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Pitching baseball to Cambodia

Pitching baseball to Cambodia

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Joe Cook (centre, holding photograph) poses with his Cambodian national baseball team. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Joe Cook, a Cambodian refugee brought up in America, has made it his goal to establish the sport he loves so much in the land of his ancestors

Joe Cook (centre, holding photograph) poses with his Cambodian national baseball team. PHOTO SUPPLIED

WHEN Joe Cook managed the Cambodian National Baseball Team to its first win ever last month against Malaysia at the Asian Games in Bangkok, he did what managers are supposed to do. He made out the starting lineup, ordered pitching changes and talked strategy with coaches during the game. Nothing unusual about that, except that Cook was managing the Cambodian team thousands of miles away in the United States, where his job as a chef at a restaurant forced him to prepare meals with one hand whilst running his team via a mobile phone in the other. An entirely unlikely scenario ... unless you know Joe Cook.

Cook, whose real name is Jouert Puk, was born in Cambodia in 1970, and his earliest years were spent during the final days of the Vietnam War and the horrific Pol Pot regime. His life was made more difficult during the Khmer Rouge period, because his father had been a Cambodian military officer, marking Cook and his family for harsh interrogation. Finally, in 1978, Cook, his oldest brother and their mother fled the country barefoot - one of Joe's legs was mangled by a trip mine during the exodus - and the next four years of Cook's life were spent shuttling between various Asian refugee camps before a Christian mission settled the 12-year-old with an American family in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Joe Cook was penniless, spoke no English and only had the clothes on his back when he arrived in America in 1982. The lonely youth happened upon a baseball game among other kids one day, and through mime and gesticulation was able to convey his desire to try playing this strange new sport. He was let into the game, and a love affair with baseball was spawned.

Cook eventually learned English, graduated from high school, got married and landed a job as a chef in a Japanese restaurant in Dothan, Alabama, where he picked up the name "Joe Cook". Life went on until he got the news in 2002 that a sister he'd believed had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge was alive and living in Cambodia. They arranged to meet near the Thai border, and during the visit, he promised his sister's children that he'd return someday and teach them this strange American game called baseball.

That promise has since blossomed into the Cambodia Baseball Federation (CBF), which Cook runs from his home in the US. His tireless efforts over the past seven years have led to thousands of gloves, bats, balls and other baseball equipment being shipped into Cambodia, where they are distributed among schoolchildren. In 2005, Cook spearheaded the drive to build Cambodia's first real baseball field in the village of Baribo, 110 kilometres west of Phnom Penh in Kampong Chhnang province. Cook also formed the Cambodian National Team in 2007, and hopes to organise a Cambodian baseball league with teams of the country's top players this winter.

However, Cook's remarkable success at building a sport so far from his residence has come at a cost. The hours he spends managing the CBF are daunting enough, but he has also spent over US$300,000 of his own money to keep the nonprofit organisation alive, big bucks for a chef in Alabama. It's nearly cost him his marriage, and the stress brought on by a combination of distance, lack of funds and bureaucratic red tape has led to many sleepless nights for the 39-year-old father of two. Even so, he pursues his version of the field of dreams with a deep passion.

As baseball slowly grows in popularity amongst kids in Cambodia, plans to install a feeder system for the National Team, who coming off their historic win over Malaysia in June, are under way.

Now Joe Cook's dream doesn't look so impossible after all.

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