From Killing Fields to Fields of Dreams

baseball players
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.