“Safe at Home,” Ensign, Mar. 1991, 23–24
“Is that it?” I said rather naively. “All you want me to do is coach a softball team of Cambodian boys? Sure. It sounds like fun.”
When the first practice rolled around, I had great expectations. I had managed to round up a few gloves from secondhand stores and friends’ garages. I already had some bats and a couple of softballs. “This can’t be too bad,” I thought. “Certainly these kids have played softball in school.”
Then the stark reality of the situation hit me. Only three boys showed up for the practice. After our introductions, I realized that my first hurdle would be to remember these strange names and faces. Maybe nicknames would help, I thought.
“Almost all great American major-league ball players have nicknames,” I told them. “So let’s all choose a nickname.”
The boys, who wanted to learn American ways, accepted this logic.
“Chang Pion, from now on we will call you ‘Champion’; Vichet, we will call you ‘Fidget’; and Boon-Rat, we will call you ‘Boon-Rad’ or maybe just ‘Rad’ for short.” Champion, Fidget, and Rad. They were not exactly Willie, Mickey, and Duke, but they were all I had.
Now I had to find out what they could do. Nothing. We spent the balance of the time learning how to grip a bat, wear a fielder’s glove, and stand near the bases. Even though the boys were inexperienced in the game of softball, they were still exceptional athletes with strong wills to succeed. I showed them how to field a ball and swing a bat, and they could do both after a few tries.
As our first practice ended, I called the boys over. “Tell your friends to come and play,” I pleaded. “We need more players. We’ll meet here again in two days.”
My spirits lifted as I approached the field two days later—there were twelve boys warming up for practice.
Champion greeted me. “We bring our friends,” he said. “Yesterday we practice, too.”
The boys stood in line, and we gave everyone a nickname: Ban-Rah became Band Saw; Triang became Big Train; Tao Rud became Howard; and Boon Ru became Boonie. Standing at the end of the line was Mop-Mao. Smaller than the rest of the boys, he became Mop.
We started some batting practice, and I noticed a sharp improvement in their skills.
“What gives?” I asked Rad. “Why the sudden improvement?”
“Yesterday, we practice four hours,” said Rad. Then he pointed to one of the new boys. “Rang play two years Little League Chicago. He teach us to hit and catch.”
Ah, I thought, a veteran. He would make a much-needed addition to the team.
As we approached our first game, I was in awe of the team’s courage and desire. What they lacked in talent, they made up for in energy and spirit. Yet I knew we were far from being able to compete. The game of softball, though relatively easy to learn, can’t be mastered in a couple of weeks. These Cambodian boys had been preoccupied with finding food and staying ahead of invading armies during the same years that their young American counterparts had been tutored and nurtured in the game. And as luck would have it, our first game was against the defending stake champions.
We were on the wrong end of a fifteen-to-zero score—and that was only in the third inning. I soon came to realize that victory for us would be just to finish the game in one piece. My heart ached for Train, our third baseman. Frustrated by his inability to field the blistering ground balls, he resorted to blocking the balls with his chest, picking them up, and then throwing the ball to the base. Even though large welts appeared on his upper torso, he refused to be taken out of the lineup.
When the game ended, the final score of twenty-nine to four wasn’t the real story. The cheers and handshakes from the opposing team indicated that the boys were beginning to become integrated with the other boys in the stake.
As the weeks went by, the team continued to lose one game after another, but the boys practiced every day for long hours. I finally had to tell them I couldn’t spend that much time. That didn’t matter to them. They continued to practice by themselves.
One day during practice, a low-flying passenger jet flew directly over our heads. Little Mop, who was playing outfield, fell to the ground in terror, screaming, “Bombs! Bombs!” as the deafening engines roared overhead. When he remained on the ground, I realized that this was no joke. I ran to him and held him in my arms for a minute to calm him. I could only guess at what terrible scene from his past had caused him to react with such fear.
I couldn’t keep that experience out of my mind. I tried to imagine what kind of background these boys had come from. Then it struck me that nearly all of these boys were fatherless. I tried to imagine the death and destruction that each boy had already witnessed in his young life. Coming to America must have been like a new birth. I doubled my determination to help them succeed.
The season continued until the final game of the year against the same stake champions who had soundly defeated us in our first game. They won again, but this time by only one point—fifteen to fourteen. The final out of the game was made by little Mop attempting to score the tying run at home plate in the last inning. But even in defeat, the boys had won the respect and friendship of the players and the spectators. Perhaps more important, in the larger game of life that had begun for them years ago in their burned-out villages in Cambodia, these boys had circled the bases and were at long last safe at home.