The Capitals do not have a regulation field to call their own in the city of over 6 million, but baseball — or “bong chay” in Vietnamese — has developed into a new-found passion for several children in a country where sports such as soccer and badminton traditionally rule.
“We started with a core of about six players nearly three years ago,” Treutler said via e-mail recently. “We now have about 80 kids or so in our program.”
Treutler, an intellectual-property lawyer, moved with his wife, Vietnam native Ngoc Thuy, and their two sons, Ben and Henry, to the Southeast Asian country from southern California in 2007. Frustrated that his sons had no opportunity to play baseball in their new home, the Treutlers took it upon themselves to get the ball rolling.
“We had to search all around Hanoi, which is very dense in population, and with not much land,” he said. “No one would rent us a field because they thought baseball was dangerous.”
Even today, the Capitals and other Hanoi players practice on a football field with throwdown bases and no pitcher’s mound.
Their very first practice field was eight miles from Hanoi in Xuan Dinh Village, a town known for its production of candy.
“We asked the parents of a few friends from (Ben’s) birthday party to come to the field, and we had about six kids the first day,” Treutler said. “We started with Whiffle ball for the first two months so the kids could learn the rules, easily hit the ball, and just have fun. I ordered about 15 gloves and 12 balls and bases from Kansas via the Internet. It cost about $400 for the equipment but about $400 more for shipping and customs duty.”
Treutler’s parents, Carl and Sue Treutler of Grand Haven, even lent a hand in the beginning, gathering over 160 pounds of gear they’d purchase at garage sales or thrift shops.
“We’d get bats, gloves, shoes, anything we could find, and put it in a bag. And when (Tom) visited, they’d take it back as luggage,” Carl said.
The fruits of the Treutler’s patience, hard-work, and willingness to spend more than $50,000 of their own savings on additional gear and tournament travel over the past three years has been one part of the equation. Seeing success on the field from players who had little or no previous experience in the sport was another challenge.
At one point, Treutler said his son, Ben, experienced 34-straight losses playing in Pony and Little League baseball. One of those setbacks came during the Capitals’ 7,500-mile trip to California last summer, where they lost in Treutler’s former hometown of Garden Grove, Calif., to the local Pony League team, 19-5.
The new experiences were great for his players, but Treutler began to worry that his son and his fellow teammates would get discouraged and lose interest in the sport.
Fortunately, it hasn’t happened.
“Our kids practice a lot, about four times a week year-round,” Treutler said. “And we play about 11 months a year, so the kids have improved a lot.”
Their practices often begin at 5:30 a.m. in an effort to beat the intense heat in Vietnam. “Often a 125-degree heat index during the summer,” Treutler noted.
At Vietnam’s first-ever youth baseball tournament in February — held in the province of Vinh Phuc — the hard work was rewarded. The Capitals claimed the title of the five-team field, besting two of the top teams from Indonesia, as well as the Japan School of Hanoi and the United Nations School of Hanoi.
The Capitals made more headlines in April, as they defeated the Seattle Klouters, 6-2, in a Pony League contest in the inaugural Vietnam Baseball Challenge. The Klouters, one of the top tournament teams in the Seattle area, traveled 21 hours to play in the game. It was believed to be the first time ever that Vietnam hosted a U.S. team in a youth sporting event. With 319 fans and several TV and print media in attendance, it was also believed to be the largest attended baseball game ever in Vietnam.
The Capitals’ latest conquest was their most rewarding, Treutler said, and further added to their rags to riches story. The team tallied a 2-2 record in the Pony Baseball Asia Pacific Zone Championships in Seoul, South Korea, which clinched fifth-place out of nine countries. One of their victories was against the Phillipines, a team that mercied the Capitals a year earlier — a clear sign of the player’s improvement.
“We finished the highest of all the Southeast Asian countries,” Treutler said. “This was the exact goal we set when we started our program three years ago — to be on top in Southeast Asia.”
“It is amazing that they could achieve this given they only play in a tournament once every six months,” he added. “There are not many teams in Vietnam, and it is too costly to travel abroad for tournaments that often.”
SUPPORTING THE CAUSE
Treutler said he’s been fortunate with the help of much outside assistance and generous sponsors. For example, an Asian Development program through Major League Baseball sends coaches to work with Treutler and his staff twice a year. They’ve helped establish precise training regimens that have sped up the children’s development in the sport.
In another act of generosity, the Seattle Klouters’ head coach, Phil Rognier, provided Hanoi baseball players with a thrill last year. Rognier’s foundation, the Microsoft-sponsored FirstSwing, provided a trip for the Capitals to fly to Seattle to attend a baseball camp as well as a Mariners’ game.
“Our kids were excited to see (Mariners’ outfielder) Ichiro, their hero, live,” Treutler said.
Although their progress is like night and day from the early Whiffle ball days, Treutler admits that Vietnam baseball is still nowhere near the collective talent of countries such as East Asian powers Taiwan, Korea and Japan. But his players remain diligent in reaching that level.
“We have made an effort to play in as many tournaments as possible over the last couple years, and some of our players have played in as many as 40 international games and are becoming real experienced,” he said.
That experience will expand next year, when Vietnam will host the Little League U-14 Asia Pacific Champsionships and the U-12 Pony Baseball Asia Pacific Championships.
“We need to get a baseball field built here, even if it is a modest one,” Treutler said.
But slowly, a sport that was so foreign to children just a few years ago, is beginning to be built.
“We hope to keep getting more kids playing here,” Treutler said.
Treutler said he couldn’t help but smile at one of his team’s tournament wins in South Korea, when Nhu Ngoc Quoc Thinh, a converted ping pong player, drilled a 240-foot home run against Indonesia.
Who knows how many more of those hidden gems are in Hanoi, and if they would have ever been discovered without one idea, made successful by a lot of hard work.