thought this would be a feel-good story. Of course, that was before I shook hands with a dead man. Before two heartsick peasants begged me to find their missing daughters. And before I learned the Khmer words for "help me" and "motherf---er."
Yes, I definitely thought this would be an elevating assortment of words, a triumph of the human spirit with lots of pretty prose and a bright, happy ending. Sports. Uplift. An emotional shot in the arm. Tonic for a world forever going wrong. But that was before this. Before I ventured halfway around the planet to drink from a half-empty glass of half-curdled joy, before I discovered that a tale too inspiring to be true -- Cambodian refugee escapes the Killing Fields, comes to America, takes hope and baseball back to his homeland (and yeah, someone already is filming a documentary) -- is probably too deranged to make up.
I guess I should start with the headless chicken.
The chicken is my first mate. Maybe dinner. I'm not really sure. About anything. I'm sitting in a ramshackle wooden skiff that's floating -- barely -- down a reedy marsh running through central Cambodia, where the temples beckon and the dirty, shoeless children seem to outnumber everything except the brightly colored land-mine warning signs. Around me are an interpreter and a "fixer" and the aforementioned bird by my feet, plucked and stuffed into a black plastic garbage bag, talons up. The sun hangs low in the hazy late-November sky. We're heading south, possibly north, on our way to speak with a man who has bad things to say about another man whose supposed good works and assumed good motives are the reason I'm here.
The other man's real name is Joeurt Puk. But everyone calls him Joe Cook.
Cook is my protagonist. And possibly my Kurtz. He's the focus of the feel-good yarn, star of the documentary, the seemingly humble small-town Alabama chef with the Khmer Rouge shrapnel still embedded in his back. The 38-year-old man who built a self-styled Field of Dreams in a nearby rice paddy, then took Cambodia's first national team to its first international tournament. The determined dreamer who can't keep his car and can hardly pay his rent, yet serves as his native land's self-appointed baseball ambassador, begging and borrowing and hustling and scraping.
Open your ears. Listen. Hear things. Spend time with Cook. Meet his family. Talk to his supporters, his believers. Watch him dice butter-soaked shrimp on a shimmering Japanese grill. Laugh at his jokes. Everything adds up: Cook as a well-meaning obsessive, giving everything, taking nothing, driving 15 hours nonstop for a single donated catcher's mitt, doing it all for the children -- the sad-eyed orphans picking trash in the streets of Phnom Penh; the sex-trafficked little girls in Siem Reap; the forgotten kids growing up as scared and scarred as Cook did, dodging American-made bombs and homegrown genocide. Storywise, it's downright formulaic: (Tragedy / Triumph) + (Overcoming Adversity x Selfless Devotion) + (Sports As Force For Good) = (Cook As Hero, Possible ESPYS Honoree).
But what if the narrative math is all wrong?
Amid the inspirational details, I hear things. Dark things uttered in broken English and clipped Khmer, late in the evening and out of sight, about abuse and corrupted ideals. About what happens in the rice paddy-turned-ball field when the foreign coaches and Christian missionaries aren't on hand spreading Jesus Christ and the gospel of proper bunt coverage. About creeping, creepy madness.
All around us, the local people smile and wave. From under straw hats. From passing boats. From floating houses, floating shops, floating gas stations sporting red oil drums and working pumps, an entire city on the water, with restaurants and offices and well-fed dogs keeping watch under satellite dishes. We pass wooden huts patched with blue tarps, a local commune office with green shutters and greener houseplants. I thought we would take the road. And we did, forging ahead when the road became gravel, and the gravel became dirt, and the dirt stopped at the water, and we kept going. Kept going down a marsh that melded into a river, a river running all the way to our destination: a yellow schoolhouse with a red-tiled roof, perched atop concrete pillars, conspicuous as an aircraft carrier, where a principal who also serves as president of the Cambodian Baseball Federation is waiting to tell me about the real Joeurt Puk. Whom even he calls Joe Cook.
We hop off the boat. Use a bathroom that's little more than an open-air hole in the elevated ground, moist and dark. We enter a classroom, clean and bright, ringed by whiteboards covered with meticulous blue Khmer script. Behind me, schoolchildren clump like curious fish, smiling but shy, leaning forward but keeping a safe distance, eyeing me as if I'm a particularly pale, notepad-carrying cosmonaut. And this fits. The water. The school. The country. Puk Cook. I feel as though I've just stepped out of a still-smoking space capsule, wobbly and lost and shocked by gravity.
The principal beckons. He's holding two baseballs. His face is grave. I look back at the boat, gently bobbing and tied to a stairwell. The chicken remains headless.
I can relate.
It's a sweltering summer day in Dothan, Ala., self-proclaimed Peanut Capital of the World, where the electronic sign outside a local drugstore reads: "Gas prices are high/We're nearby." Above a Japanese steakhouse, a shimmering sky refuses to rain; heat rises in blurry waves from the Walmart parking lot across the street. I'm here to meet Joe Cook. I'll soon be exhausted. Because Cook hardly sleeps. Because he babbles about baseball like a manic street preacher talking end of days. Because he's always working, even when he's working.
"How 'bout I sign Barry Bonds?" he asks.
Cook sits on a bench just inside the front door of the restaurant, clad in a bright red chef's jacket. His shift starts in an hour. He is reedy and bespectacled, as imposing as a newborn fawn, his dark, receding hair topping slight, delicate features. His eyes twitch incessantly. They are peering at a laptop. The screen teems with handwritten box scores, results from the Cambodian national team's daily practice games. Roughly 9,000 miles from the nearby grill table where Cook earns his living, scorekeepers in the rural village of Baribo record every pitch and hit. A few times a week, he says, they make the six-hour round trip to an Internet cafe in Phnom Penh to scan the results and e-mail them to Cook.
In other words: The Johnny Appleseed of Cambodian baseball manages a real-life club of real-life Khmer farm boys the same way you might manage your fantasy squad.
"I can pay Barry 17 million," Cook adds. "Think he will take it?"
"Er, well, sure. Bonds does need a job."
"I mean Cambodian money!"
Cook grins. He's joking. I think. Who knows? After all, the proposition in question -- the world's most famous and famously pampered dyspeptic slugger suiting up for a team that can't afford its own uniforms, let alone double-wide lockers fronted by $5,000 leather massage chairs -- is only somewhat more preposterous than everything Cook already has done (launching a half-dozen self-promoting Web sites, starting a charitable foundation, building a field that doubles as a water buffalo grazing ground), never mind all the stuff he's still trying to do (build 20 more diamonds in Cambodia, peddle engraved bricks for a proposed ballpark on said water buffalo grazing ground).
I suppose I should start with the video.
The video is titled "Unfold the Dreams." Cook spliced the footage, added narration and burned the results to DVD. The video tells his story of how he brought baseball to a place where the Killing Fields are more than a sad movie and the capital city has an official genocide museum. It made a Cambodian friend of mine cry. Twice. A copy languished on the desk of Jim Small, vice president of Major League Baseball Asia, for a month until a co-worker insisted he watch it. Small contacted Cook in 2004 and became a convert. He has made two trips to Cambodia, facilitated the donation of $30,000 of equipment, coaching and travel, and helped Cook create both a national baseball federation and a team. Small's 10-year-old son even got involved, asking friends to bring new baseball cleats instead of presents to his birthday party -- cleats that father and son then hand delivered to Baribo in 2005.
