In Vietnam, America throws the first pitch

Thirty years after the Vietnam War, Americans return to teach baseball.

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The diamond on the field was more sand than grass, a little uneven in places. The bleachers were rows of wooden chairs borrowed from the adjacent high school.

But it was a recognizable slice of America in the old badlands of central Vietnam. Baseball finally made its national debut in Dong Ha last month, three decades after the fall of Saigon, and nobody wanted to miss the fun.

On the field, several hundred Vietnamese students stood at attention, dressed in brand-new blue and red baseball shirts. Dozens of government and Communist Party officials milled around a lectern, waiting for the ceremony to start. Women dressed in the long, silky-white traditional ao dai lined the path to the field to greet the visitors, each clutching a red rose wrapped in plastic.

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Jan Scruggs, a decorated American veteran and founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), smiled as he walked onto the field. Last year, he persuaded Major League Baseball and its suppliers to sponsor a goodwill tour of Vietnam and to inaugurate the country's first-ever baseball field.

At the lectern, Mr. Scruggs took his time, savoring the moment. His was the face of an old soldier trying to bring hope to a country that had seen the destructive force of American power. It came out in clich├ęs, which were probably mangled in translation, but it felt right.

"Here is an opportunity for us to really turn a battlefield into a field of dreams," he says. Baseball is a wonderful way "to reach out to people."

It's also a distinctly minority taste around the world. Only a handful of countries - Japan, Cuba, the Dominican Republic - have fallen for America's favorite pastime. In Vietnam, baseball is an exotic import with few followers. The national obsession is European soccer.

But the American can-do spirit carries a long way - from Washington, where the VVMF oversees the black granite memorial wall that for many symbolizes the sorrows of war, to the sandy soil of Dong Ha.

The school field wasn't a literal battlefield where armies clashed. But, like other areas around the old demilitarized zone, it was subject to a relentless US bombing campaign that littered the countryside with mines and other unexploded ordinance, or UXO.

When workers moved in to regrade the field, an old soccer pitch, they first had to remove several bombshells, mortars, and other ordnance. These are some of the estimated 300,000 tons of UXO that lie buried in Vietnamese soil.

Scruggs knows the stats. Since 2000, his organization has raised millions of dollars for mine clearance and education campaigns run out of a small office in Dong Ha. From this work grew the idea of bringing baseball to Vietnam, and putting on a show.

After the speeches and ribbon cutting, the field was cleared for a training session run by a team of US baseball professionals. For the next two hours they coached a group of around a hundred male and female students how to throw, pitch, and bat - all watched by curious locals.

"I like this game," says 11th-grader Ho Anh Duc as he waited his turn. "It's fast and I can use my strength and my speed." He'd seen baseball on TV and thought it would be a fun alternative to soccer, his favorite sport.

Out on the field, Danny Graves, a reliever for the Cleveland Indians, demonstrated how to throw a fast ball. He waited impatiently for his translator to finish, swinging his arm back and forth. "Yes, good, that's great," he says, as a willowy female student hurls the ball across the field.

For Mr. Graves, this was no ordinary pre-season tour. Born in Saigon and raised in Florida, Graves is the only Vietnamese-American player in the Major League. It was his first time back in 31 years, a chance to rediscover his roots. His mother, a Vietnamese who met her late husband, a US soldier, while working at the US Embassy, had joined the tour, too.

Finally, the time was up. Graves lingered on the field, signing autographs and posing for photos with the students, before boarding the bus for the two-hour drive back to Hue, the old imperial capital, where the baseball players and American veterans were staying. Scruggs was fading, his head resting against the seat in front.

But Graves was too excited to rest. He was already dreaming of coming back to teach baseball again, he says, perhaps one day even becoming the coach of Vietnam's first national team.

Why not? Baseball had arrived. And he was an American whose mixed ethnicity suddenly made sense. "Before, the only thing I knew is what's on TV. Now being here and seeing the people and how they live, I feel like I'm part of Vietnam," he says.

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