Baseball pitches new goal

December 23, 2010 Leave a comment
Cambodian baseball is all fired up to touch new bases as the cobwebs of uncertainty are cleared away and the new ball park at Kampong Thom gets set for a long season ahead. The Cambodian Baseball Federation, or CBAF, have launched their plan for a grand revival of the sport in the Kingdom with a target of taking part in the 2011 SEA Games tournament.
 The Cambodian National Baseball team pose for a photo at their newly completed training ground in Balaingk district, Kampong Thom province. The team is getting ready to play at the SEA Games next year.  
 After months of inactivity marked by administrative difficulties, a minor player revolt and severe financial strain bordering on total collapse, baseball is slowly being restored to its heady days of the past. CBAF president Joe Cook, the man who brought the American staple to Cambodia in 2002, is hoping all his wishes are answered this time.

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.

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Rice Field of Dreams

May 12, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

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Phnom Penh Baseball Clinic 2010

March 12, 2010 4 comments

If you live in Phnom Penh, this is a great news for you. We are having a Baseball Clinic show on Sunday May 2nd from 7am to 5pm. Wow, one whole day. We hope to attract people in all ages to come out and learn new game in Cambodia.
Baseball has been a great sport through the world and it has been growing in Cambodia since November 2002. But very few people heard about this. So I decide to have a full clinic in Phnom Penh. I hope this will help get people out their house or whatever they do and come to our baseball field in Phnom Penh. The field will be select on March 28th.

In the city where over 2 millions of people, this gotta be a great idea to promote baseball. I would hope the parent allow their kids to come out and see what we are doing at the field. I hope they want to see how baseball is throwing. I want that kid have a swing with the bat. I like see him do a little bit of running around the bases.
This is about the fundamental of game we’re talking about here. Not about super baseball. Just hit, throw, and run. Let get em to learn these basic idea. Let them feel the joy.

I will make a bunch of flyers to pass all schools, communities, business/companies, and everywhere in Phnom Penh. I just want to the kids to come out. They can just sit, or walk around. If they want to learn, they can join everyone in the group. It won’t cost them, or their parent any money. They don’t have to register, or brring any bat to the field. Just bring themself. That is how simple it is.
The supplies and equipment I got was from MLB Internationl and Pitch, Hit, and Run program last year. They help donated to us. We did donated to some teams and some of them still not use. So I like to see everything to be in use. If I don’t have more, oh well. I guess I have to ask for more.
The point of this clinic is to expand baseball in Cambodia. Hope to get people to learn something about baseball. Maybe one day they are the key to help with the national team, perhap be a coach to help other learn baseball in the future. Never what it might do, it might even get a good player to play in MLB, just a dream.
Ok, if anybody have any idea, sugguestion, advise; please let me know your thought. But I will definetly make this clinich happen this May 2nd. Please be our volunteer and support. Come and show your support. See you in Phnom Penh Sunday May 2nd.
Appreciates everyone. By Joe Cook 
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Talking about YouTube – RICE FIELD OF DREAMS – DEMO

December 28, 2009 1 comment


RICE FIELD OF DREAMS follows the first national Cambodian Baseball team as they compete in the SEA Games a South East Asian equivalent of the Olympics. We focus on Joe Cook a Khmer Rouge refugee and the founder of the team and his relationship with the players, the American coaches he recruits, and American Major League Baseball. This relationship is mostly harmonious, but when Joe and his collaborators disagree how the team should be coached fireworks ensue.

Thanks to Daron and Waterbuffalo Film.

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Sun down in Baribo

December 22, 2009 2 comments

Baribo is a beautiful village, it’s about 68 miles west of Phnom Pehn. This is a picture took by Cameron, gentleman from South Africa. He came to Cambodia help coach the team in 2007.

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In Me

December 22, 2009 2 comments

I will always have the passions of Baseball, America, Cambodia and Jesus Christ.
I’m sticking with my purse the dream of taking baseball and christianity to Cambodia. I knows I don’t have the interpersonal or business skills to make it happen. Yet I obbesses with making it happen despite the odds. I’m holding on to that truth.
"Eccl 2:26 to the man who pleases Him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness".
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From Killing Fields to Fields of Dreams

October 7, 2009 Leave a comment

 By: Policy In Focus

From Killing Fields to Fields of Dreams

John Perra | October 6, 2009

Editor: John Feffer

Foreign Policy In Focus

Cambodian baseball players.

Cambodia is an unlikely place for baseball. There is chronic poverty, lingering post-war trauma, and rampant human trafficking. Children are more likely to work or rummage through the fetid muck of the Steung Meanchey dump than go to school or play.

But for the last seven years, Joe Cook, a Cambodian refugee, has been teaching the game in his homeland, building Cambodia’s first ball field. Last year, he even managed to put together a national team. In March, they finally won their first game, playing a short series against a team from Vietnam. Considering the violent history the two countries share, just playing the game was an accomplishment beyond any scorecard.

Becoming Joe Cook

For Joe Cook, playing games came to an abrupt end in August 1975. He was Jouret Puk then, the son of a high-ranking Cambodian official who commanded nearly 3,000 troops. "My little sister and I were playing behind our house," Cook remembers. "All of a sudden we saw people dressed in black and red marching toward us. We were scared and we hid behind a tree." Those people were the Khmer Rouge and they invaded his village, burning homes to the ground. "They got us all in one place," he recalls, "then they forced us to march to a camp," he says. Cook’s father was killed, and his family was split up and forced into labor camps. Cook’s youngest sisters were among the 2 million executed by Pol Pot’s regime. In 1978, Cook, then eight, escaped his camp with his mother and oldest brother, trying to reach the Thai border.