"I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with Joe," Small says. "And it doesn't. He's just the real deal. A hero in every sense of the word. You have to see the video. Once you do, you'll understand."
The video begins with Cook in a garage, boxing up bats and balls and helmets and bicycles, 5,000 pounds of donated supplies, gathered from Dothan and Atlanta and Fayetteville, Ark. The scene shifts to a Cambodian elementary school, where uniformed children and robe-wearing monks crowd around a television set, watching a tape of Game 6 of the 2002 World Series -- Anaheim versus San Francisco. What follows is more surprising: Dozens of children with picks and shovels and cloth litters converting a rocky, muddy field beside the school to become Cambodia's inaugural baseball diamond. Next comes Cook, surrounded by kids in surplus Little League hats and T-shirts -- too big by half and too baggy by far -- smiling and swinging a bat above a clump of dirt that doubles as home plate.
Dust and sunlight flare across the lens. A caption reads: "The first day baseball was played, November 26, 2002." A shoeless boy wearing black pants and a red batting helmet sprints to first base, still clutching his bat. Cook stands beside him, pointing and gesturing with both hands.
"See? They don't know what to do," Cook says, laughing at the memory. "Everyone is confused. Trust me: It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't easy."
Nothing Cook does is easy. Take the national team, which made its international debut at the Southeast Asian Games in Thailand in December 2007 and promptly dropped all five of its games to countries such as Indonesia and Myanmar by a combined score of 113-13. The losing stung. But that wasn't the hard part. The hard part was having roving international coaches teach baseball to a group of kids -- players ranging in age from 14 to their mid-20s, but all of them seeming young -- who grew up without seeing a single game. The hard part was building a rudimentary practice field in an area that lacks running water. The hard part was getting Cambodian customs officers to see baseball bats as sports equipment, not mysterious American weapons. The hard part was obtaining uniforms that actually fit (reworked Los Angeles Dodgers uniforms donated by an MLB supplier did the trick). The hard part, Cook recalls, was getting the team to Bangkok after one of his female scorekeepers was kidnapped and threatened with rape while crossing the border via motor scooter.
Oh, and the really hard part? Footing the $40,000-plus SEA Games bill. Cook had to beg and borrow his way to the entire amount, the final $4,500 coming from a Dothan donor by international wire transfer just hours before the tournament's registration deadline.
"I can't even comprehend what Joe is trying to accomplish," says Jim Robbins, a friend of Cook's. "It's unimaginable."
Robbins can imagine better than most. The athletic director and baseball coach at Houston Academy, a private school in Dothan, Robbins has been helping Cook since 2002. Letting Cook sit in on team practices. Teaching him coaching signs. Renting out storage space for Cook's equipment donations. Giving Cook a Johnny Sain pitching spinner to take to Cambodia. And why not? Robbins is a baseball lifer, a man who says things such as "I don't care what is going on in your life, when you get between those lines, everything else just fades away," a man who has a printout pinned to the corkboard above his desk that lists 10 ways to score from third base.
Today, Cook and I have come to Robbins' office for advice -- specifically, to determine how Cook's hitters can avoid the same fate as Michael Jordan. The coach rises from his chair, pantomimes holding a bat. "The curveball is different," he explains.
"That's all they gave us," Cook replies, recalling the steady diet of breaking pitches the Cambodian national team saw -- and whiffed on -- at the SEA Games. "All of the infield and outfield would just sit down and read books."
Problem 1: Cook's players can't practice hitting a decent curveball because none of them can throw the pitch. Problem 2: Robbins' proposed solution, a pitching machine, isn't much of a solution at all. Pitching machines cost about $1,500, and that's without overseas shipping costs. And even if you could get one to Cambodia, and truck it to the field in Baribo, and get a portable generator to power the contraption, and then set both up on the mound without breaking anything, you'd just run out of baseballs anyway because the watery rice paddy down the right-field foul line swallows popups like a Venus flytrap.
Cook is undaunted. Crossing and uncrossing his legs, he asks Robbins about practice routines. About bunting strategy. About building batting cages despite a lack of chicken wire. About finding the $50,000 he needs to send the Cambodian team to the upcoming Asian Cup tournament in the Philippines (Cook is approximately $49,950 short). He asks all of this with a straight face. He's endearingly delusional.
"Joe, I have my kids here every day," Robbins says. "We can tape our hitters and show them their swings. I'll identify a hitter's problem."
Cook nods. He says that he has a video camera in Baribo but that the battery won't charge.
"You need to play. You can't practice game-type situations."
Cook nods. There are no other teams in Cambodia for the national squad to scrimmage against.
"You talk about something negative with players, you finish with something positive."
Cook nods. His players don't speak English, unlike the roving coaches and missionaries who come to tutor them.
Robbins turns to me. "Now, if he can just get that machine on that hill with a generator."
An afternoon storm soaks the ground at a Dothan park, where Cook and his family are taking refuge under a picnic shelter. Cook's wife, Veasna, and son, Angkorwat, are sitting quietly on a green metal bench. His 7-year-old daughter, Somuri, is playing with rocks. Not toys. Rocks. "We don't have much," Cook says. "But I am satisfied. To live in America, to come to the park safely, we are living in heaven compared to life in Cambodia."
For most of the 1970s, Cambodia was embroiled in a devastating civil war that began with Vietnam War-related U.S. bombing, peaked with Khmer Rouge genocide that killed as many as 1.7 million people and ended with a Vietnamese invasion. Today, the nation remains one of the poorest in Asia. Having fled Cambodia in 1979, Cook returned for the first time in 2002 to visit his sister Chanty, whom he had long presumed dead. The two reunited at the Thai border and, during a dusty, bumpy drive to Phnom Penh, Cook discovered that two of his teenage nephews were dead -- one after drowning during a monsoon, the other after falling 40 feet from a sugar palm tree while working on a plantation.
"He was wearing a knife on his belt," Cook says. "It split his stomach. The plantation boss ran away. He got, like, a week in jail, and my sister got, like, $20 from him."
Cook looks down, then away. "That's tough."
Tougher still, Cook says, was Chanty telling him she sold her remaining son and daughter to brothels in order to afford the trip to the border. Stunned, Cook gave her $500 and a single command: Get them back. She did. The children later took their uncle on a tour of their elementary school in Baribo, where friendly smiles and shoeless feet left Cook with a patently incongruous thought: I'm coming back. And I'm bringing baseball with me.
Why baseball? Cook came to the United States in the spring of 1983, 12 years old and 58 pounds, a shell-shocked refugee bewildered by his new home. He didn't speak English. He had never seen a television set. American food was odd; American air was frigid ("Fifty-60 degrees!" Cook recalls. "So cold!").
His first day at a sponsor family's home in Chattanooga, Tenn., Cook had to relieve himself. His sponsor took him to the bathroom, closed the door. Cook panicked. Shower, sink, toilet. Which one do I use? Confused, he stood on the toilet seat and squatted. He had no idea how to flush. "I was so ashamed," he recalls. "I felt so dumb. It's a different world here, man."
