Graves hopes trip makes difference
Pitcher returned to Vietnam, in part, to spread word about game
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- To the children of Vietnam, Danny Graves might as well have been Babe Ruth.Staging a baseball clinic in his native country last month, Graves was hitting some fly balls toward a group of kids in the outfield. That's when he noticed one of the biggest differences between the Vietnam and American sporting cultures. "Every time I'd hit one toward them, they'd run away from it, like it was a bomb coming in," Graves recalled with a smile. "Here in the States, everyone runs to it." If Graves' recent visit to the country is as successful as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and Major League Baseball hope, one day those kids will run to the ball and the sport, as a whole. As part of a special delegation to the country, Graves was instrumental in introducing the game to a land where soccer and badminton -- yes, badminton -- are far more prominent. "You drive down the street, and you see kids in the yard playing badminton," Graves said. "I never thought I'd see that." Graves, who is in the Indians' Spring Training camp as a Minor League invitee trying to make the big-league club as a reliever, was the first Major League player to have Vietnamese roots. His father, Jim, a U.S. serviceman, and his mother, Thao, fled the country during the heart of the Vietnam War in 1974, when Graves was just 14 months old. Having grown up in the States, Graves never identified Vietnam as anything more than a backdrop in war movies. He knew very little about the culture of the country, and his mother had no interest in going back. But last summer, when Graves was a member of the Mets, he was approached during a trip to Washington, D.C., about the opportunity to join the delegation. He wanted his mother to come along. At first, Thao was hesitant. "She didn't think there was any reason for her to go back," Graves said. "She's an American. Vietnam is where she's from, but when we left, it obviously wasn't the place to be. Why would she want to go back to that?" The landscape of Vietnam, however, has changed quite a bit since the fall of Saigon, as Thao and Danny would soon find out. "I was told the last 10 years have been great, like the war never happened," Graves said. "We were over there, and you never would have thought there was a war. People over there are so friendly and so pro-American. Some of the nicest people I've ever met. Everyone wants to meet you and hang out with you. I didn't expect that to happen." Many of Graves' expectations about the 10-day trip were proven wrong. For one, he didn't expect that he'd arrive to the country without luggage. "Our total flight time was probably close to 22 hours," he said. "We went from New York to Vancouver to Hong Kong to Hanoi. We get to the airport, and my luggage doesn't show up. And we had to go right to a press conference." Graves laughed when told of how haggard he looked in an Associated Press photo from that very presser. "It was a whole day without taking a shower, two hours of sleep, and we had to go right to it," he said. Luggage or no luggage, it wasn't long before Graves was donning a baseball uniform and holding an exhibition in Hanoi and a clinic in Quang Tri Province. The clinic took place at Le Loi High School and was preceded by the opening of Vietnam's first baseball field. That ribbon-cutting ceremony was another significant erasure of the war's effects on the country, as the site of the field was actually a former battlefield that up until recently contained one artillery shell, two mortars and 11 other types of unexploded ammunition.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.