For a week, they made their way barefoot. "It was only 18 miles to the border but it turned into 80 because we had to keep moving back and forth, criss-cross because landmines were everywhere. So were the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnamese who had just invaded." The three refugees had only a small cup of rice between them, so to survive they ate crickets, grass, leaves, and tree bark. "I can remember catching frogs and eating them alive," Cook says. The pools of water they came across were polluted with the dead bodies of pigs, cows, and people. "I tried to brush the blood back to drink," he recalls, "It was so thick and bitter." Bodies lined the roads and when they ran into other people escaping from the camps, they would barter for food.

Finally, they made it to the Thai border and then to a series of refugee camps. In the Philippines, they found a sponsor through the U.S. embassy and arrived in Chattanooga, Tennessee in May 1983. "We couldn’t even pronounce Tennessee. And we thought America must be near France because you had to take a plane to both of them," he says.

In America

There, everything was new. "I thought it was like a dream," Cook says, "A stove, a toilet, a TV. It was fascinating." And then there was the game he saw being played near his home.

"All I knew was that it was some kind of sport," he says. It was baseball. "I watched them behind a fence," he recalls, "I saw them having fun. I saw happy faces. As a kid in Cambodia, there was never happiness. But I knew in baseball is happiness. I kept going back every day. Finally I got the guts to go onto the field."

Through a combination of limited English and gestures, he made it clear to the coach that he wanted to play too. "When he gave me a glove so I could play catch, it felt like he had given me the whole uniform. I was like the other kids," he recalls. It was the start of a deep passion.

Baseball was also a way to assimilate. He became "Joe Cook," a chef in a Japanese steakhouse in Alabama, listening to Atlanta Braves baseball on the radio in his kitchen. He married and had two children.

In 2002, Cook’s older sister Chamty, who he thought had perished, called from Cambodia. After years of brutality in the labor camps, she had been released in 1990 and used the Internet to track down members of her family. Cook agreed to reunite with her in Cambodia.

As a way of honoring him, Chamty wanted to travel to the airport to meet him. But the transportation costs were more than she could afford. She made a difficult decision. So as not to lose her brother again, she sold her son to traffickers. "When I arrived and found out, I was devastated," Cook says, choking up, "She didn’t understand that I could’ve met her anywhere. I never would’ve wanted her to do that." The first thing he did was buy back his nephew, Chea Theara, for $86.

Bringing Baseball Home

"He was so happy, so proud that his uncle had the ability to do that, he wanted to show me his town and also share his town with me," says Cook. Chea showed Cook his school in Baribo, a village in Kampong Chhang province about 68 miles west of Phnom Penh, and near it an open field. Cook thought it would make a good spot for a baseball diamond. "What’s baseball?" Chea asked. "It’s a crazy game that I love," Cook told him, "I’ll come back and bring equipment and teach you."

And he did. Eventually he built Cambodia’s first baseball field in Baribo and began instructing kids there in the fundamentals of the game. Soon he was feeding them, teaching them English, and establishing the national team that includes Chea on its roster.

For several years, Cambodia’s government wanted to shut down baseball in Cambodia. It was too American for them, according to Cook. "They kept saying, ‘how about soccer?’" he says.

Although also a product of Western influence when the French brought it to Cambodia in the 1930s, soccer has been a hugely popular sport in the country for decades. The skill of Cambodia’s players was the envy of much of Southeast Asia until the Khmer Rouge all but put an end to the sport. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Cambodian soccer began to regain its strength, with teams competing and winning in international tournaments.

Likewise, Pradal Serey, an ancient boxing style best known for its martial arts roots and kicking technique, has begun to reemerge as a national sport. It too was nearly lost to history when the Khmer Rouge banned traditional martial arts and executed its boxers.

But Cambodia has spent more than a decade now regaining its athletic prominence. It returned to the Olympics in 1996 after a 24-year absence and has participated in those games ever since.

Coming Around to Baseball

Despite the national focus on soccer, Cook kept baseball in Cambodia going, supporting the game out of his own pocket and getting some help with equipment and coaches from Major League Baseball. Then this year, the national team started winning, beating Vietnam in that friendly series and gaining professional bragging rights by besting Malaysia in May in an official game between the countries. A governor donated land for another field after that.

Cambodia’s people are starting to come around to the game. Other baseball clubs and organizations have sprung up in the past few months, including one in the capital city of Phnom Penh. The organizer of that group is a young man in his earlier twenties who calls Cook "Bong," the Khmer word for "brother," a sign of respect. That pleases Cook and he laughs, "I am baseball’s big brother." In reality, Cook is now president of the Cambodia Baseball Federation.

In August, Cook developed the first regional leagues within Cambodia. The Braves, representing the west, and the Royals, in the east, play each other nearly every day. "Someday I want to build a stadium here," says Cook. The image of a stadium leaves even him, baseball’s true believer here, awestruck. "Can you imagine a baseball stadium in Cambodia?" he asks.

John Perra is a journalist, a contributor to Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson (Da Capo 2009), and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

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