That summer, Cook found himself at a field, watching youth baseball through a fence. He called the game "bullet," and found the cheering and screaming intoxicating. He approached a player, pantomimed throwing and catching. A coach gave left-handed Cook a right-handed glove. Didn't matter. Cook joined one team, then another, making friends, learning English, experiencing his first high five. He spent most of his time on the bench -- "I couldn't hit," Cook recalls with a sheepish smile -- but that didn't matter, either.
"When I first got involved, I was just playing catch with the other kids," he says. "I smiled and showed yellow teeth. They smiled and showed white teeth. That's what I wanted."
Cook works nights. One evening, I meet him after his shift. We're sitting in the living room of his two-bedroom apartment, a shabby, nondescript dwelling down the street from Houston Academy. Faded carpet and dull white walls frame a sagging sectional sofa that doubles as Cook's bed; a large, empty fish tank shares space with a television set topped by a nativity-scene manger.
"My office," Cook says, plugging in his laptop. "My world."
Cook pulls a wad of money out of his pocket. Tips. He slaps the bills on his coffee table, which is a dinky metal folding table festooned with Disney Princess decals: 20 35 79. Not bad. Cook says he is living paycheck to paycheck, and he's falling behind, and his wife sleeps on a 15-year-old mattress that gives her back pain, and he's $400 short on his phone bill, and service will be cut off tomorrow unless he can convince the phone company that he's getting paid later in the week.
"But as long as there is money for baseball in Cambodia," he says, "it's OK."
Most nights, Cook stays up until 4 a.m. -- making calls to Cambodia, going over practice schedules, updating his half-dozen Web sites, scouring the Internet for potential sponsors, working on video projects. I ask Cook whether he watches pro baseball. He shakes his head: no time. He inserts a tape into his VHS player. I see Cook visiting the Atlanta Braves, shaking hands with John Smoltz, intercut with images of human skulls from the Killing Fields. Brian Jordan presents Cook with an autographed black bat, proclaims his desire to visit kids in Cambodia. "Only the bat made it over," Cook says ruefully. Next is a series of YouTube videos, one called "Cambodian Sex Trap." A news anchor laments parents' selling girls to brothels for as little as $10. "Like my niece," Cook says.
On his computer screen is an image of a naked Cambodian boy eating a piece of rotten cheese plucked from a garbage dump. "Before I went back to Cambodia, I had no passion, no clue, no heart," he says. "I see all the kids, and I feel very shameful I cannot do more."
We watch a short film: "Land Mines in Cambodia." Armless men. Women with missing legs. One-legged volleyball matches. Cook mentions that the brother of one of his players was killed doing "bang-bang" -- that is, harvesting shrapnel from land mines to sell as scrap metal. "You can support your family," Cook explains. "But if it explodes, you're dead."
He lifts his shirt. A small scar runs along the small of his back, dipping below his belt line. Tree mine, Cook says. Detonated while he was playing outside a Khmer Rouge work camp. Metal remains in his body. Hurts to this day. Still, Cook considers himself lucky. Blessed, even. He has his arms. He has his legs. He has his life.
Cook tells the story of his childhood. Not the awkward American part. The traumatic Cambodian part. He talks about American bombs going off like fireworks. About his father, a military officer, returning home in the middle of the night to place his older brother in charge of the family, never to return again. Cook talks about black-and-red-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers -- men and women and children, holding rifles and rocket launchers -- overrunning his village, tossing grenades into his home, marching Cook's family to a work camp. He talks about seeing his infant sister starve to death on the march, skeletal and screaming, and seeing another sister die of a grotesque, stomach-swelling, mouth-foaming infection after eating meat from a diseased water buffalo. He talks about life in the work camp, about pretending to be a monkey to curry favor with the guards, who would slap and beat and interrogate him anyway, with Cook always giving the same answer, the lie his dad had told him to repeat: "My father was a rice farmer."
He talks about getting shot during an escape attempt, shows me a thin red scar on his right shoulder. He talks about escaping the camp at night, with his mother and older sister and two brothers. He talks about the 20-mile exodus to the Thai border that followed -- hiding from soldiers, eating insects and tree leaves, defecating intestinal worms, struggling to put one foot in front of the other, wanting so much to stop, to sit down, to rest, knowing the dead bodies along the road had just wanted to rest, too. He talks about the camps in Thailand, how refugees would be crammed between barbed wire fences and run over by the water trucks, and how many women were either pregnant or nursing because the Thais would come at night and rape Cambodians with impunity.
Cook pauses, slows down. He says the refugee camps weren't all bad. He remembers playing with other kids in the rain, disease and fevers be damned. He remembers the international aid workers who gave him one notebook, one ruler and one pencil. He remembers smelling the notebook, vowing to someday help children in need. Children just like him.
Midnight comes and goes. Cook opens another self-made video, a slideshow titled "I Am a Cambodian Kid." One picture stands out: Cook and the national squad, on the field at the SEA Games, proud and happy in crisp white jerseys. "It's all because of a kid that escaped," he says.
Michael Griffin, an MLB envoy coach who helped coach Cambodia at the SEA Games: "Sometimes Joe gets unrealistic. If you get to know him, there will be issues."
I thought this story would be simple. That was before I realized there are two Joe Cooks.
The first Cook is, well, goofy. Childlike. Largely disarming. Mostly charming. He's the Cook who adopted the anglicized name "Joe Cook" because of his job, who leaves steakhouse patrons laughing, who persuaded a California high school to hold a fundraiser for his cause, who once lit his own hair ablaze -- while being videotaped, no less -- to claim "I'm on fire for baseball." The first Cook is something of a huckster, the good kind, part ringmaster, part clown. He's holding court in a Dothan diner alongside local author Dani Brown, flirting with a gray-haired waitress old enough to be his mother -- half-chewed waffles stuffing his cheeks, a dollop of whipped cream dangling from his mouth.
"You must be pretty important to have a story written about you," the waitress says.
"I'm a dancer," Cook says with a suggestive grin. "You need a lap dance?"
The second Joe Cook is different. Troubled. At times, unbalanced. Definitely frustrated. Frustrated by (in no particular order): that baseball in Cambodia is "tough and hard"; that the Atlanta Braves aren't doing more to help him; that he doesn't have enough money to buy a house; that he doesn't have enough money to buy his own restaurant; that MLB is pouring far more resources into Vietnam than Cambodia, to little effect; that "business Americans and the government in Washington" dropped bombs on Cambodia without taking responsibility; that Cambodian immigrants call him a glory hound and "hat[e] my guts"; that Cambodians in Cambodia care more about soccer than baseball; that 30 companies that support Cambodian soccer declined to support Cambodian baseball despite his pleas; that Angelina Jolie has never responded despite repeated attempts to contact her; that he owes tens of thousands of dollars to people in Dothan after the Cambodian national team's trip to the SEA Games; that he needs tens of thousands of dollars to fund a trip to the upcoming Asian Cup; that America doesn't send its best players to the World Baseball Classic (I'm American, too!); that his daughter has to wear oversize shoes so they last longer; a nagging sense that when he returns to Cambodia, people see him as a betrayer who gave up on his native land; his self-stated identity as "a loser who used to sit in the dugout" and "just a guy who cooks."
This second Cook arrives as soon as the waitress leaves. Pushing crumpled straw wrappers back and forth across our table, he delivers a rambling, embittered, semisensical soliloquy on all of the above, his left eye trembling as if squirted with Tabasco sauce, a tic he blames on Khmer Rouge beatings.
