International Baseball Film Festival: How to Start a National Team From Scratch

Out of Left Field tracks the Chinese national team all the way up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics (via Bjoern).

Out of Left Field tracks the Chinese national team all the way up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics (via Bjoern).

Recently, the FIBA World Cup — that’s basketball — took place in arenas across Spain. It pitted the 24 top basketball in the nations ’round the globe against one another. There were traveling packs of fans who migrated to Spain to cheer on their home country but, unlike the FIFA World Cup — a.k.a. “The World Cup” — attending FIBA’s tournament is not exactly a bucket list-level priority. FIBA is probably fun, sure, but unlike the FIFA tournament, it does not provide moments weighted with the gravity of history and tradition, even in its most thrilling moments. In FIBA, the global pool is not deep enough to leave deserving teams out of the tournament, and it is not deep enough for more than three or four teams to have a legitimate chance at tournament victory.

As a tournament, though, the FIBA World Cup had and has a lot more balance, tension, and value than the World Baseball Classic, which has yet to be something other than problematic. There is world-class baseball played at the WBC, just as there is world-class basketball played at FIBA — but most games at the WBC are charade in anticipation of the match-ups between the usual suspects. It’s been hard to field a legitimate group of 16 teams.

There are also the Olympics, a trophy valued by national basketball teams even more than the FIBA World Cup. Meantime, baseball at the Olympics has been canceled, perhaps never to return.

So, why can basketball do what baseball can’t, and arrange not one but two enjoyable international tournaments?

In pursuit of an answer I’ve watched three documentaries, each of which shows the infant stages of one of the world’s most fledgling baseball nations. The Emerald Diamond (directed by John J. Fitzgerald; 92 minutes; 2006) uses a collage of VHS-taped games and laid-back interviews to follow baseball in Ireland from the mid-nineties to the mid-aughts. Out of Left Field (directed by Tom Jennings; 55 minutes; 2008) was aired on PBS and travels internationally as China’s baseball team scrambles for respectability in anticipation of its automatic berth into 2008’s Beijing Olympics. And Rice Field of Dreams (directed by Daron Ker; 75 minutes; 2013) goes deepest of all, following Cambodia’s national team from learning the rules of baseball to competing in the 2012 “Sea” Games (Southeast Asia).

It looks like it would easily have been most fun to be around the Irish team, a feature that, as it were, makes The Emerald Diamond the least compelling documentary.

There is no notable conflict in the brief history of the Irish baseball team, only supportive and communal learning as the team steadily improves with each biennial hosting of the European Championships. The team is an affable troop of weekend warriors who proudly cut the ribbon on Ireland’s first baseball field, in a lush public park, with financing provided by Dodgers then-owner Peter O’Malley. The players are all exhaustively complimentary of one anothers’ skills, equipped with the type of attitudes that turn losses into moral victories. In eight years, Ireland goes from winning a single game at the European Championships to taking home the bronze medal thanks to the incremental aid of experience — and also thanks to imported players from America (whose grandparents lived in Ireland) and newly discovered, naturalized citizens from Cuba.

Adding further to the good vibes/slow documentary dilemma is how all of the Irish players are thoroughly focused on teaching and coaching the Irish youth. The only conflict here is an unforeseen one: the youth coaches bemoan how there isn’t a single other popular Irish sport that incorporates the action of throwing, which makes baseball a foreign and wild adventure for the kids indeed.

In the last ten minutes of the documentary there comes the first piece of adversity in the annals of Irish baseball: when the International Olympic Committee ruled in 2005 that baseball would not be played in the 2012 London Olympics and onward, the funding for Ireland’s national team and amatuer league is dramatically slashed. Unfortunately the documentary ends on this dubious note instead of chronicling whatever resilience followed from the Irish players.

The implication of the IOC legislation is: while nobody will miss the actual tournament, baseball in the Olympics allowed the game to be protected and incubated for so many countries who, like Ireland, didn’t need a second hand to count the baseball fields within their nation. This, here, is a tragedy that is small but real. Who knows how many how many MLB-caliber talents have been unable to pursue the game in the decade since?

Out of Left Field is all about baseball’s final Olympic tournament, following the Chinese team on their international, multi-year exhibition journey in preparation for the Beijing Games. Since China is, you know, a giant country — and thus palpably full of loads of potential baseball talent and baseball consumers — Major League Baseball itself gets involved in the process. Former Major Leaguer Jim Lefebvre is appointed as manager and Bruce Hurst as pitching coach, to give the Chinese players the best possible fundamentals.

Hardly any of this movie actually takes place in China. We spend a lot of time in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the team practices on what looks like spring training backfields. Where Ireland traveled like a group of friends on vacation, the Chinese team moves through their practices like wide-eyed kids at their first sleepaway camp, constantly exposed to newness on and off the field.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

There’s not any genuine conflict in Out of Left Field. There is the language barrier, sure, but speakers of both languages work through it as best as possible with an earnest translator and jovial patience. Much like with the Irish team, the only formidable obstacle is the players’ unfamiliarity with the game. (Which, across these documentaries, it becomes ever more clear that honest, competitive baseball is something of a high art, a craftsman’s triumph. Like handcrafting a guitar, baseball can only be done excellently, or quite poorly — it’s almost categorically impossible to do either activity just “okay.”) Here, too, the team’s communal patience is enough to clear the hurdle.

