The Joe Cook story is well publicised in the world of baseball, including his escape to freedom in the US as a 12-year-old from his war-torn homeland, and his adulthood passion to bring baseball to the Kingdom, forcing him to take on two jobs as a cook in Alabama.
On one hand, his relentless pursuit of his ambition earned him adulation, but on the other his highly individualistic style of functioning made him a sitting duck for his detractors. While he poured his time, energy and often his own resources to raise the country’s baseball profile by sending the national team to international events, he faced a fierce media backlash when the administration was hit by a severe financial crisis.
The situation was aggravated by the desertion of players over pay and conditions and a blaze of negative publicity and harsh accusations aimed at Cook brought about a trust deficit, which lead to the federation falling into suspended animation.
It was a terrible phase both for Cook personally and for Cambodian baseball. While admitting to some of his failings, Cook steadfastly defended his integrity and quickly began building up his dream once again.
“The worst is behind me and I am as gritty as ever to see baseball activity resume in Cambodia,” said Cook in an email to the Post.
The heart and soul of the CBAF plan is participation in the 26th SEA Games, which will be held in Jakarta and Palembang from November 11-26 next year. According to the federation, no stone will be left unturned in its effort to make this happen, but they are also well aware it will be much harder to achieve than it sounds.
As a first hurdle, the CBAF has to convince the parent national sporting body, the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, on its commitment and capability to field a decent team. A meeting between CBAF representatives and NOCC Secretary General Vath Chamroeun has been fixed for December 27 in what both sides describe as a positive step forward.
For his part, Cook is adamant in his assertions that he will succeed in sending the team to Indonesia and is confident of raising the necessary funds. He says he is more than happy to discuss procedural requirements with both the NOCC and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports while soliciting the support from the two government bodies.
“We missed out on the Asian Games [in Guangzhou in November this year], and we do not want to miss SEA Games at any cost,” said Cook.
Meanwhile, a recruitment spree has been set in motion to enroll talented players into the national team. Cook expects a core of about 50-60 players in place within the next few months.
Reputed Japanese baseball coach Sato Takayuki is now in charge of a relatively raw and inexperienced bunch of youngsters who have found a new love for the American sport but are far from ready for big time competition. Some old-timers have rejoined the team, but overall it is predominantly new blood as Cook and the CBAF herald a new beginning.
As many as 168 days of intense training have been planned for the team with dozens of practice matches slated along the way.
The CBAF is now on the look out for major sponsors. Cook, as always, is busy working his sources and contacts on the personal front in the US to raise as much funds as he can to infuse new life into Cambodia’s young sporting population.
“Everything is in place and the training sessions are going smoothly at Kampong Thom. We hope to recruit more and more players and ensure that they are looked after well,” said Chea Theary, Cook’s niece and General Secretary of the CBAF.
“The equipment we have is adequate for the time being, but we hope to get more in the months to come. We are looking forward to an exciting season.”
NOCC official Vath Chamroeun, meanwhile, is cautiously optimistic about the federation’s revival. Despite feeling it was too early to take a stand on the national team’s participation at the SEA Games, he noted the NOCC were more than happy to see the resumption of baseball.
Joe Cook is a complicated fellow. Born Joeurt Puk in Cambodia, he and his family fled the murderous Khmer Rouge regime to the United States in 1975. They were among the lucky ones: between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge exterminated two million Cambodian citizens. Among the dead were Joe’s father and two younger sisters. Joe was 12 years old.
Joe ultimately became a respected chef for the Mikata Japanese Steakhouse in Dothan, Alabama (hence his customer-bestowed name: Joe Cook). He married and had two children. He was American and he was happy. Still, something in his life was missing – something to do with his stolen Cambodian heritage.
In May 2002 Joe learned that his sister – long thought a victim of the Khmer Rouge – was alive. He immediately traveled to the village of Baribo, 68 miles west of Phnom Penh, to reunite with her. It was during this reunion that Joe conceived the project that has preoccupied him to this day: he decided that Cambodia – this country bombed by the United States during the Vietnam War and ravaged by the Khmer Rouge– needed an addition to its cultural options. Cambodia needed that most American of institutions: baseball.
RICE FIELD OF DREAMS follows the journey of Cambodia’s First National Baseball Team as they prepare for and participate in the 24th “Sea Games” – an Olympics-like sports competition between South East Asian nations to be held in Bangkok. For the 22 young players Joe assembled and trained over the previous five years it is their first venture outside of their farming villages.
Along the way we experience the texture of daily life in these villages; meet the American coaches who have donated their time; and travel with the team to the culture shock inducing city of Bangkok for the competition.We hear the player’s stories; watch their preparation for the Games; and learn about America’s interest in Cambodian baseball when Jim Small, Vice President of Major League Baseball, visits. But most of all, we experience the drama of the team’s five games. No one expects these rookies to best the competition their first time out, but nonetheless emotions run high. How well will they do? Will they even get a hit? How many hits? How many runs?
They are representing their country and they want to succeed. The film crew fully expected that they would be filming a strictly feel-good story: Cambodian refugee escapes the Khmer Rouge; comes to America; then brings hope and baseball back to his homeland. But what they discover is that life — and Joe Cook — have a way of complicating strictly feel-good stories. This film has it all: drama, humor, an exotic location and an athletic competition. A “West meets East” dynamic and an engaging cast of characters.
But most of all RICE FIELD OF DREAMS has heart. As the final shots of the film assert, baseball is a gift to upcoming Cambodian generations and Joe Cook, complicated as he is, should be commended for offering such a gift.
By: Policy In Focus
From Killing Fields to Fields of Dreams
John Perra | October 6, 2009
Editor: John Feffer