June 11, 2010, 12:06 PM IST
In Cricket-Crazy India, Baseball Finds a Foothold
In Manipur, one of India's most conflict-ridden states, some locals this summer have picked up different types of armaments: bats, balls and gloves to play baseball.
In cricket-crazy India, Manipur has many fans of America's favorite pastime. Recognizing an opportunity, America's Major League Baseball International this week sent two coaches to train local coaches with the hope that they can further promote the game locally.
This is the third training camp of its kind to be held in Manipur's capital of Imphal. The initiative was put together by New York-based First Pitch: The U.S. Manipur Baseball Project, a non-profit organization founded by 54-year-old film curator L. Somi Roy.
Manipur, with a population of just 2.4 million, is a hilly state located at the north eastern edge of India. It shares a border with Myanmar (the former Burma). The state is often in the news for its long-running insurgency, which is demanding secession from India. The fighting has hurt the local economy and has kept the state very poor. Foreign nationals can't travel to Manipur without a special government permit.
Most recently, Manipur has been in the news because members of tribes from the neighboring state of Nagaland have blocked a main highway to Manipur to protest the Manipuri government's refusal to let a Naga separatist leader enter the state. (Some Nagas also want to secede from India.) The blockade has created huge shortages of fuel, food and even medical supplies in Manipur, according to news reports.
Amid all this chaos, Major League Baseball and Mr. Roy have been plugging away with their baseball camp this past week. Thanks to heavy rains over the last few days, nearly three-fourths of the training has had to take place indoors, says Mr. Roy.
Major League Baseball International coach Robert Buskett, who was in India for the first time, said he's "impressed" with the local coaches and, in less than a week, he has "seen progress already." He said that MLB has similar coaching camps in other parts of Asia as part of its efforts to increase awareness of the game.
Within India, Manipur is a good base because its people have long had a strong sports culture. Many of India's national-level sportspeople come from Manipur, including weight-lifting champion Nameirakpam Kunjarani Devi, boxing medalist Dingko Singh, and several players in India's soccer team. Also, contrary to the rest of India, Manipuris are not crazy for cricket. Football is their first love.
There is little recorded history of how baseball first came to Manipur. Geet Singh, 36 years old, a Manipuri sportsman and project coordinator with First Pitch, says that there are local reports that baseball was played in Imphal during World War II by American soldiers who were based there.
Local sportswoman Bhanu Devi, 45, (now an MLB-certified baseball coach) says the game was formally introduced in the early 1980s, by E. Bijoy Singh, the then-chief of the All Manipur Sports Association. A team was created which participated in baseball tournaments held in New Delhi and other parts of India, says L. Ranjit Roy, secretary of the All Manipur Football Association. But the momentum waned, especially after Mr. Singh retired a decade later.
However, when Mr. Roy of First Pitch came to set up the first MLB coaching camp in 2006, hundreds of locals showed up to learn the sport. They returned in 2007, and MLB has now certified 31 Manipuri coaches.
"We are not bringing baseball to Manipur; it was already there," says Mr. Roy. "We admire the fact that they've kept it alive" despite the poverty and lack of resources, he adds. Mr. Roy, who is not a baseball enthusiast, says he reached out to MLB and organized these coaching camps in Manipur as a way to promote an exchange between the two cultures that he belongs to.
Mr. Roy's next project is to try to create a baseball season to give locals an incentive to play for a longer part of the year. He hopes to bring the Major League Baseball coaches back with him to Manipur in middle of January. Without the rains, they might even get to practice outside.