The antagonist, if there is one, is the invisible clock that counts down to 8/8/08 — the night of the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing. Work on the documentary, not to mention Lefebvre’s and Hurst’s jobs coaching the team, began in earnest back in 2005, and even then there was a genuine sense that the clock was madly ticking.

It’s a credit to Lefebvre and Hurst (although Hurst would ultimately leave the team before the Olympics actually started) that they stuck with the team for so long, and through so many parts of the world, when the end goals were: (1) the intangible mission of “growing the game” in a country that, so far, can hardly be bothered by it, and (2) avoiding total embarrassment in a distant two-week tournament. Hopes of placing well in the eight-team Olympics would be delusional — avoiding embarrassment was the primary objective.

Out of Left Field travels to three continents with the Chinese team. We start at the practices in Scottsdale before going to Bologna, Italy, to play exhibitions against teams like Cuba — who, unsurprisingly, blow out China — and Chinese Taipei, in which the Chinese team earns their first victory, which is cause for jubilation. As Lefebvre gives his customary postgame speech in foul territory down the line, the team eagerly sits at his feet like an elementary school class, very literally sitting criss-cross-applesauce around him. Combine that with the team’s pregame trip to McDonald’s — bags litter the locker room as the team gets dressed — and the team’s journey is infused with a significant helping of innocent charm.

From there, the team goes on to Japan for the 2006 World Baseball Classic, where China opens against Japan themselves, in the TokyoDome. Before the game — in which China would go down 18-2 before the game was called off via mercy rule — Lefebvre has this fantastic conversation with the umpire while delivering the lineup card:

JL: Good fun, good work but they got a long ways to go. We’re just really short.   

Ump: Well you’re just getting the program started, I mean, you’re starting from scratch.  

JL: Exactly. Pretty much so. So…

Ump: What are you right now, compared to, like a Double-A maybe?

JL: No. Shit no. We’re probably, probably a Low-A. Low-A, on a day-to-day basis.

Ump: Well, you know, okay. They’re learning.

JL: They’re learning, right.

[The two men walk in opposite directions.]

The Chinese team would eventually go 1-6 at the Olympic games, outscored 60-14 — but there was another victory, over Chinese Taipei once more. I had to look this up: Out of Left Field, unfortunately, does not actually follow the team to Beijing. It is all prelude.

Rice Field of Dreams takes place in the wild, unlegislated outer boundaries of baseball. Just about all of the Cambodian players have to be informed that there exists a game called baseball as they are recruited on to the national team. After an initial burst of narration from the film’s American-Cambodian director, the rest of the documentary simply unfolds without comment — an artistic decision that was definitely essential in making Rice Field of Dreams as compelling as it was.

As the events taking place in front of the skeleton film crew slowly veer towards the equivalent of a car crash, the camera is held steadily in place, ready to record whatever happens. It dawns on the viewer that it is impossible to guess the final fate of the Cambodian national baseball team — that the film crew themselves has no proper idea of where the story is heading as they are running tape. As such, Rice Field of Dreams is a documentary in a pure sense, in that it only aspires to document what happened. It was probably tempting to run some sort of narrative interference, to catch the story as it wobbled off-balance and steer it towards a happier direction. This, however, would be far from true to life.

There is a vortex of activity, insanity, and melodrama that constantly swirls around main character/protagonist/antagonist Joeurt Puk, a native Cambodian who moved to America and became a chef at a dreary Benihana’s-type restaurant in Alabama, cheesily renaming himself Joe Cook. It seems like Cook has lived the vast majority of his life in America, and speaks with a wholly unique Asian/Southern drawl — a quirk that feels increasingly sinister, like a tic belonging to an eclectic Tarantino villain, as the film continues on.

It’s hard to understand what Cook is saying, but not because of his accent, and it’s not because — I don’t think — he has poor command of the English language. One forms the suspicion that Cook is simply a poor communicator in any tongue, speaking in sentences that fizzle down directionless tangents, spinning turns of phrase until they have lost their meaning. Examples:

  • “Dream do’s come true.”
  • “I want you to throw a strike zone.”
  • “What they said was right, and now I’ve got to stand that word.”

Assembling the Cambodian national team was far from an exhaustive national search — it seems that Cook’s recruiting extended to the borders of the village of Baribo, where the first half of the film is set. The team is coached by four North Americans — I say North Americans because, while one coach wore a shirt that said “Canadian Old-Timers’ Baseball – Medicine Hat 1998,” reasonably identifying him as Canadian, the names and backgrounds of the coaches are never definitively pinned down. There are two dudes right about out of college, another guy somewhere at the beginning of middle age, and the Old-Timer from Medicine Hat. They seem related to one another.

