On the banks of the great Red River, a city has stood sentry for more than 1,000 years. Smack-dab in the middle of north Vietnam, Hanoi serves as the beating heart and cultural center of the nation.
Although there’s an abundance of beautiful pagodas and temples, museums and karaoke bars, you’d be hard-pressed to find even one baseball diamond.
Despite the popularity of the sport in Asia (Ichiro, anyone?), baseball has yet to make an imprint on Vietnam. Call it diplomatic isolation or merely a collective obsession with soccer, but most Vietnamese wouldn’t know a shortstop from a stop sign.
That’s something Phil Rognier is hoping to change.
Coaching and playing for more than 45 years, the local youth baseball guru and executive director of the First Swing Foundation has made extended trips to the region the past two years, organizing games and coaching clinics.
While major league scouts are always on the lookout for a new country to produce marketable talent, Phil is spreading the game strictly for the fun of it—think Johnny Appleseed with a bat bag.
Phil’s interest in Vietnam started several years ago when a young University of Hanoi student wrote a letter to every major league team in the United States hoping to prompt a goodwill trip from some players and coaches. Although there were no takers in the big leagues, Phil heard about the letter through his connections.
“I started mulling it over and did some research where I found out that they really didn’t have baseball,” he says. “I ended up e-mailing this kid and told him that I’m coming over.”
In spring 2009, co-sponsored by Microsoft, Phil made good on his word and came bearing equipment and a freshly written coaching manual that the fledgling University of Hanoi Baseball Club promptly translated to Vietnamese.
“They are literally trying to create baseball there,” Phil says. “The first catcher I met had a backpack filled with newspapers for his chest protector, no cup, no mask. His shins were all black and blue. When we gave him proper gear, his father said, ‘good, now he can have children.’”
Phil taught baseball clinics at more than 20 schools in Hanoi over the course of several weeks. He also worked with the Hanoi Youth Baseball League, which at the time had a total of two little league teams and no regulation fields in a city of more than 6 million.
“I’d show up with a bat and ball and explain the game with a translator,” he says. “They picked it up in a minute.”
After that initial trip, Phil knew he had to come back the next year.
“We had a whole year to gear up, so we knew it would be bigger,” he says.
This time, Phil brought several all-star players from his youth travel team—including Bellevue Club junior members Beau Turner and Henry Pratt.
“The kids went with me to the schools and helped coach other youth players,” he says.
The local television media got wind of the baseball clinics and Phil’s baseball ambassadors were instant celebrities.
“Everywhere they went, people were asking for autographs and pictures,” he says.
This second trip was capped off with Vietnam’s first ever PONY Baseball game between the Hanoi Capitols and the Red River Reds, which was aired on one of Vietnam’s national television networks.
In early August, Phil is hosting a team of little leaguers from Hanoi in a baseball cultural exchange. The players will be staying with the families of his Klouters teams and attending clinics and playing games. Gaining momentum, Phil says the sport has attracted attention from government officials, who hope to have a national team ready for the 2019 Hanoi-hosted Asian Games.
Off the baseball field, the First Swing Foundation also supports two orphanages, a leper colony and a small village in rural Vietnam.
Despite his efforts, Phil isn’t really concerned with Vietnam breaking into the big leagues:
“The whole precept is that it’s not about baseball it’s about life lessons—and these kids get it. They’re so passionate about the game, and they love being on the team.”