The kid from Cambodia


Over the years, I’ve gotten out of the habit of sitting around the family radio at night, so I don’t often get to hear The Story, which airs on MPR weeknights at 9. Fortunately, I was on the road last evening and was reminded of a couple of things (1) Why radio is such a fabulous medium (2) How often in the humdrum of our daily lives, we really don’t have an appreciation for what we’ve got, based largely on our ignorance of what others don’t.

Last night, I heard an update of the story of Joe Cook, who helped create Cambodia’s first baseball team. Cute stuff, with the story about having to play baseball with water buffalo and motorcycles running across the field.

But it’s impossible to listen to his journey (delivered with an Alabama accented Cambodian accent) and not ask, “What would I have done in that situation?” Of course, most of us have no frame of reference because we don’t come close to dealing with these situations.

Here’s the Cliffs Notes version.

1. He was 5 when Pol Pot seized power and his father went to the battlefront, returning only briefly to tell his family “I will not be with you anymore.” A few minutes later when his father left he heard “so many guns shooting, so many bombs exploding,” and he found out a few days later his father was gone.

2. The Khmer Rouge sent him and his family to the “Killing Fields.” He ate leaves, grass and tree bark to stay alive for two years.

3. He tried eight times to escape. He escaped on the ninth, as the Khmer Route shot at him and his family. Over the next few weeks, he found two brothers and his mother, but his sister never showed up. At age 7, they walked five months barefoot to the Thailand border and eventually made it to the U.S.

4. They settled in Alabama, and many years later, he found his sister was alive. He flew to Cambodia only to find out his sister had no money to get to the border, so she sold her 10-year-old son for $47. “She wanted to meet me at the border to show her brother how honored she was for him to come.”

5. He bought her son — his nephew — back for $100. “That’s Cambodia,” he said. “Life is cheap.” His niece and nephew proudly showed him where they lived. “I have to do something about this,” he said. That’s when he said, “I’m going to bring baseball back.”

As a refugee, he wandered past a Little League game in Alabama when he was 12. Although unable to speak English, he was able to communicate to the coach that he wanted to play. So he did. He wasn’t very good but he loved the sport. “Imagine playing baseball blindfolded, I had no idea where (the players) go or how they play.”

6. In 2002, Joe, who is a chef, put together enough old pieces of equipment to bring baseball to Cambodia. “Baseball has always been in to me and I just wanted to do so much,” he said.

Recently, Cambodia’s national team was invited to play in an international tournament for southeast Asia. His team got smoked against Thailand, the #1 ranked team. They lost 16-0. “It was great,” he told The Story. “I told them ‘no matter win or lose, we’re here.'”

The nephew he bought back was one of the players.

“Without baseball,” he said, “we’d have no heroes.”

Now Cambodia has one. And so should we all.

You can find his blog here, and after you visit it, trust me, you’ll be having a much better day.