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Jun, 2017

From wiffle bats & balls to caps & gowns: how the Hanoi Capitals all became high school graduates

To understand the story of the Hanoi, Vietnam Capitals, one must first get to know PONY Vietnam Director Tom Treutler and understand his commitment and dedication to growing baseball in Southeast Asia. In between college and law school, Treutler was a member of a group called Volunteers in Asia. The group traveled to the Far East, specifically the country of Vietnam. While in Vietnam, Treutler met the woman who would eventually become his wife, Thuy, and along came sons Ben and Henry. The family has lived back-and-forth between Vietnam and the United States ever since.

Tom wanted to find a way to pass on the sport of baseball to his sons, but he had a difficult challenge, considering the sport was foreign in Vietnam. Finding a "true" field was next to impossible and the group had very little equipment to use. Starting with six boys, most of whom were Ben’s classmates, Tom organized the Hanoi Capitals in 2008, and they learned primitively with wiffle bats and balls, as they honed their skills like many other children do across the world. It was as if they formed the Sandlot Gang, but from 8,000 miles away.

The group together for practice during the autumn of 2008 -- all smiles, learning the game.

By 2010, the Capitals joined PONY and wanted to experience international competition. Tom had been working with the kids three days a week for 48 weeks out of the year, holding 5 and 6 a.m. practices because if it was any later in the day, one would have to endure the sweltering 125 heat index in Vietnam.

“I had a dream that we would build a team that someday could go to the World Baseball Classic,” said Treutler. “We wanted to give the kids a good activity, but then we decided we wanted to try to compete internationally. We had some great experiences and made great friends in baseball in the surrounding countries, and saw that we really needed to improve. We wanted to try to be like the good teams and play the game the right way.”

“But we lost 34 games in a row over a three year period at the beginning. At the end of that streak in 2010, after we went to a tournament in San Diego, we ended an 0-10 road trip. The game ended, and an 11-year old kid on third base was piping mad, and he turned to me and said ‘Why did you bring us here!’ and stormed off the field. I wondered if we were doing the right thing. But, we kept at it, and things came together, and we won the next tournament about five months later. We had become a family.”

A disgruntled, young Ben Treutler during a losing streak that seemed endless.

Tom Treutler (far right) and the team follows the action from the bench during a game in July 2010, hoping, striving and battling for a win.

Despite the team’s struggle to win games, there were some highlights that not only proved to be valuable life and baseball teaching moments, but also memories that will last forever. The team participated in the PONY Asia-Pacific Zone Bronco Championships as the first team from Vietnam ever to compete, and the team faced admirable opponents like Taiwan and Indonesia, after beginning their inaugural PONY season with a game against the Seattle Klouters from Seattle, Washington in Hanoi.

In July of 2010, the Capitals played a game versus Garden Grove PONY Baseball at their home fields in Anaheim, California. The game signified what may have been the first time sports teams of any age representing the U.S. and Vietnam competed against each other since the Vietnam War. Garden Grove ended up winning the game 19-6, but the Capitals were a part of history.

Team Captain Quoc Thinh Nhu, also known as "The Rabbit," covers second base during the game against Garden Grove.

The Capitals get together for a picture with the Cal Crush of Ventura, California.

A family, more important, a baseball family sticks together. So when Ben headed back to the U.S. for high school in 2014, he wasn’t going alone. Fellow teammates An Pham and Hai and Duy Nguyen were going with him. In the following year, more players wanted to go, and thanks to the generosity of Thuy, Tom’s parents and aunts, the boys had host families to stay with as they all joined their new team, the Muskegon Catholic Crusaders in Muskegon, Michigan. Over the four years, Tom said his family hosted about 20 different children.

In addition to winning a Michigan State baseball Championship in 2015, the Capitals made another “first.” The team became the first from Vietnam to participate in the Colt World Series in Lafayette, Indiana. Hanoi was defeated in its first game to Bay County, Michigan 7-2, before being ousted by Muralla, Mexico 6-0 in its next game. Then, Hanoi lost to Pasadena, Texas 14-5 in an exhibition game. Despite the losses, it was still an amazing trip for the team.

PONY Vietnam lines up for the national anthem prior to their Colt World Series game in 2015. The Capitals became the first team to ever represent the nation of Vietnam in the then-65th year of the tournament.

Ben (far right) looks on and provides a few last words of encouragement before Henry (center) takes the field for the 2015 Colt World Series Champions Game for players with special needs.

“We got goosebumps as we walked into historic Loeb Stadium,” said Tom. “The whole town of Lafayette comes out for the event, and the people were incredibly hospitable. We had several families invite our team over for picnics in their backyard. Even one Vietnamese woman that had had lived in the U.S. for 40 years came out to the field and invited us to her house and cooked a Vietnamese meal for the team. We also drove and took time to visit Indiana University and Purdue University to help inspire the boys to study hard for college.”

More important than baseball success, six members of the team have graduated high school in the U.S. and all will go to college in the fall. Two members of the team have already completed their first year. The boys’ accomplishments on-and-off the field have been incredible to say the least:

Hai Nguyen: was admitted to the prestigious Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, Bloomington. In addition to having a 3.8 GPA and being a National Honor Society member, he was a state champion football player as a freshman and is a standout baseball player who batted nearly .400 as a senior with nearly 50 RBI. Off-the-field, Hai participated in mission trips, building houses for poor families in Kentucky, the last couple of years while on spring break.