Almost casually, Cook adds that he thinks about killing himself. "Time to time, I have a breakdown point," he says. "I want suicide. Time off. People off my back."
The waitress returns. Cook grins, makes a joke comparing bomb blasts to fireworks. Just like that, Goofy Joe is back. But for how long? Brown has known Cook for three years. She has no idea. Cambodian-American filmmaker Mike Siv went to Baribo and Bangkok to chronicle Cook and the national team for the unreleased documentary film "Say It Ain't So, Joeurt." He has no idea.
I speak with Siv on the phone; he directs me to a short online clip he shot at the SEA Games, which should have been, well, a feel-good time for Cook. A triumph. The realization and culmination of his impossible dream. Plucky underdog chef leads plucky underdog rice farmers to improbable sports moral victory; life lessons all around. Only Cook isn't buying the script. I see him on film, standing in a hotel conference room, arms akimbo, wearing a gray Cambodia jersey, screaming at and taunting his sad-eyed players after a 31-1 loss to Indonesia. Even the subtitles are painful: "Everybody is afraid of a curveball and then strikes out! Did it hit us?" "You guys aren't playing hard. Is it because you're too comfortable staying in a hotel?" "You come to waste money! Do you have any pride in your country?" Near tears, Cook takes off his team cap and slams it against a conference table. "I'm pissed! I have no faith in any of you!"
"That's the edited version," Siv says of the clip. "The actual meeting was three hours long!"
Back at the steakhouse, Cook is standing over a grill table, spinning a spatula and tongs. Brown is at the bar. She says Cook's car was repossessed during the SEA Games, with Somuri's safety seat still inside, and Veasna showed up at her door in tears. Brown says Veasna misses her husband, and Angkorwat misses his father, and Cook missed Somuri's kindergarten graduation because of baseball.
"I taped it for him," Brown says. "I had to pull him over and tell him you can't miss her sixth-grade graduation. I worry about Joe. You can get high off of helping other people. Is it an addiction? An obsession? He's doing so much good. But it's negatively impacting his family."
Customers fill the dining room. Cook takes a table, smiling and mischievous. He points to a sushi order. "Nemo and his cousin." Two women note that he has cooked for them before. "Last time we came in, you weren't here," one of the women says. "You were visiting your home country."
"I was in jail," Cook says, deadpan.
Rick Dell, director, MLB international baseball development: "Let me know what kind of catcher's equipment they have, what kind of helmets they have. Joe has had more equipment given to him than I used at the College of New Jersey for 27 years. We've given him so much good stuff. And it's not there. Where is the equipment?"
I bring my own interpreter, my wife, Saphira. We land in Phnom Penh. The road to Baribo runs from urban capital to rural flyspeck, from developing world promise to abject Third World poverty. Leaving the dust-choked city, we pass cell-phone shops and vendors hawking fruit from hatchback minivans, soldiers in khaki uniforms and schoolgirls in pleated skirts, a gleaming new soccer stadium and the battered, off-white compound that serves as the French embassy. Scooters and motorbikes dart and weave in every direction; mid-1990s Toyota Camrys are the vehicle of choice. A two-lane highway -- "lanes" being an exceedingly relative term in crisscrossing, honk-happy Cambodian traffic -- teems with emaciated cattle, loping water buffaloes, clucking chickens and stray dogs. In the countryside, concrete buildings give way to wooden huts with thatched bamboo roofs, surrounded by rice paddies and palm nut trees.
The scene is both breathtaking and heartbreaking, and it throws the windmill-tilting audacity of Cook's project into sharp relief. In fact, only two factors appear to be working in his favor:
1. Ample land.
2. Plenty of grass.
My driver wears a Los Angeles Dodgers cap. He has never heard of the team. According to my fixer, the vast majority of Cambodians have zero exposure to baseball -- local sports TV consists of European pro soccer and American pro wrestling -- and even the Baribo villagers who see Cook's players every day don't enjoy watching the game. "Not a lot happens for so long," my fixer says. "And baseball takes a long time to learn. People don't understand it the way they understand soccer and volleyball."
We take a left turn onto a dirt road, pass through an unfinished concrete gate. The road becomes mud, the path as narrow as our taxi van. Tree branches snap and strain against the passenger windows; a grazing donkey dutifully ignores our bumpy intrusion. This is Baribo, and the mud terminates at the baseball field, where a group of visiting American volunteer coaches is putting the Cambodian national team through bunting drills.
Cook built the field in 2005, trucking in dirt and cutting down 100-year-old mango trees to construct a baseball facility unlike any other on the planet. Behind home plate is a backstop stitched together with chicken wire and fishing netting. Behind the netting is a dugout that is actually an elevated bamboo bench. Behind the bamboo bench is a chicken coop, which is home to a half-dozen birds. "We cannot always buy food at the market," Cook explains.
Cook wears a sparkling white Cambodia jersey and jeans. His voice is soft, far removed from his manic, fast-talking Alabama self. He points to a large bamboo hut along the third-base line. Baseball uniforms hang from a nearby laundry line. The national team eats and sleeps in the hut; a whiteboard nailed to a palm tree features the daily practice schedule. I spot a young girl in the infield, riding a bicycle along a dirt path. The path runs in from an adjacent rice paddy, down the line from first to second base, out through center field and past a wooden house sitting just beyond deep center. Cook says scooters and livestock regularly traverse the route, forcing his squad to halt play. "This is our highway," he says. "Our interstate."
We head to left field, beyond the water buffalo. Cook pulls a bamboo trap out of a waterlogged gully. Inside is a snake. "That will be our dinner," he says. Nearby is a large pond, brown and dank. The players come here to swim, he says. Water buffalo come here to cool off. It's a good place to catch frogs and crabs. My nostrils curl. Something smells, probably the impressively large pile of dung next to Cook's sneakers. "I swim in there, too," he says. "It has leeches and all. But I like it. I have no stress since I got here. This is beautiful. Heaven for Joe."
Cook heads down a muddy path, away from the field and into the village. Time for a tour. Huts and livestock and carefully tended little gardens. Dirt floors and no shoes. We meet a woman chopping scallions on an unfurled burlap sack. A family of a half-dozen living in a rickety wooden shack. The village mayor, who seems to do much of his job from a hammock in his front lawn. Cook does most of the talking. Hardly lets my interpreter speak. With every introduction, I feel less as though I'm making the rounds for my own benefit and more as though I'm being paraded around for Cook's benefit.
That's when I see the house. The home Cook built for his sister. It's Baribo's answer to the Taj Mahal -- a two-story dwelling with white columns, a red-tiled roof, ornately detailed blue windows and a second-story porch that sports an electric ceiling fan, plus a front yard that appears to be -- Can this be real? -- landscaped. A large sign over the front door reads "Khmer Association Sport Baseball"; around back is a sprawling yard with pigpens, gardens, a year's supply of firewood, a couple of cows, a rice storage shed, two huge (and smoking) cooking pots, an algae-filled pond, and a tall hut that serves as a chicken and duck coop.
Sometimes, Cook says, his players are allowed to sleep in the coop. But only when it rains.
Cook leads me to a small concrete building, just past the pigpens and next to the cooking pots. He opens a wooden door, revealing white and blue bathroom tile. Cook beams. "Only toilet in town," he says.