The coaches are all relentlessly and spectacularly optimistic and encouraging, troopers in the face of daunting village life in Baribo, and also in the face of the team’s total lack of baseball knowledge. When the team travels to the Sea Games in Thailand (the tournament is bizarrely always called the “Sea Games,” in English, by all) and lose to Indonesia 37-1, they say in the locker room, post-game: “There’s no reason to hang your head. Every team has gone through a game like this.” I mean, that’s not really true — but their team has just learned the rules of baseball, so why be difficult? It seems that Cook has lucked into the perfect men for the job.

As the Sea Games continue, Cook is, tragically, unable to suppress his narcissistic neuroses, thrown into fits of extreme jealousy apparently over the coaches’ role of speaking in front of the entire team — and, presumably, in front of the camera. Cook calls a team meeting in a room at the team’s hotel, a potentially benign scene that spins out of control and into horrific tragedy. Cook fires all of the coaches, appoints himself manager, and then launches into vicious and obviously counter-productive verbal abuse of his team. It seems clear that, as Cook stands at the front of the room, all eyes (and lenses) fixed on him, there is a sadistic pleasure in all of the attention he has earned for himself.

The coaches, freshly unemployed, can only helplessly watch from the back of the room, not knowing Cook’s exact words as he rants in Cambodian but sure, from the acidic tone of his voice, that all of the positivity they have worked so hard to instill is being dissembled like a wrecking ball swung from a crane. Interviewed in the lobby afterwards, they agree: “Cambodia deserves better.” What was on track to be a fun adventure in Thailand has turned into a brutal business trip under a tyrannical boss, and by the time the credits roll there are some serious and legitimate questions as to whether the whole expedition was at all worth the effort.

Baseball is a complex sport. Just to get the play started, a person must throw a baseball both very fast and very accurately, which is a hard thing to do even for the world’s best. For the amateurs in all three of these documentaries, it means a lot of hit batsmen — never mind a lot of batsmen hitting balls hard and far. The tactical difficulties only expand from there.

Baseball is also complex because of the necessary equipment involved, which is a long and detailed checklist. The Cambodian team, upon arrival in Thailand, walk the warning track together in wide-eyed amazement — they have never played in a venue so large because, back in Baribo, the grass just beyond the infield was cut short by, yes, a rice field. Even for first-world Ireland, it takes coordinated community effort to achieve and maintain their country’s first baseball field, with permanent mound and chain-link backstop and proper space between the bases. Most of the energies expended in these films are about just getting to the top of the first.

But it seems like the most significant obstacle to these countries’ baseball efforts is the sheer foreign-ness of the game. In all three documentaries there are (North) American coaches who are flown in to dispense their wisdom as rapidly as possible, teaching everything from batting stance to positioning on relays in from the outfield in daily practices for a few cramped weeks. They all do the best job that they can and, for all the supremely blown-out scores endured by these teams in their minor tournaments, they all, at least, understand what the game looks like — that they must go back to the dugout after looking at the third strike, and that that was a poor thing to do indeed.

These crash courses are clearly never enough to make significant changes to the international baseball landscape. World-class baseball comes from players who, in addition to their prodigious skill — and there’s no way that skillful players are exclusively born in the United States, the Dominican, Japan, etc. — don’t only know of the subtlest nuances of baseball strategy but are reflexively fluent in them. It’s the difference between successfully ordering off a menu in a second language, and then publishing poetry in that same language.

The players who come from baseball-mad countries — the ones that so totally dominate the WBC — have already gained all sorts of advantages on the rest of the world, just by emerging into the world in a country that has easily accessible baseball fields, and thus easily accessible baseball bats, helmets, cleats, and so on. But perhaps their biggest advantage, and perhaps the reason why baseball is only played properly by a select few countries, is because they have the resources to constantly learn the game from the start. Baseball is a game that exists at the highest levels because it is so carefully and thoroughly taught, generation to generation.

Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.
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Fascinating stuff.

As follow-up, ESPN had an interesting article about Joe Cook:

I'm Uncle Siam, that's who I am
I'm Uncle Siam, that's who I am

The “Sea Games” that Cambodia lost that heart-breaking 37-1 game to Indonesia… it’s actually the SEA Games as in South East Asia.


A very honest appraisal of the situation of the sport in the rest of the world. I am a UK-born baseball coach here in England and my experience of the game has been 100% based in the UK, with knowledge of the game picked up from watching MLB, reading about the game and it’s history in books and online and learning from more experienced coaches (generally also British) who have spent time in the US usually at college playing the game. Here there is just one dedicated baseball facility in the whole country which was opened just over a year… Read more »

Bryan Cole

No doubt there are huge chasms in international baseball. The Dutch are plucky underdogs globally, but they just ran away with the (recently completed) European championships this year.

But I do think you’re selling the WBC short: contrast the U.S.’s performance in the FIBA World Cup (average margin of victory this year: 33 points) with the WBC (best finish: 4th). I think the top is much more competitive, or maybe baseball’s just more random.