Cambodia’s national baseball team walk out at the openeing ceremony of the 2007 SEA Games in Bangkok. Photo Supplied
Cambodia's fledgling national baseball team picked up their first-ever win in international competition last week at the eighth annual Asian Cup tournament in Thailand. The Cambodians pounded Malaysia, 20-8, in their final game of the tourney on Thursday, May 28.
Cambodia opened play May 25 with a 6-0 loss to Indonesia, who went on to beat Pakistan in the title game for the Asia Cup championship. When the two teams met in the 2007 Southeast Asia (SEA) Games in Thailand during Cambodia's initial foray into international competition, Indonesia won by a 37-1 margin in a game shortened to five innings by the 10-run mercy rule.
The Khmer bats stayed silent in a 10-0 loss to Hong Kong May 26. Hong Kong was ahead 5-0 after seven innings, but put the game away for good with five runs in the eighth. Twenty-four-year-old pitcher Mich Phea took the loss for Cambodia.
Things got better in Cambodia's May 27 game against Myanmar. Although this one ended with a 3-1 Myanmar victory, Moun Chanthon pitched very well for Cambodia with the 21-year-old letting in just one run in a complete game performance. The Cambodians also put their first run of the tournament on the board, but failed to hit in clutch situations and left many runners stranded on base.
The loss ended Cambodia's pool play with a record of 0-3, finishing fourth in Pool B. The breakthrough win came in a crossover seventh place playoff against Malaysia May 28. The Malaysians had actually led up until the sixth inning, but the Cambodian bats came alive with a torrent of runs over the final four frames as Moun Chanthon helped seal the win.
In all, Cambodia was outscored by a 27-21 margin over four games in the Asia Cup, a marked improvement from the 88-8 pounding they took two years ago over four contests in the Southeast Asia Games.
After the tournament ended, Cambodia's Houey Si Pho was named to the All-Asia Games Team as shortstop. The 25-year-old, who stands just 1.5 metres tall and weighs 47 kilograms, has only played baseball for four years, but caught the eye of observers with his speed and throwing arm.
Baseball is a relatively new sport in Cambodia. The game was introduced earlier this decade by Jouert Puk, a 38-year-old Cambodia native who fled the country on foot at the age of 8 during the Pol Pot regime and eventually landed in America after four years in refugee camps. He became a passionate baseball fan as a youngster, introducing the game to Cambodia after a 2002 reunion with a sister he'd thought had died under the Khmer Rouge.
Jouert Puk, who goes by the name of Joe Cook in the United States because he is a cook at a restaurant in the state of Alabama, was also behind the construction of Cambodia's first baseball field in Baribo district, Kampong Chhnang province in 2005. He formed the Cambodian National Team two years later, in time for the SEA Games.
Earlier this year, the team swept a three-game series with a club from Ho Chi Minh City at the Baribo ballpark, setting the stage for last week's Asia Cup performance.
Jouert Puk has had to operate his Cambodia Baseball Foundation out of his own pocket at times, and was unable to afford the plane trip to Bangkok. As a result, he managed the team via cell phone in the USA with one of his coaches on the other end, all while working as a cook at his regular job. This is not the usual way of running a baseball team, but then again, there is nothing usual about Jouert Puk or Cambodian baseball.