japan in 1872. Compatriot Christian missionaries are credited with bringing the sport to Korea 33 years later—in Cambodia, the playing of baseball is rather newer.

In the early 2000’s American-based Joeurt Puk, preferring the moniker Joe Cook, crafted a rough baseball diamond in a rural field in Kampong Chhnang province, where he left as a child refugee in 1979, and Southeast Asia gained its newest baseball team. The Alabama-raised chef may have done all the hard work in creating the sport in Cambodia, lobbying for material and official support and fundraising to realise his vision, but tensions led to a change in management, and location, in 2013.

Thavy moved the team from its base in Cook’s home village on the western shore of the Tonle Sap Lake to land he owns in his own home district in Kampong Thom province, across the water. Thavy, like Cook, spent years in the USA after leaving Cambodia as a refugee. Thavy has the financial resources and political clout to support the team largely by himself—he, also, wasn’t much of a baseball fan at first.

“I first saw baseball when I was 13 or 14, when American military personnel in Phnom Penh played it, but I didn’t like it as no one explained to us what was going on.”

He saw it again while studying at the Naval War College in Rhode Island in 1972, but it wasn’t until he was one of 32,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who passed through the Fort Indiantown Gap military base in Pennsylvania in 1975 that he first tried to play.

“I tried to hit the ball, but couldn’t,” he remembered with a smile. This early introduction did not turn him into a fan, and despite watching the game on TV while studying engineering and working for companies such as Goodyear, Thavy says he still found it “very slow to watch.”

“I was much more excited by [American] football, especially the Redskins early on, but when I decided to come back in 1993, I had to bring something,” he said. He ruled out bringing American football due to the smaller size of many Cambodians, and the inherent danger of the sport.

“So I thought, baseball is the one,” he says, noting that there are two native games in Cambodia—one involving hitting a small ball with a stick, the other similar to running around bases—that helped to convince him that baseball would work here.

Cambodia National Team

Initially, the national team found winning matches, in a country where football is king, somewhat difficult. Their first major test came at the South-East Asian (SEA) Games in Thailand in 2007, where they lost to Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand by a total of 113-13.

National coach, and vice president of the Cambodian Baseball Federation, Tony Nishimura, was brought on board by Thavy on an initially part-time basis in 2009. Nishimura first came into contact with Cambodian baseball when he led the newly formed Vietnamese national team to play against Cambodia in 2009. Thavy explained, “They kicked the hell out of us [Vietnam], the Cambodians were way ahead of us.”

Growth in Southeast Asia

In the last decade, baseball across as Southeast Asia has spread at a fast pace. From the 10 countries that make up the ASEAN-bloc countries, only Laos and Vietnam are not members of the Baseball Federation of Asia, which counts 24 member federations including Mongolia and Afghanistan alongside more established countries such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

The Vietnamese team had only been formed two years before the trip to Cambodia, and lacked the generous global donations of equipment, money and coaches that Cook had been able to source for Cambodia. The combination of Nishimura and Thavy’s desire to see baseball succeed, and access to recourses, has not only brought a new professionalism to the sport in Cambodia, but also a shift in focus.

“Our team is still largely the same as from 2009. The oldest player is 32. They are farmers, fishermen, local people,” Nishimura explains, with most having been attracted to the then unknown sport with the promise of a modest salary.

Baseball in schools

The national team is no longer ‘professional’ as they are not paid. “The new focus is on developing youth teams across the country. Baseball has been added to the national sports curriculum, and so far seven schools, some 400 students have started playing,” Nishimura says with evident pride.

A school has been built next to the national pitch, where local students will gain a vital education as well as daily exposure to baseball. “The mission we have to accomplish as a federation is not just to make a team, but also support them in the future,” he says, detailing how the school will offer Japan-focussed vocational training to students. Teaching them Japanese and English, elderly care and agribusiness skills, and of course baseball, will allow the students easier access to the Japanese labor market—it is hoped.

Japanese-born but Seattle-raised, Tony is using his connections with Japan, “where baseball is like a religion.” Japanese professional team the Seibu Lions recently donated a shipping container’s worth of equipment, and another one is expected shortly. The Japanese Embassy in Cambodia has a budget for promoting Japanese culture, and with baseball being the national sport, that means the federation is supported. According to Tony, it helps that the current ambassador is “baseball crazy.”

He is confident that building on the Japanese-style of baseball coaching—lots of drills, discipline and a focus on form—will allow the Cambodian team to shine, and hopefully gain nationwide recognition as a sport where Cambodia can succeed.

“For basketball, football, you have to be physical, and we are too small. But for baseball, it’s all about tactics, and within Southeast Asia, we can become champions.” This is an idea echoed by some of the new players.

Chhem Dara has been playing for three years. The 29-year-old fashion warehouse manager is already a coach, gleaning his knowledge from the visiting coaches sent by MLB, and from Youtube. “One of my friends told me about it, and I wanted to try. I thought it was very dangerous at first,” he says laughing. “But you have to be smart to play, and I know this game makes me think more, which is great.”

With schools in the regional cities of Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Battambang showing interest in adding baseball to their sports lessons, and despite the recent donations, the issue for the baseball federation remains a lack of equipment. This, however, is merely a minor issue in Nishimura’s grand plans for Cambodian baseball. “Just watch us, I’m gonna make it great.”

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