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Two parents aim to cultivate baseball in Hanoi youth

Twelve-year-old Ben Treutler of the Hanoi Capitols prepares to pitch during the team's tournament in the US this past summer

Twelve-year-old shortstop Quoc Thinh of the Hanoi Capitols remembers the day he struck out 10 times in a row.

"The ball was not flying so hard but for some reasons, I wasn't myself that day," Thinh said.

The speedy seventh-grader from Nguyen Truong To Secondary School is considered one of the best players on the Hanoi Capitols' roster. His teammates call him "the rabbit."

The team, founded by American attorney Thomas Treutler, in July 2008, is now an official member of the Little League and the Pony League US-based organizations that hold baseball tournaments for kids.

The Capitols have 70 players, aged 8-14, gathered from schools all over the metropolitan area. Four coaches train the various age divisions. During the summers, professional foreign coaches are brought in as advisors.

The Capitols are not just playing for fun.

They go head-to-head with teams from the United Nations International School and the Japan School of Hanoi. Baseball is basically unknown in Vietnam, where there are no professional teams. The Capitols are the only local youth baseball team to have competed in tournaments abroad.

They garnered quite a bit of attention when they sent the first Vietnamese baseball squad to the US this past summer. The Los Angeles Times featured them as the only foreign entry in the United States Travel Sports Association World Series.

"Schools in the US often have teams; so far, in Vietnam that has not been so developed," Treutler said. "We want these kids to get more of the team atmosphere and learn how to be on a team."

Two years ago, Treutler and his wife, Ngoc Thuy, wanted to help their 12-year-old son Ben practice baseball. Five of his friends expressed interest in the game, but Treutler and Thuy struggled to find a baseball diamond in Hanoi. They were turned away by nearly 20 sporting fields - most said they were reserved for soccer practice.

The couple finally obtained permission to play on a field in Tu Liem District and later relocated to a spot inside a local secondary school. Treutler and his wife started coaching them and helped pay for all the expenses - from ordering the American-made equipment to paying the field fees.

"It took about three or four months before the kids started to really understand the rules," Treutler said. "Kids in the US learn baseball when they are five or six. For Vietnamese kids, it does not come naturally. They have to learn."

For Thinh, the game is a group effort like no other.

"This game requires the highest level of teamwork," he said. "Unlike soccer where one player can be the star by scoring a goal. In this game, we've learned that one person can't make the game alone."

Players also get to use their hands in baseball, which makes Ben like it more than soccer. Best of all, there's no time limit. "The game has more freedom and flexibility," he said.

The Capitols played their first tournament in June 2009 in Indonesia. The team lost every single game but coach Treutler was happy with their fine sportsmanship.

"I felt sad that we didn't win like we'd hoped to," Ben said. "I think we're gonna win a lot of games the next time."

After appearing in international tournaments, the Hanoi Capitols started receiving sponsorship, which enabled them to travel to Taiwan, Indonesia and the US this past summer. On their travels they met with professional baseball players and foreign coaches.

Ben's mother, Coach Ngoc Thuy, said the team drew attention from Vietnamese communities abroad, who were surprised to learn that Vietnam actually had a baseball team.

She said there's a plan in the works to invite baseball teams from Malaysia, Indonesia or Cambodia for a friendly tournament to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi.

Players that are ten and under will be eligible to represent Vietnam in the U-10 Asia Pacific Zone Championships to be held in Hanoi in mid-January of 2011.

"I believe that the Vietnamese audience, who is not used to this sport, will soon change their mind," she said.

The team now is holding sign-ups for the fall season. Treutler said he hopes, in the future, to organize a league in Hanoi that also includes teams from other districts.

"We want to help the local kids learn the game," he said. "Any kid can join if they want to try. They don't have to love baseball from day one but we want them to improve and take it seriously."

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