Cook's extended Cambodian family lives in the house. His sister Chanty, her husband and others work as baseball staff. I wonder what, exactly, they do -- and how Cook pays for all this.
Cook sits under a mango tree, eating rice. He says he leases the ball-field land from the village, and he wants to purchase the property. He needs only $121,000. He says he wishes he could buy his players more food, but rice costs so much money, "so Joe can only pray." He says government officials are visiting the next day, along with Jim Small from MLB Asia, and he is spending nearly $2,000 on a welcome ceremony because maybe someone can help him with the land issue. He says he needs only $136,000, his price increasing by the minute, "so that Joe remembers what inspired Joe."
The national team breaks for lunch. Some players nap in the leaky bamboo hut. A few kick around a soccer ball in left field. A group of little boys takes to the diamond. Most are shoeless. A few sport sandals. One wears hotel shower slippers. They begin a pickup game.
"I missed my childhood in this country," Cook says. "I should have been able to catch frogs. To ride bicycles to school. To write on a chalkboard. To have friends. But I didn't. All I need is to let these kids play right here. These kids are me."
Cook joins the game as a pitcher. He wraps a baserunner in a bear hug; the infielders form a giggling, smiling dogpile. An older Cambodian man introduces himself. He has graying hair and wide-rimmed glasses. Speaks English. Calls himself Chroch. Says he used to live in the States. Claims he's Joe's older brother. He extends his hand. I shake it and feel cold.
Back in Dothan, Cook had told me Chroch was dead.
I thought there would be orphans. It said so in the event itinerary Cook e-mailed me: "Traditional Cambodian dancers. Orphans." But I don't see either. I see Cook's players, standing flagpole straight, sweaty and squinting in the midmorning sun. I see Cook, clean and pressed in a dress shirt and tie, holding a small black microphone like a string of rosary beads, talking about baseball and Cambodia and what it all means, talking and talking and talking.
"Today we are going to celebrate!" he says in Khmer.
"Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore know that we have baseball! Even Major League Baseball knows about us!
"We need more land to have more fields! To have more players! To have baseball grow!"
This is Cook's big day, a chance to show off, an opportunity to impress all the right people -- people who can provide land and equipment, coaching and publicity. Oh, and money. Local officials are on hand. So is Small, who flew from the MLB offices in New York. So is Thavy Nhem, a businessman who grew up in Cambodia, made a fortune in America and is now a member of the Cambodian parliament. In conversation, Nhem comes across as open, devoutly Christian and super nice; judging by his two bodyguards and shiny new SUV, he's also kind of a big deal. All of us are sitting on covered plastic lawn chairs under a large, decorated tent beside the field in Baribo. The national team is in uniform, ready to play an intrasquad game for our benefit. The players face our tent, unflinching, lined up in the manner of a military marching band. Almost an hour ago, they sang the Cambodian national anthem, hands over hearts. They've been upright ever since -- mostly because Cook has yet to shut up.
"I will do anything for baseball!"
Cook turns toward the players, his back to everyone else. He jabs his right hand, his voice amplified by speakers strapped to a nearby tree. "We have to go to the Asian Cup. The whole country has to show up. The Hong Kong, the Japanese, the Koreans, we're the smallest. But we're part of Asia."
A stray dog wanders though the tent, sniffing for scraps. A Cambodian policeman looks at his walkie-talkie and yawns.
"We will be there! We have to be there!"
Cook hands the microphone to Small, who speaks in English. "Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of Major League Baseball, it's my honor to be back in Baribo." The MLB executive has visited before, most recently during Thanksgiving 2005, when one of the national team's pitchers unintentionally hit Small's son in the butt during a ceremonial at-bat. "The poor kid," Small recalls, "felt sooo bad." Privately, Small acknowledges that MLB has zero business interest in Cambodia -- the untapped, tantalizingly vast Chinese market it ain't -- but says that anyone who loves baseball can't help but be moved by Cook's passion.
"What Joe has done with all of you here is nothing short of amazing," Small says to the national team. "Nothing short of a miracle."
The players fidget and grimace, shifting from leg to leg.
"Hey," Small says, "do you guys want to sit down? Get comfortable?"
The game is about to begin. Cook and Small retire to a table behind the backstop, along with Nhem and former major league pitcher Mickey Weston, here as a volunteer coach. Nhem wants baseball. His own Cambodian team. He unfurls a large blueprint, traces his finger along a piece of land surrounded by three lakes -- a 230-acre tract just off Highway 6, which runs between Phnom Penh and the tourist mecca of Siem Reap. Nhem is developing a resort area, with bungalows and hotels, campgrounds and a go-kart track. "I dream of baseball," he says. "But I need training. To make a field, I don't know what is involved. I am willing to provide property."
Nhem looks at Small, then points to an 80-acre spot next to a lake. "If you need it, have it."
Small leans forward. Weston perks up. Both men have questions. How much is the land worth? "About $100,000 per 2.5 acres." And you're willing to donate it? "Yes." What about building a four-field cloverleaf, a Cambodian national baseball center? "Good idea." Are you interested in hosting international teams? "Of course." Nhem says he's willing to spend as much as $500,000 on a facility, let the national team train there for free, even allow Cook to run the place.
Meanwhile, Cook pouts. "My desire is not about making big stadium, big hotel," he says, staring at the sky. "It's about the birthplace. What inspires me is baseball here, in this place."
"Joe, the issue with this field is that it's very expensive," Small says. "Almost $200,000."
"At least $200,000-plus," Cook counters.
On it goes. The more Small and Weston attempt to reason with Cook -- Better facilities! More opportunity to grow the sport! Everything you've ever dreamed of! -- the more stubborn he becomes. He wants a field in Baribo. His field. And he wants someone else to pay for it. End of story. When Small mentions that Japanese and Korean teams could come to Nhem's proposed field for spring training, Cook gets testy.
"People will spend money there, but what about here?" he says, his voice rising. "What about baseball's home, where it belong? It wouldn't be like it was meant to be."
Weston rubs his eyes. "In all honesty, Joe, you do not have the facility and room here to make baseball grow and be the dream you want," he says.
"Quite frankly, this field is not regulation size," Small adds. "The level of team that will come is much different."
Cook sighs. Reluctantly, he agrees to check out Nhem's land. I leave to watch the scrimmage, which is being announced over the PA system by Cook's brother-in-law -- that is, until he suddenly starts barking at my interpreter, with the game still going and batters still swinging and his microphone still on. "Don't take pictures!" he yelps in Khmer.
My interpreter freezes, camera in hand. She has just taken a snapshot of a stylish local girl wearing a silky maroon skirt, a lacy white top and what looks like an engagement ring.
"Don't take pictures!"
A few hours later, I'm told that the girl in the picture is Cook's secret Cambodian girlfriend.
I thought this story would teach me Khmer. A few useful phrases. Please. Thank you. Where is the bathroom? Guidebook stuff. Nothing obscene. But that was before the floating schoolhouse. Before I said goodbye to the headless chicken and hello to principal Yom Kim Song.
