Bringing Baseball to Vietnam

Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Danny Graves rediscovers his roots in Vietnam and hopes to generate interest in his sport while raising funds for a worthy cause.

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Relations between the U.S. and Vietnam have been improving steadily in the past decade. Trade between the two nations is now worth billions of dollars each year. Last summer, the Vietnamese Prime Minister visited the U.S. The first such visit since the end of the war. And President Bush is scheduled to travel to Vietnam in November. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports on another milestone in U.S.-Vietnamese relations. The export of America's favorite pastime.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

Here's something you don't hear very often in Vietnam.

(Soundbite of song Take Me Out to the Ballgame)

Baseball is almost unknown in Vietnam, despite the long U.S. presence here during the war. Soccer is king. But the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund and Major League Baseball are hoping to change that. They've just dedicated a new high school ball field in Quong-Chi Province and they brought several Americans along to teach local students the game.

(Soundbite of baseball training)

Some of the boys' bloodiest battles were fought around here, not far from the DMZ. Thirty years after the war ended, the area is still littered with unexploded ordinance which kills or maims dozens each year. The miners found and removed 17 pieces of unexploded ordinance from the land set aside for this project.

Organizers say the project's goal is to build bridges between the two countries and foster friendship by turning a battlefield into a ball field. One of the teachers is a long-time major league ballplayer, 32 year old pitcher, Danny Graves.

Mr. DANNY GRAVES (Baseball pitcher): This, honestly, is the most fun I've had in a long time with baseball. These kids are great. It's just so much fun to be out here and I'm really, really excited. Graves knows a little about bridging cultures.

SULLIVAN: His father was a U.S. soldier during the war who met and married a Vietnamese woman working at the U.S. embassy in Saigon. Graves was born in Saigon in 1973. This is his first trip back since his family left the former South Vietnamese capital just before it fell to the communists. Today, he's teaching Vietnamese students how to take aim with the ball.

Mr. GRAVES: Really good, tell him every time we throw, we want to throw it at the guy's chest. We want to throw it to them here, not up here or here or here. Because he's got a really strong arm, we just need to get him to throw it in the right direction.

SULLIVAN: For most of the students this is the first time they've thrown a baseball or swung a bat and Graves seems impressed with their quick grasp of the game.

Mr. GRAVES: I feel like these kids, baseball is not very foreign to them. These kids, they're good athletes. They're very quick learners, very teachable, so the game is not as foreign to these kids as people think.

SULLIVAN: Major League Baseball's only Vietnamese-born player says he loves being back and that the people are friendly, both to him and to his mother, who is on her first trip back as well. One of his new students, 17 year old Huang Duk(ph) says Graves is a good teacher. After a few minutes instruction, he's able to throw the ball pretty well and says he looks forward to playing more.

Mr. HUANG DUK (Vietnam resident, baseball student): (through translator) I thought it was quite difficult at first. But after some practice, I think it is not too difficult and it's really quite interesting. I just hope to keep this field for baseball and not turn it into a soccer field. I think baseball can be popular all over Vietnam.

SULLIVAN: Maybe so, but equipment is costly, there aren't many fields, and soccer is much more accessible, at least for now. But Danny Graves is confident baseball will take off in the country where he was born.

Mr. GRAVES: Not overnight. It might take a while, it could take two years, it could take ten years, you never know. But the way these kids are reacting to it now, it's gonna be great.

SULLIVAN: Graves says he hopes that the young people here look at him as proof that Vietnamese can play baseball on a professional level. He says he'll be back in November after his season is over back in the U.S. Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

(Soundbite of baseball practice)

(Soundbite of the song Take Me Out to the Ballgame)

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