The great American pastime is winning new fans around the globe.
But it’s odd to meet a Vietnamese kid so enthralled that he not only knows about Babe Ruth, but that, early in his career, the legendary Bambino was traded by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees nearly a century ago.
I’ll call him Babe Nguyên.
A few months ago he showed up to join a weekend baseball team I help coach at the United Nations International School.
Babe is 10 years old, but looks seven and had never played the game.
Recently, my British counterpart in the Expat Files column mused about the prospect of a Vietnamese winning Wimbledon.
I also suspect a Vietnamese athlete, like athletes from Japan and South Korea, someday will play pro baseball in America.
When that happens, Việt Nam sports fans should thank Tom Treutler, an American patent attorney in Hà Nội who is baseball’s self-appointed ambassador to Việt Nam.
I first heard of the legend of Coach Tom, founder and manager of the Hà Nội Capitals, when our UNIS Red Sox hosted his squad for a game.
I was told he was an American expat who spoke fluent Vietnamese, had a Vietnamese wife and a love for baseball so profound that he essentially imported the sport to Hà Nội.
His team showed up in neat uniforms and played with comparable skills to our Red Sox.
(Alas, our Red Sox or the Capitals routinely get clobbered by the team from the Japanese school.
They’re a machine.)
When I finally met Coach Tom, I learned more of his story.
He hails from America’s Midwest, and as the son of a high school coach, he has sports in his blood.
As a young man, in the early 1990s, he studied Vietnamese and spent a year in Việt Nam as a volunteer, later teaching in a university in Hồ Chí Minh City.
While traveling in Laos, he met a woman from Nha TrangCity who would become his bride and mother of their two sons.
They moved to the U.S., where Tom earned a law degree.
Coach Tom, it turned out, lived for a few years in my hometown of Santa Ana, California.
This enabled them to be near Little Sài Gòn, the world’s largest Vietnamese community outside of Việt Nam – and, as it happened, a couple miles from “the Big A,” the stadium that is home of the California Angels.
“My wife and I just fell in love with the Angels.”
Việt Nam beckoned, with Coach Tom leading a patent law practice.
The family missed baseball.
One day, with Vietnamese friends visiting, Tom and his boys pulled out some Whiffle balls and bats – plastic toys that are often the way that toddlers and pre-teens first start learning the game.
They had so much fun that Coach Tom went online to order enough bats, balls, gloves and catcher’s gear to launch the Hà Nội Capitals.
That was five years ago.
Since then, scores of kids have become involved, enabling Coach Tom to field teams in different age groups.
A couple years ago, Coach Tom took a team to a tournament in Indonesia and even back to Orange County, where they played for fun against American Little Leaguers and training session with American coaches.
He also hosted a tournament for Asian youth teams in Đà Nẵng City.
The twists of history may explain why there are no Vietnamese big leaguers already.
Baseball took hold in Japan during the American occupation after the Second World War, and the long U.S. military presence in South Korea nurtured the sport there.
“The American War,” as the Vietnamese call it, turned out differently.
But the game is infectious, as Babe Nguyên could tell you.
As Babe grows ups, he’ll also understand how baseball is a remarkable metaphor for the vicissitudes of life.
Perhaps no other sport has inspired such lore, literature and cinema.
Unlike great sports that are cheapened by stupid tie-breakers, baseball is timeless.
Theoretically, a game could last forever.
So as baseball grows in Việt Nam, the scouts will come in search of a phenom who can throw 100 miles per hour, or has the bat control of Ichiro – and offer them multimillion-dollar contracts.
Babe Nguyên, I suspect, may find another way to channel his love for the game.
By the time I was his age, I dreamed of playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers like Sandy Koufax.
A few years later, after failing to make my junior high team, I decided to be the next Vin Scully, the Dodgers’ great announcer.
Toward that end, I became Sports Editor of my junior high newspaper, starting a career in journalism.
So Babe Nguyên might take a similar route – or maybe he’ll pursue a business role.
If baseball succeeds in Việt Nam like it has elsewhere, somebody will have to own and operate each team.
And Babe Nguyên, I’m sure, would be too smart to trade away a budding superstar.
By SCOTT HARRIS