An Pham: will enroll at Muskegon Community College and hopes to play baseball with the ambition of becoming a physical therapist, after recording a 3.8 GPA in high school. He hit over .300 in the Colt World Series and has been a starting shortstop for the last two years, after winning a state championship ring as a sophomore.

Duy Nguyen: will enroll at the University of Cincinnati with the hopes of becoming a television executive in the media industry. With Muskegon this year, he was named to the All Lakes 8 Conference Second Team, after going 6-0 on the mound this year.

Ben Treutler: was admitted to Johns Hopkins University's prestigious Biomedical Engineering program, a program that accepts only about five-to-six percent of applicants, and about 100 students per year.  Ben already has about 30 college / AP credits too, after finishing his high school career with a 4.0 GPA and 35 ACT score. Ben will run track at Johns Hopkins after being an all-state sprinter throughout high school. In 2016, Ben interned at the Vietnam National Institute of Agricultural Genetics and in 2015, he interned at Vietnam National Institute of Biotechnology.

Former Hanoi PONY Capitals youth players pose after winning the a Michigan State Division 4 Regional Championship in 2016 (L-R): Chu Khanh, Hoan Lam, Duy Nguyen, Hai Nguyen, An Pham and Ben Treutler.

Lam Nguyen Khai Hoan: graduated high school in 2016, and is now attending Muskegon Community College. After earning high grades in pre-engineering, he is expecting to transfer to an engineering university next year. On the baseball diamond, he played catcher and according to Tom Treutler, he is a great all-around young man.

Nguyen Duc Huy: will attend Dennison University in the fall and major in political science. In addition to playing first base and pitcher in high school and hitting .500 in the Colt World Series, he also participated in building homes on mission trips.

Chu Bao Khanh: completed his first year at the University of Cincinnati this past year in chemical engineering, after graduating from Muskegon Catholic in 2016, where he also played baseball.

Do Quang Hieu: will attend Muskegon Community College and study business after finishing his career as a shortstop on the junior varsity team.

Pham Quoc Anh: won a nearly full scholarship to the University of Rochester for engineering after completing his high school career in Pennsylvania.

Additionally, two members of the team, who have stayed in Vietnam, are also accomplishing great feats:

Team Captain Quoc Thinh Nhu: is currently studying business at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Hanoi. He will be remembered for hitting the first out-of-the-park home run in Vietnam international baseball history in 2011 versus Indonesia at the PONY Bronco Asia-Pacific Zone Championships in Seoul, South Korea. His jersey is honored in the PONY Hall of Fame. He was the Hanoi City Champion and second in the nation in the High School Military Olympics in grenade throwing. In Vietnam, there is still mandatory military training for all students, so this was quite an accomplishment.

Nguyen Tuan Anh: is attending the Hanoi National University and hopes to go into international business.

Thinh and Tuan Anh are now assistant coaches for the Hanoi PONY Bronco 12U and Mustang 10U teams as a way to give back. They have helped coach the Vietnam youth teams in various international PONY tournaments. All of the members of the team are trailblazers, paving the way for players like those who participated this April in PONY Vietnam’s first Asia-Pacific Zone Championship Qualifying Tournament.

In April, three Vietnamese Mustang teams competed in the first-ever qualifying tournament to advance to the Zone Championships in Singapore, signifying the growth and development of the sport in the nation since those original Hanoi Capitals in 2008.

After the boys celebrated their high school graduation ceremonies two weekends ago in the U.S., Muskegon is in the thick of a playoff hunt toward getting back to the Michigan State Championship Game. This past weekend, Pham hit the game-winning RBI double in the 10th inning in the Regional Semifinals against number-one and undefeated Frankfort to advance to the Regional Final.

Ben (center) poses for a picture with mom (Thuy) and dad (Tom) following his high school graduation ceremony two weekends ago.

As a fitting way to close this chapter of the boys’ lives before they enter college, Tom Treutler has currently arranged for the boys to have reunion games against their first PONY opponent, the Seattle Klouters, in Seattle next week, before heading to Orange County, California to rematch Garden Grove PONY in July.

“The trip out West on the way back home to Vietnam is to honor Coach Phil Rognier of the Seattle Klouters who visited Vietnam several times, and really inspired our players and coaches,” said Tom. “He is like a Knute Rockne of youth baseball. Coach Rognier helped us with all of our equipment in the early days and brought several of his players to help teach us. Importantly, he sees baseball more of a way to character development than just a sport.”

Rognier (center) teaching the PONY Vietnam youth during the early days in 2009. 

“The Garden Grove Pony League was so hospitable. They prepared the field and for the game like it was a World Series game, and many Vietnamese persons came out to support our team, as Garden Grove is in the heart of Little Saigon. To us, those were our greatest days on the field for our team, because we saw what baseball was all about in the USA.”

“MLB's Rick Dell also helped our team out in the early days by sending envoy coaches to Vietnam every year to help teach us. I'll never forget when the first visited us after we just started, he corrected us by pointing out that we had home plate pointing the wrong way.”

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