>Bringing baseball to Cambodia

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BALLPLAYERS: Cook, center, with the Cambodian national baseball team at the Southeast Asian Games in Thailand in December. “We didn’t win a damn game,” Cook said. “But winning is nothing. The biggest deal is we showed up. We had the guts to be there. We’re satisfied with that.”
(Kevin Glackmeyeer / For The Times)

LOVE OF THE GAME: Joe Cook watches high school players in Dothan, Ala., where he lives. He says he has spent about $300,000 on Cambodian baseball since the fall of 2002 — huge chunks of it coming out of his pocket.
Joe Cook found joy in baseball after he fled Cambodia’s killing fields. He’s driven, perhaps obsessed, to bring the game home.

By Kevin Baxter,
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 18, 2008
DOTHAN, ALA. — The baseball ground rules are different in Cambodia.A ball hit off the water buffaloes grazing in the outfield is in play, but a ball lost in the adjoining rice paddy is not. And timeout must be called whenever a motorcycle approaches on the dirt road that cuts through the outfield.
“You can’t put it in perspective with words,” said Jim Small, managing director for Major League Baseball’s operations in Asia. “You just need to see it.”But even then you can’t always believe what you’re seeing.Shirtless children in plastic flip-flops batting cross-handed. Adults who insist on trying to pitch with both hands wrapped tightly around the ball. And slides that aren’t so much slides as they are baserunners falling down, then rolling.”Teaching baseball in Cambodia,” Joe Cook said, “it’s not easy.”Cook, a Cambodian refugee who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide to escape to the United States, has spent the last five years trying to turn the former killing fields of his homeland into fields of dreams for a generation that has known little more than war, poverty and despair.Along the way he’s lost his life savings, his car and nearly his marriage. And, Cook insists, some people in Cambodia would like to see him dead.”I want to walk away from this. I do. But these kids,” he said, pointing to a photo of three shoeless children in torn clothes toting bats and gloves through a rice paddy, “baseball brings smiles to their faces.”In December, thanks to Cook, Cambodia fielded a national baseball team for the first time in the Southeast Asian Games in Thailand. It was a milestone as inauspicious as it was historic: Cambodia’s first four hitters struck out without even touching the ball, and it took four games for the team to get its first hit.By then Cambodia had been outscored, 67 to 1 — which, according to Cambodian ground rules, added up to a tremendous victory.”We didn’t win a damn game. But winning is nothing,” Cook said a month later. “The biggest deal is we showed up. We had the guts to be there. We’re satisfied with that.”Whether they show up again, however, is anybody’s guess. Although the other five baseball teams that played in the Southeast Asian Games are supported by organized and relatively well-financed national organizations, the Cambodian team is supported largely by Cook and whatever donations his nonprofit organization can scrape together.Lately that hasn’t been much. Two months before the games, Cook was far short of the $50,000 he figured it would take to get Cambodia to the competition.He was also half a world away, in the tiny southeast Alabama town of Dothan, working as a chef at a Japanese steakhouse.Mark Dennis, a Dothan businessman, helped Cook obtain more than $41,000 in loans, wiring the final $4,500 himself from a neighborhood pharmacy less than an hour before the registration deadline.”It seems like he’s overcome so much to get to this point,” said Dennis, who last month took over the bookkeeping for Cambodia Baseball. “I just had a hard time seeing him fail that close.”Despite the victory of showing up in Thailand, Cook hardly feels like a winner these days. He’s $41,500 in debt, and Cambodia Baseball has just $1,585 in the bank.”I’ve spent all my savings,” Cook said, fighting back tears during a recent interview while sitting on a sofa in his cramped second-floor apartment. “I’m so frustrated. I’ve had enough of this. Do you know how stressed I am? It’s a disaster right now.”The apartment’s carpet is shabby and stained, the walls grimy and in need of paint. The sofa, which sits next to a broken coffee table, is both an office and a bed for Cook, who leaves the bedroom to his wife and daughter. During his last trip to Cambodia in December, his 4-year-old Hyundai XG350 was repossessed and both the gas and electricity were turned off.
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