Kim serves as president of the Cambodian Baseball Federation. He wants to talk. Doesn't want Cook to know. Kim has graying, close-cropped hair and a warm smile, wears dark slacks and a matching button-down shirt. His students treat him like a favorite grandpa, with a mix of adoration and reverence. We sit at the end of a long classroom table draped with a yellow plastic cloth. Kim shows me a pair of ceremonial baseballs. One sports his picture and a dozen autographs. The other reads: "SEA Games, 2007."
"During the games, Joe would cuss the players out constantly," Kim says. "I felt really bad for them. He wouldn't even call them their names. He would just call them ah chuay mahy and not look at them."
I shoot my fixer a quizzical look.
"Motherf---er," he explains. About the worst thing you can call someone in Khmer.
Kim started working with Cook four years ago, hoping to spread baseball to schoolchildren. Now he's fed up. Not with the sport but with Cook's running Cambodian baseball like a dictator, treating Kim like a dog, helping himself instead of helping his country.
Kim opens a binder stuffed with official documents, removes a copy of a 2-week-old letter of complaint addressed to the Baseball Federation of Asia. Kim's letter asserts that Cook:
"Joe Cook does what he wants," Kim says, frowning. "He doesn't listen to anyone. He doesn't follow the rules of Cambodia."
So why won't Joe show you his books?
"Joe says the money is his."
And what does he spend it on?
"I think Joe takes care of his family."
Kim thinks Cook made a mess of the SEA Games, tried to do too much, too soon, with players who weren't ready for international competition. He points to his chest and biceps: "Our team needed to be stronger." He pantomimes pitching and batting: "We didn't know breaking pitches or have players who could throw them." Now Kim is practically yelling: "We lost so badly and had no confidence. And Joe got mad at the players. He made them run after eating lunch. He constantly chewed them out just to show them who was boss. At functions, he didn't hang out with the team. He went around advertising Joe Cook!"
I ask Kim about the team party. The one in Baribo, after the SEA Games. The one that ended with cops showing up because Kim and Cook were arguing. Cook told me his version of what happened, that Kim was lazy and jealous and a royal pain in Thailand, that Kim then cussed him out at the party, right in front of the entire team.
Kim looks incredulous. "The kids on the team told me Joe was working them too hard," he says. "I went to talk to Joe about it. Joe wouldn't listen. The kids wanted to fight him. I called the police."
"Joe would have been killed. The kids would have beaten him to death."
What to believe? Whom to believe? Kim admits that he doesn't like Cook, says that the feeling is mutual and claims that Cook owes him a couple hundred bucks (a lot in Cambodia). Kim also says he loves the national team players and wants to grow baseball from the ground up, through schools. He sounds sincere. And credible. But still.
I turn to my interpreter: "Ask Mr. Kim if I should trust Joe Cook."
My fixer waves me off, shaking his head. "We're just here for information," he says. "You decide."
I decide? Me? After everything I've just heard?
Ah chuay mahy.
I thought this story would be less bewildering. That was before I left the schoolhouse and returned to my hotel, the nicest guest house in Kampong Chhnang province, where the air conditioning is cool (until the power goes out), the showers are hot (unless the water cuts off), and the attentive staff can corral and remove a live lizard from your room in 60 seconds flat (no joke).
In the lobby, people are waiting. People who know about Cook. People who are afraid to be identified. They talk; I listen to the allegations.
I hear that Cook has slept around with other women in the village, that no one objects because everyone believes Cook has lots of money.
I hear that Cook leases the land his ball field occupies for $20 a month from local authorities and that he hasn't paid rent in half a year.
I hear that Cook hasn't paid his staff members their salaries in six months, either.
I hear that Cook gives his players barely enough to eat, that they survive on white rice sprinkled with ground-up tamarind leaves.
I hear that a couple of visiting Americans gave Cook $10,000 and that Cook asked them for more money a week later, claiming he spent the entire amount on food.
I hear that Cook's reportedly deceased brother, Chroch, is very much alive.
I hear that Cook's signature eye tic has nothing to do with the Khmer Rouge and actually comes from getting hit by a baseball.
"Listen, Joe comes here and he is powerful," one person says. "In the States, he is nobody. Don't ever forget that."
Who else knows? Everyone, I'm told. The whole village. But no one will do anything because baseball offers hope, because Cook promises a better life. And even if he can't deliver, a promise is more than people have otherwise.
I thought I had heard the worst. That was before my last day in Baribo. Before the party tent came down, before the visiting American coaches hit the road with happy handshakes and inspirational memories. Take care. Can't wait to see your story.
I should probably start with the free rice.
The free rice is a gift for the national team -- six bulging sacks, each the size of an SUV tire, courtesy of the nice woman who owns the hotel we're staying in. (What can I say? My fixer is good at his work.) We bring the bags to the field. The players wake from a midmorning nap, react like lottery winners. They smile and laugh, chatter and swarm. They pose for a group picture; by the time I finish checking my camera, they've spirited the rice back to their leaky bamboo hut. It's almost enough to make me feel good. Until I meet Keara.
Keara is their manager, a 28-year-old who runs the team when Cook is in America. He has soft eyes and smooth cheeks, wears a striped shirt and a broken-in Baltimore Orioles cap. He loves baseball, loves his players even more. Lives with them in the hut. Has their total trust. He speaks quiet, self-assured English -- good enough to act as a go-between when American coaches visit -- and has been working for Cook for six years.
He sounds fed up.
"Joe promised to say to me today about the money," Keara says. "But he doesn't come today. He stay in the house. I don't know why."
Keara says Cook owes him money. Owes the baseball staff, too. And the team. Six months of back pay. Hundreds of dollars, from $50 a month for Keara and the scorekeepers to $35-50 a month per player. Salaries that Cook promised to cover the last time he was in Cambodia, almost four months ago.
The players, Keara says, are ready to revolt. They want to go home, won't play in the Asian Cup unless they get paid. Ten already have quit. The rest are exhausted. And angry. Their parents are angry. Their wives are angry. Most of the players are rice farmers. Dirt poor. They need money to eat.
"A lot of mornings, no breakfast," Keara says. "Only lunch and dinner. Small fish. Little meat. Little rice. Not enough. They still love baseball. But they get tired."
The field is deserted. The players doze in the hut, enjoying a rare day off. Nearby, a few boys shoot marbles in the dirt. Keara says that he went to high school and that his former classmates now earn $300 a month. He says that he wants to study English but can't afford it -- and that even if he could, he wouldn't have time because Cook demands that the national team practice from sunrise to sundown, seven days a week. Last year, Keara says, Cook even forbade the team from leaving the field, from going 100 meters into the village.
Cook's brother-in-law appears. Says nothing. Looks me over. Looks at Keara. Stuffs a wad of Cambodian currency, riels, into Keara's shirt pocket. He gives a stern nod and walks away.
"How much is that?" I ask.
"About 11 dollar," Keara says. "It goes to the players on the team that won the game yesterday."
"Do the losers get anything?"
Keara has a question he seems nervous to ask. "Is Joe Cook a rich man or a poor man in America?"
"He's a cook," I say.
Keara takes off his hat, rubs his temples. He's silent. His eyes go wide. "Why does Joe do like this?" he asks with wonder.
I ask about Joe's secret girlfriend. Keara says he wants to speak candidly but he's scared. Not for himself. For me. I tell him not to worry because Joe is just a cook. Keara smiles. He says that Cook's girlfriend is the sister of one of the scorekeepers and that everyone in the village knows Cook has a wife and children back in the U.S.
