Baseball Comes To Myanmar

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The scoreboard at the baseball field. (David Grunebaum/Only A Game)
A manual scoreboard sits beside the field where the Myanmar national baseball team plays most of its games. The team has trouble finding local opponents. (David Grunebaum/Only A Game)

On the other side of the planet is a country called Myanmar that's a world away from the U.S. After decades under a military dictatorship, the government is trying to transition to democracy. Most of the people in this impoverished Southeast Asian nation are Buddhist and less than 10 percent of the population have cell phones. But there's a place where an American game has a toehold thanks to a man from Japan.

At this game the players cheered in English, "Good eye, here we go"

This is baseball in Myanmar. The ball field located on an old horse race track is a combination of weeds, hardened dirt and overgrown grass. The scoreboard is changed by hand. The announcers do not quite have the lingo down either.

"And that's another point for the national team."

America's national pastime is here because of a Japanese coach, Toru Iwasaki, the founder and director of a local preschool.

Coach Toru Iwasaki in front of the dugout with the Myanmar national flag. (David Grunebaum/Only A Game)
Coach Toru Iwasaki in front of the dugout with the Myanmar national flag. (David Grunebaum/Only A Game)

"I want to introduce baseball. Baseball is very fun, and I like to let Myanmar young people know about baseball more," Iwasaki explained.

Iwasaki started this program 13 years ago in the country's largest city, Yangon. He recruited Myanmar players, many of whom had experience playing in softball games organized by the American Embassy.

His squad is now the Myanmar national team. The players are in their late-teens, 20s and 30s, and most have day jobs including driving taxis and repairing copy machines.

Zaw Zaw Oo is a 5-foot-8, left-handed pitcher with a 78-mph fastball. After this game, he will travel to Kagawa, Japan and become the first Myanmar national to play professional baseball.

He loves the fact that he's competing in a game that's unusual in his native country.

"Because baseball is not popular and it is a new sport. It's very interesting to learn a new sport. It's a great sport to play, especially since this is not a place that it's well known,” he said.

For decades, the outside world seemed to know little about Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. The nation was isolated under repressive military rule. The country went from being one of Southeast Asia's richest to one of its poorest. Many workers only earn $100 a month. Parts of the country do not have electricity. However, in recent years as the government made democratic reforms, foreign investors have helped the country to start building a modern infrastructure.

As for the Myanmar national team, its biggest challenge is finding an opponent. It's just about the only baseball team inside the country. But on a summer afternoon, the Myanmar team took on a squad of Japanese and American expatriates. Matt Bughler organized the American contingent.

"It's a rag-tag team," Bughler said. "We’ve got a bunch of guys that played high school baseball. We have a couple of guys that probably haven't played since middle school."

Bughler is a 31-year-old lawyer who played in high school in Pennsylvania and often practices with the Myanmar national team on weekends.

"It reminds me of home a bit. That's why I enjoy it. I miss baseball, I associate baseball with home, and it's nice being out here on a Sunday afternoon playing with these guys. So yeah, maybe [it's] a little slice of America here."

A baseball field in Myanmar. (David Grunebaum/Only A Game)
A baseball field in Myanmar. (David Grunebaum/Only A Game)

Today's game drew fans that live in Yangon but come from a mix of countries including the U.S., United Kingdom, Norway, Germany and Myanmar.

"This is my first time watching this game and I very much like it," said Aung Ba Kyaw, 19, a local college student. An American friend taught him some of the basics such as balls, strikes, outs and innings. But Kyaw is clearly a fair-weather fan.

When asked who he was rooting for Kyaw replied, “Both sides." He added, “Because when the Americans get the score, I get excited. When Myanmar get the score, I get excited, too."

The Myanmar club travels abroad every few years to play in international competitions, but it gets very little funding from the Myanmar Sports Ministry. The team depends on fundraising and money from coach Iwasaki's own pocket to stay afloat. He gets help organizing the program from his wife and two daughters, who are both in their 20s.  His daughter Saya Iwasaki says the team has become part of their family.

"I mean, I grew up with these baseball players. They're like my brothers.” Saya said, “I've known them since I was 11 years old, but for me it represents sort of what my family has been through over these years. It's like one of our babies."

Baseball has a long way to go in Myanmar, where it sits in the shadow of soccer. The Myanmar national team is probably not better than any good American high school baseball team, but today it beat the rag-tag expatriate squad by a score of 18-5.

This segment aired on September 21, 2013.


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