Monday, November 2, 2009

Contrasting Cases in the Globalization of Baseball: India and Cambodia

Sports have been used as a tool of assimilation by western powers for centuries. The following stories show vastly differnt approaches to the way that baseball is being diffused across the global landscape.

India Reality TV Show Searches For Next U.S. Baseball Star (NPR, "Tell Me More"; 10.28.09):

Let's just say there is little more to this story than the combination of reality television and capitalist greed, an opportunistic mix of popular culture and the pursuit of...Major League Baseball dollars. According to the story, sports agent, J. B. Bernstein co-founded a company that then started a reality TV show called the "Million Dollar Arm," set in India. Participants competed to win $1 million based on who could hurl the fasted baseball pitch and then throw three pitches of at least 90 miles per hour.

Two javelin throwers came out on top and have since been awarded contracts with a Pittsburgh Pirates minor league team. From the story's transcript:

MARTIN (interviewer): So J.B., let's start with you. What gave you the idea to travel halfway around the world from here to look for baseball players in India? It's not like there's a shortage of players on this hemisphere.

Mr. BERNSTEIN (interviewee): No, definitely not. I think in looking at India, I'm looking at the fact, you know, they have over 300 million men under the age of 25 and 100 percent of them pretty much play cricket in some form. So they're used to throwing a baseball-sized object. And because there is not a big pro sports scene in India, it just seemed that there had to be a lot of natural athletes out there.

The question was, does the age-old saying everybody says you can't teach speed - If I can have a guy who throws hard, I'll teach him everything else - well, that's the one thing we put to the test with, you know, one of the top coaches and it seems to have worked out.


MARTIN: So you're looking for basically, you're looking for the Yao Ming of India. You can find a new talent pool, but you figure you can also build an audience for baseball in India?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Definitely. Yes, through following these guys, I think, you know, that's a great model, the Yao Ming-NBA model, and yeah, if we can create that artificially in India with baseball, I think we could see a similar type of...

MARTIN: So there was no romance in this for you. There was no - this was just a business thing?...No disrespect, but it wasn't like you were, like, oh, you know, the romance of the American pastime.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: No, well, I am a baseball fan more than anything. So yeah, I mean, there's certainly, I think, always a personal element to me with baseball. But yeah, I mean, there's no doubt this was a business decision that, by the way, everybody thought was stupid.

This is a classic example of hybridity where transnational capital (prize money, television production, and the actual players) moves back and forth between the United States and India. In the process, various forms of cultural interchange and cultural production are bound to emerge across multiple borders.

Of course in this story, we get the American perspective since the interviewer is American (African American), the first interviewee (notably the one I quote) is the American sports agent, and two additional interviewees are the Indian athletes (initially javelin throwers, turned minor league pitchers). Still, as pointed out by Michel Martin, one can't help but notice the capitalist desires expressed in this global exchange -- an American capitalist aims to find the next "Indian Yao Ming" superstar that will generate big bucks via the massive populace (i.e., potential audience/consumers) that is India. Capitalized multiculturalism at its finest.

Then we have a much different story of baseball and assimilation in Cambodia...

From killing fields to field of dreams (Asia Times Online; 10.22.09):

Cambodia is an unlikely place for baseball. There is severe poverty, lingering post-war trauma, and rampant human trafficking. Children are more likely to work or rummage through the fetid muck of the Steung Meanchey dump than go to school or play.

But for the past seven years, Joe Cook, a Cambodian refugee, has been teaching the game in his homeland, building Cambodia's first ball field. Last year, he even managed to put together a national team. In March, they finally won their first game, playing a short series against a team from Vietnam. Considering the violent history the two countries share, just playing the game was an accomplishment beyond any scorecard.

The story details how Cook (previously Jouret Puk) lost family to the Khmer Rouge, escaped Pol Pot's regime with his remaining family, lived by eating crickets, frogs, and tree bark, before making it to refugee camps in Thailand, the Philippines, and eventually ending up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he learned to play baseball. It is a fascinating story of human suffering and resiliency.

The story also sneaks in an abrupt, jolting example of how common and casual human trafficking is in present-day Cambodia.

In 2002, Cook's older sister Chamty, who he thought had perished, called from Cambodia. After years of brutality in the labor camps, she had been released in 1990 and used the Internet to track down members of her family. Cook agreed to reunite with her in Cambodia.

As a way of honoring him, Chamty wanted to travel to the airport to meet him. But the transportation costs were more than she could afford. She made a difficult decision. So as not to lose her brother again, she sold her son to traffickers.

"When I arrived and found out, I was devastated," Cook says, choking up, "She didn't understand that I could've met her anywhere. I never would've wanted her to do that." The first thing he did was buy back his nephew, Chea Theara, for $86.

From there, the author (John Perra) delves into Cook's efforts to build and sustain baseball in Cambodia. Unfortunately, we do not get further information on the unique ways that American baseball is modified to work in Cambodian culture (see here for baseball's cultural reproduction in additional cultural contexts).

However, we see that the globalization of baseball is not limited to greedy capitalist ventures (though those pursuits may dominate its international diffusion). In this case, baseball's introduction to Cambodia can be traced to genocide, refugee camps, international migration, and online networking. Stuart Hall might suggest the "feel good" nature of this multicultural story may influence readers to forget the significance of the killing fields and ongoing human trafficking.

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