Keara turns sideways, makes kissing and hugging gestures. He's talking about sex. "In Cambodia, if you do this, then you are married," he says. "Joe, before this, had two 'wives' here at the same time. They went to Thailand."
A disapproving scowl crosses his face. "In Cambodia, one 'wife,' one 'husband.'"
A national flag flutters in the breeze. Clouds are rolling in. The players eat lunch, crouching on raised bamboo platforms. An older couple approaches and sits down. Their son is on the national team. Their youngest daughter is in elementary school. She sits on her father's lap, his arms wrapped around her like a life jacket. He remains quiet. His wife, who cooks for the players, does the talking. "Five or six months," she says, "I have not gotten a dollar."
The wife says she is supposed to earn $30 a month. She doesn't seem bitter. To the contrary, she grows vegetables at home, feeds them to the players. "I want to help them," she says. "It's from my heart."
"Does Cook ever say thank you?" I ask.
The couple has two other daughters, 17 and 19 years old. They moved to Bangkok two years ago. Cook's sister set everything up because
Suddenly, the man who says he's Cook's reportedly dead brother materializes, hovering, watching us without a word. It feels akin to witness intimidation. I switch subjects, ask about what the players like to eat. "Sour soup rice fish " Chroch shuffles off, probably bored, possibly distracted.
I ask why the daughters left.
The wife's face hardens. She makes a small fist. Her husband lifts his arm, drapes it over her shoulders. For a moment, nobody speaks. Then it comes out. She says that Cook had the oldest daughter work in the big house. He slept with her. The younger daughter moved in. Cook slept with her, too. Next came the secret girlfriend. Both daughters were hurt, upset. The oldest went to Thailand, the younger followed. Anything to escape the humiliation.
The husband looks away. The wife looks anguished. She hasn't seen her daughters in two years, has no idea what has become of them. She pleads for help
I see Cook is coming toward us, bleary-eyed and messy-haired, wearing a white undershirt and what look like shower flip-flops. I bolt from the dugout, sit him down at a nearby table. Tell me about the land, I ask. Nhem's land. Weren't you supposed to see it today?
"I cannot do everything. Be everywhere," he says. "It's tough. Joe struggles. Joe needs help."
Louder now, he says, "How the hell? It just benefit over there! Baseball will be popular! People can make a living, international competition and s---! But no one will come here!"
Cook softens. "People are happy here."
Behind Cook, the mother of the missing girls is talking to my interpreter: "We cry every night. Can't sleep. We miss our girls. Our youngest doesn't even remember what her sisters look like."
Cook is yelling again. "Baseball then shines someplace else? A fancy field? Nice backstop? They not pull grass bare-handed? Feet bleeding? No! They have an easy life! And you leave us suffering!"
Down to a near whisper. "If we have to play here forever, I will stay right here."
But isn't a new field what you've always wanted? Wouldn't it help baseball grow?
"I don't trust [Nhem]. He wants to use baseball as a tool. He like doing bad so much. And good so little."
Back in the dugout, my interpreter crosses her arms, shakes her head. She can't believe what she's hearing from the missing girls' mother: "Chanty sent our daughters to live with her sister. Eventually, we stopped hearing from them. It costs $2,000 to go to Bangkok. We pleaded with Chanty to help us find them. She said she didn't know what happened to them -- and that we couldn't afford to find them, anyway."
Meanwhile, I've finally managed to piss off Cook. "Why so many questions?" he grouses. I ask one more: "Joe, if the Asian Cup was held at Nhem's proposed field, right here in Cambodia, would you take the national team there to compete?"
"He get all the benefit, don't he?" Cook says.
I leave Cook, walk through the village. Mud sticks to my shoes. Smoke hangs in the late afternoon air, acrid and fetid. With me is a Cambodian friend of mine, a survivor of the Killing Fields who now lives in the United States. "This is a little like Pol Pot, one man controlling everything," he says. "I don't want that to happen again to these kids. Joe treats them like prisoners."
Pol Pot? Prisoners? I wonder whether my friend is crazy. We get to Cook's house, stand by the backyard pond. Pigpens surround it. The water is bright green, dotted with small, dark plants.
"You know which ones of those [plants] you can eat?" asks my friend, smiling.
"I do. We ate those in the Khmer Rouge work camps."
Chanty greets us. She speaks with my friend. Turns out the pond isn't actually a pond.
"It's Louk Joe's pool," she says.
Louk? A Khmer honorific, my friend explains. Like Sir. Or Lord. Something to use with a prime minister. With royalty. Not something to use with your younger brother.
"The pool is for Louk Joe," Chanty repeats, clearly proud. "A place to sit and relax after baseball games."
those six big bags of rice? As soon as I left the field, I'm told, Cook's family came and took them away.
A Dothan donor claims to have given Cook nearly $60,000 in cash over the years. I run down Cook's charitable organization, Cambodia Baseball. No public tax records. (Perhaps because charities that bring in less than $25,000 in annual revenue are not required to file with the IRS.) I check Cook's court history. A 1995 guilty plea for theft of less than $50. A 2002 bank lien for $2,092. And this: a 2004 lawsuit filed by Cook against Great-West Life & Annuity Insurance Company in Alabama county court, claiming that the company wrongfully refused to pay $150,000 in death benefits from a life insurance policy held by Chroch.
The suit was moved to U.S. district court. A federal judge ultimately dismissed it with prejudice (in layman's terms: threw it out). The case file exceeds 60 pages. These are the facts: In April 2003, Chroch applied for a $150,000 life insurance policy, with Joe named as the sole beneficiary. Great-West issued a policy in May. Chroch reportedly died in a traffic accident in Cambodia on July 6. Great-West and Joe's lawyers began squabbling over Chroch's signature, with the insurance company claiming it was forged. Joe filed suit.
Then things got weird.
Joe originally sent Great-West copies of documents stating that Chroch died in a Cambodian hospital under the care of a doctor named Pim Rin. In a motion, Great-West claimed Chroch's death was faked, providing a translated confession from the same doctor. Rin's letter says that the death of "Mr. Puk Jaroot" on July 6, 2003, is "not true" and that a local bureaucrat named Know Charuen talked Rin into signing a false death report. The letter is dated May 6, 2004; it is marked with Rin's thumbprints. Great-West also argued that Chroch applied for his insurance policy in bad faith by failing to check a box asking about mental or emotional disorders -- according to Social Security Administration records obtained by Great-West's lawyers, Chroch suffered from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and received disability benefits for at least a decade.
I look up Chroch in the Social Security death index:
Chroch's last listed address? Cook's Dothan apartment.
Cook calls from the Atlanta airport, en route from Cambodia. He sounds sunny. Says he saw Nhem's land. Calls Nhem a great guy. Apologizes for being upset in Baribo. I check with Nhem: Cook really did visit. Things went smoothly. "Joe is not a businessman," Nhem tells me. "But he has a good heart."
Cook forwards me an e-mail addressed to Small, an urgent letter requesting $80,000 worth of equipment. When Small politely declines, Cook pens a rambling, angry reply, never mind that he's the one asking for a favor.
Turns out this is typical. "Whatever Joe says goes, and the hell to whatever anyone else thinks," says Philip Beaudoin, a Canadian coach who worked with the Cambodian national team in Bangkok. "The way he treats everybody, you do things Joe's way or you don't do it."
