Federation Focus: Bhutan wants baseball and softball to thrive on top of the world

Federation Focus: Bhutan wants baseball and softball to thrive on top of the world
Bhutan federation co-founders Karma Dorji, the current president, and Matthew DeSantis, guide the WBSC inside the baseball, softball and Baseball5 programme of one of its newest members.

The second instalment of WBSC's 2022 Federation Focus series features one of the newest WBSC members, the Bhutan Baseball & Softball Association (BBSA).

The WBSC Executive Board approved Bhutan's membership in July 2021, but the first contact between the landlocked country in the Eastern Himalayas and bat-and-ball sports dates back to 2013.

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Karma Dorji, the 42-year-old federation president and co-founder, was at the time working for the Bhutan Olympic Committee.

"We received an invitation to participate in the World Children Baseball Fair in Japan," Dorij told the WBSC. "I was the head of the delegation. I returned home very impressed with what I had seen. Baseball looked like a fun sport to me, very entertaining for kids. Playing baseball also requires discipline, and I thought it would fit our youth. We grow up at high altitudes. We have strong DNA."

Dorji found support and partnership with Matthew DeSantis, the co-founder of BBSA, an American citizen who was serving as a part-time volunteer at the Olympic Committee.

DeSantis has a longstanding friendship with His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, the President of the Bhutan Olympic Committee, whom he met at Choate Rosemary Hall High School in Connecticut, USA. He has lived in Bhutan for the last ten years. He currently runs two companies in the country, a boutique luxury travel operator called MyBhutan (Bhutan Baseball’s founding sponsor) and a technology company that built Bhutan’s international payment gateway called Beyul Labs.

"When I moved to Bhutan, I brought baseball with me. Having a dear friend responsible for sports development in the Kingdom, it came naturally to support this cause. Baseball also has this beautiful power of bringing communities together and, simply put, is a true passion," DeSantis told the WBSC during a video call.

DeSantis began to help Bhutan become more familiar with baseball in early 2013 by first introducing the sport in the country via a daily clinic open to the general public.

"Within weeks, we had between 600 to 800 kids showing up every day. We trained in locations that were close to the police and army barracks in Thimphu, and this helped attract more youth."

Players trained in cricket joined the league, including many familiar with the national cricket programme. This gave an immediate spark of translatable-tool talent and helped the programme become more competitive. DeSantis and Dorji shared coaching duties. However, they knew it was essential to build coaching talent with the amount of interested youth.

"We founded an adult league, initially intended to groom coaching talent for the youth programmes," said Dorji. "We involved 45 players and played games on a converted soccer and cricket field in the capital Thimphu."

Soon after its first adult season, Bhutan was invited to travel to Nepal for the first international baseball experience. The selected team trained for over six months. The April 2015 earthquake cancelled the trip.

The initial enthusiasm had a setback. The adult league was put on pause. The sole focus became the youth clinics with the added coaching support from the trained Bhutanese adults. However, they had hit maximum capacity for programme development, given their resources. While they continued the youth clinic, they could not keep up with the growing interest of youth across the nation to participate in the sport.

Something changed in 2016, when someone named Ramon Riego made contact with DeSantis.

"Ramon made us realize how strong of a grassroots infrastructure we had developed in comparison to other developing programmes around the world. He recognized the importance of building international relations and inspired us to grow a number of essential relationships over the next couple of years with various parties, including equipment sponsors, professional leagues, including MLB and KBO, and government departments. Through a network of these relations, we first got in touch with the WBSC," confirmed DeSantis.

Baseball in Bhutan went through one more sliding door in 2019, when Dorji and De Santis found the support of the Bhutan Cultural Exchange (BCE), a nonprofit organization founded in Oregon, USA, in 2013. This allowed the organization to hire eight full-time Bhutanese staff members in the middle of the pandemic. They now had the capacity to begin to redeploy various league programs.

"We started programmes at the club level, then we moved forward," said Dorji. "We were also ready to become an officially recognized sport. I drafted the BBSA's Constitution, submitted our papers with the Bhutan Olympic Committee, and got recognized and affiliated with the Bhutan Olympic Committee. We then also became a member of the WBSC."

The Bhutan Baseball and Softball Association has now eight full-time staff members.

"It takes TEAM-work to make a DREAM work", states Dorji's e-mail signature. This is exactly what he's trying to do.

"We asked all our employees to participate in the WBSC Academy introductory course and we had all of them participate also in the level one coaches course."

Dorji, DeSantis and their staff then hit the road.

"We introduced baseball in the different districts of the country. It was an amazing experience. We saw a lot of raw talent. We also enjoyed some success since five districts registered clubs," added Dorji.

The first stage of the programmes pipeline is mainly dedicated to the capital, Thimphu.

"We followed Mr DeSantis' advice and decided to focus programme development in one core district while still supporting independent club activities in other districts."

BBSA introduced the Baseball5 discipline in May 2021.

On 18 December 2021, they launched Bhutan's first youth league, which was in the U-15 age category.

Five schools in Thimphu participated and played 21 regular-season games: Changangkha Middle Secondary School, Decheoncholing Higher Secondary School, Thimphu Primary School, Druk School and Taba Middle Secondary School. The league involved 90 students, 45 male and 45 female.

The first baseball field in the country hosted the games.

"We received approval from Changangkha middle secondary school to use their soccer field," confirmed Dorji. "After we received permission, we started our ground maintenance. After three weeks of work, we finally had our first-ever baseball field in Bhutan."

The plan is to hold the second edition of the league in September 2022.

"We would like to involve five more schools in a second district," commented DeSantis.

BBSA continues to spread the knowledge of baseball through the ongoing youth clinics

"We organize them on Sundays, and they are still open to everybody," confirmed Dorji. "We have a small population, around 771,000, but 61% of them are under the age of 29."

In addition to the U-15 league, plans for the near future include the re-launch of an adult league later this year for players over the age of 16, in addition to the introduction of softball winter camps.

"About 50% of our new players are girls. We are considering offering them the alternative of playing softball," said Dorji.

BBSA also plans to launch a winter Baseball5 league this December.

The dream would now be putting together a Bhutan National Team.

"I'm a believer of what the WBSC has done. I'm aware of the activity, and I think you've done a fantastic job," said Dorji. "We are looking for guidance, we are hungry for advice on strategy, and we are willing to follow WBSC's educational programmes. If I think of a request, it would be getting an invitation to train our coaches, umpires and participating in an international competition for the U-15 age bracket."

DeSantis added: "I'm confident we can keep growing. The amount of talent I see and what we accomplished in such a short time makes me believe that Bhutan can become a consistent, reliable and competitive center for baseball development in the area."