Baseball may be America’s pastime, but one local children’s baseball club is working to make it the game of choice for Vietnam, as well.
FirstSwing Foundation is introducing bóng chày, “baseball” in Vietnamese, to the children of Vietnam this spring through Baseball Connect, which works to unite children of different cultures through the ball-and-bat sport.
FirstSwing holds many local baseball camps, clinics, and tournaments, but coach Phil Rognier explains that teaching life lessons through the game and the Baseball Connect mission are at the heart of what his organization does.
“It’s a driving force for everything we do,” he says. “It is really about teaching kids they can do anything they want if they work hard, stay true to the course, and don’t quit.”
Rognier uses the program to teach more than sport-specific skills. “I have learned that it is not just about throwing the ball or swinging the bat,” says 12-year-old Davis Franklin. “Baseball has also taught me life lessons. I have learned the importance of teamwork, and the value of preparation.”
Franklin’s 10-year-old brother, Taylor, echoes his feelings about baseball’s purpose in life. “There is a saying that Coach Phil uses a lot which is ‘we not me,’” Taylor says. “It means that I am out there on the field as part of a team, that saying has meant a lot to me.”
Rognier has been to Vietnam six times to spearhead Baseball Connect efforts, and feels it is important for people to set themselves as role models and do things for other people who may need help.
“I have always said that baseball is a generational thing. Never would I have thought that it was a cultural thing until I started doing this,” he says. “For so long baseball diplomacy in America has meant going to other countries and finding the best baseball players and bringing them here. That’s not baseball diplomacy. Baseball diplomacy is where you go in and use the game to teach others what’s important in life.”
Rognier doesn’t just arrive in a country with life lessons. He also comes with an inventory of gear and gifts for the local children, including gloves, bats, shoes, catching gear, bobble heads, commemorative baseballs, play books, and hundreds of baseball cards.
“I carry baseball cards on me all the time,” Rognier says. “They are in my briefcase, my pocket … so if I see kids, I ask the parents if I can give their kid a card. And those kids don’t care if it’s a Mickey Mantle card or you on the card, they just love them.”
In addition to the massive stockpile of gear and gifts, Rognier and his volunteers also will spend some of their time in Hanoi helping build a playground at a special-needs school for children with autism.
Baseball gear and new playgrounds don’t come cheap; this year the coach is trying something new to help raise funds for the trip to Vietnam.
“I had never even heard of GoFundMe before,” he says. “We’ve got some events that we are using to raise money, and some donors, but using this GoFundMe will get us funding we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I know I don’t want the kids selling candy bars.”
If there was ever a time to start a GoFundMe campaign, it’s this year; Rognier is taking the largest contingent of volunteers ever with him to Vietnam. The current roster is 40 parents, children, contractors, and other volunteers.
“In all the years that I’ve been doing nonprofits and coaching baseball, over 50 years, I’ve never asked for a penny,” he says. “But this time I got a little over-aggressive. Generally, I just take a few people, but my 11-year-old ball club have proven over the last six years to be a cool little bunch of kids, so this is like a reward for them,” he says.
A reward indeed. Davis Franklin is ready to hit the ground running when he arrives in Hanoi.
“I am looking forward to the whole Vietnam experience – travel, experiencing a different country and culture, and I am super excited to work with the kids, too,” he says. “I have never left the United States. This will be the first stamp in my passport.”
Seeing the excitement on the faces of the American children and watching them interact with the Vietnamese children is one of the things Rognier enjoys most about his trips abroad.
“We take these kids to these countries and they don’t realize how similar they are to the kids that live there,” he says. At the end of the day, we are all sitting in a café eating pizza.”
It is Rognier’s hope that a love of baseball and a few life lessons will be cemented into the lives of the children who participate in Baseball Connect.
“I love baseball and I’m 72, it got me to where I am,” he says.