A former president of the Canadian National Oldtimers Baseball Federation, Beaudoin met Cook in 2005, when Beaudoin packed his Toyota van with donated baseball equipment and school supplies and drove from Hamilton, Ontario, to Dothan. He later hosted Cook for a backyard fundraising dinner on the shore of Lake Ontario, collecting about $1,000 while shrugging off friends who suspected Cook was a snake-oil salesman. "I'm the kind of guy who takes people at face value," Beaudoin says. "Unfortunately."
When Cook needed coaches for the SEA Games, Beaudoin volunteered. So did his son, Corey. Chance of a lifetime, they thought. See Southeast Asia, do something good. They booked a trip to Cambodia. Cook ignored them for weeks, then canceled at the last minute. He still continued to call and e-mail: I need help. The team needs help.
Father and son rebooked, went to Baribo on their own dime. They bunked in Cook's sister's house. Beaudoin was puzzled. Joe hardly can take care of his family in America. How does he afford this? More curious were team practices. The Beaudoins and fellow volunteer coaches Michael Griffin and Joe Truesdale were at the field every morning, sweating and swatting at mosquitoes, teaching relay throws. Meanwhile, Cook was mostly absent -- and when he did show up, "It was like the players were his slaves," Beaudoin recalls. "They were afraid to contradict him. He controlled them like a dictator."
Cook's erratic, imperious behavior continued at the SEA Games, according to coaches and others who were there. He arrived in Bangkok with a large entourage, rented a house and hardly came by the team hotel. He wanted input on the lineup but didn't attend strategy meetings. Near the end of Cambodia's second game -- a blowout loss to the Philippines -- tensions flared. A Cambodian batter was called out after ducking a curveball. Back in the dugout, Beaudoin tried to demonstrate what had happened. A teaching moment. Cook came over, cursed the player out. Beaudoin angrily told Cook to back off. Afterward, he apologized to Cook for losing his cool.
"End of story," Beaudoin says. "Or so I thought."
That night, another knock on the door. Team meeting. Downstairs. Now. The same meeting Mike Siv told me about and filmed for his documentary. Cook ripped his players. He told the coaches that they weren't needed, that he would manage the team himself. Because Joe Cook could do better.
As Cook was leaving, Beaudoin stood up and asked, "How are you going to know you are doing better?"
"I will know." Cook said.
Before Cambodia's third game, Cook filled out a lineup card incorrectly. The national team lost. The coaches and Cook met in the dressing room. Expletives were exchanged; Corey Beaudoin nearly punched Cook out. The next morning, Cook summoned Philip and Corey to the stadium grandstand, six rows up, overlooking first base. His back to the Beaudoins, Cook stared at the field, barely turning his head.
"What do you want, Joe?"
"I didn't send for you."
"OK, so what do you want?"
"I don't need you."
Beaudoin hasn't spoken to Cook since.
I thought I should give Cook a chance to explain things. A last chance to be the Joe Cook on the video, the one unfolding dreams, teaching shoeless orphans how to hit and throw and stay inside the first-base line.
Back in Dothan, it's a cloudy spring afternoon. I'm sitting in a half-empty coffee shop, fingers on a laptop, a voice recorder on the table. A handwritten chalk sign reads: "It's a beautiful day." Cook enters wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt, unbuttoned to the waist. He slides into my booth, folds his hands together. Palm to palm. Almost praying.
"Things aren't going in a good way," he says.
Cook says he just spent a month in Cambodia. Became president of the national baseball federation in Cambodia. Finally got the government to donate land for a ball field. And yet: no money. Cook can't build a new field. Can't pay salaries. Can't afford to take the national team to the Asian Cup even though the tournament has been postponed twice and moved from faraway Manila to nearby Bangkok. "Fundraising," he says, spitting out the word. "It's just crap."
Cook says he begged the Baseball Federation of Asia for help, but nothing. He says he asked MLB for more equipment, but it didn't send enough. He even hit up his restaurant customers. Two wrote checks, totaling $100.
Ten more of Cook's best players have quit. No money. Keara resigned. No money. Cook says he has recruited replacement players, but they aren't very skilled. Cook says he owes U.S. creditors $40,000-60,000, double that for those in Cambodia. The house in Baribo now belongs to lenders. The pigs, the chickens, all of it. The land, too. "Why am I talking to you?" he says. "It's no use."
I ask about the $10,000 two Americans gave Cook last summer, money Cook claimed went to his players, who in turn said they never saw a dime.
I ask about Cook's brother. The one who's dead, except that he apparently is alive.
I ask about the secret girlfriend. I even show Cook the photograph taken by my interpreter.
I ask about the missing daughters.
Cook denies everything. And smiles. And nods, agreeing with his own words, affirming them with every gesture. He says the players are lying. He says relatives helped pay for his sister's house. He says the donated baseball equipment was distributed throughout Cambodia. He says the man claiming to be his brother is an impostor trying to get money out of him, that the woman in the picture is just a friend, not his girlfriend, and that he never slept with those two young women because he has a wife and two kids and never would be so desperate.
Me: "Joe, the guy I met looks an awful lot like pictures I've seen of your brother Chroch."
Cook: "He does."
Me: "I don't understand."
Cook: "Me too."
Me: "Did your brother actually die?"
Cook: "Yeah. Back in '03 or something like that. He went back to Cambodia and apparently was in a car accident. Nowadays, we've been thinking a lot about him."
Suddenly, Cook perks up. Tells me to write what I know, what people say about him. Write about the problems, the situations. Everything Joe deals with. Joe wants people to read all about him. Joe likes that.
"That's the drama," he says. "That's Joe's life."
The next day, Cook leaves two agitated, semi-coherent phone messages. In the first, he demands to know where I'm getting my information; in the second, he denies ever using money for girlfriends or prostitutes.
I had never mentioned prostitutes.
I thought this story would add up. Or at least fit a narrative formula. But what if equations are inadequate? What if the world is ineffable and people are calculus in reverse, and the more you learn, the less you understand? What if we're all headless chickens pretending to be otherwise?
I suppose I should end where I started.
I'm back on the river and back aboard the ramshackle skiff, which is now a floating school bus, carrying Kim and a dozen of his pupils. The schoolhouse recedes in our wake. The children make victory signs, pose for pictures, grin and squirm and learn English from my interpreter, counting down from 10 to one.
Sunlight glistens on the water. I think about Cook. Victim or villain? Loathsome or pitiable? I think about the children. The ones in Baribo. The ones on the boat. Telling Cook's story could mean the end of baseball in Cambodia. Will that hurt the kids or help them?
Will it hurt or help Cook?
Landfall. Off the boat. I purchased two bags of candy at a local market. The children gather -- some from the school, some from nearby huts -- and create a sea of open palms. We hand out treats, one at a time, until our bags are empty. More palms. So much need.
We clamber into the van. The road ahead leads north, possibly south, beyond the water and into the twilight, unspooling clouds against a brushwork sky, the fading remains of the day. Back to the diamond of Louk Joe Cook. The corruptions of power and absolute powerlessness. The fetid swimming pool ringed by pigs.
I thought this would be a feel-good story.
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Patrick Hruby is a senior writer for ESPN.com.