A photo of ‘Bhutan’s Babe Ruth’ went viral. Can it boost baseball there?

Ugyen Pelzang hits a ball during a pickup game of baseball at the Great Buddha Dordenma in Bhutan. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Matthew DeSantis

Ugyen Pelzang had unleashed a titanic swing that sent a baseball soaring into the air past the gawking infielders in front of him. It was a sure home run. But that wasn’t why the photo of him went viral.

Pelzang’s homer happened in a paved parking lot, not a baseball diamond. Looming over the improvised field, in lieu of foul poles or bleachers, was the bronze figure of the Great Buddha Dordenma, a towering Buddha statue, and a backdrop of a thick forest shrouded in fog. Pelzang, the 19-year-old batter dressed not in pinstripes but in a knee-length robe, was nevertheless a familiar character at the center of the image: a slugger swinging for the fences.

“I was planning for a home run,” Pelzang wrote to The Washington Post. “And hit the ball with all my might.”

The photo of Pelzang captured a striking scene of America’s pastime taking hold in the mountains of Bhutan, thousands of miles from the sport’s birthplace. It was taken by Matthew DeSantis, a co-founder of the Bhutan Baseball and Softball Association and a Boston Red Sox fan from Connecticut who spent over a decade slowly shepherding the growth of baseball in the remote South Asian country.

When DeSantis’s photo published alongside an MLB.com feature about Bhutan’s nascent baseball scene in early August, the baseball world took notice. Fans on social media were awestruck. Major league veterans, including a Hall of Famer, liked the photo and sent words of encouragement. DeSantis quickly put prints of the photo up for sale to fundraise for baseball in Bhutan.

It was a breakthrough, DeSantis told The Washington Post – not only for his program but also for players like Pelzang who had become some of the first of Bhutanese children to grow up with the game.

“To have that type of response from baseball lovers worldwide, it’s just going to drive us to work harder,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis traveled to Bhutan in 2010 to work as a systems developer. While volunteering at Bhutan’s Olympic Committee office, he met Karma Dorji, a Bhutanese employee at the committee. DeSantis, who played shortstop in high school and college, pitched the idea of showing Bhutanese children the game. Dorji, who played cricket growing up, knew little about baseball but happily agreed.

They put up a Facebook post asking if any children in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, wanted to try out the sport after school. To their shock, around 60 kids, from 8-year-olds to teenagers, showed up.

A young player prepares to throw a baseball at a camp in Thimphu, Bhutan, in 2014. MUST CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Matthew DeSantis

Bhutan’s first Little Leaguers started off playing on patches of concrete and dirt at the center of a neighborhood running track, using a cardboard square held down by rocks as home plate. They had little in the way of gear, and even the youngest players pitched and fielded using hardballs, DeSantis recalled.

Still, the kids loved it.

“They were great ballplayers, all of them,” DeSantis said.

But bringing baseball to Bhutan came with challenges. Getting enough baseball equipment to the landlocked country, where international freight has to be trucked in from ports in India or airports in Thailand, is costly. And the hilly terrain made it difficult to find enough playing fields for a growing player base.

DeSantis and Dorji started off with donated gear from a high school in Connecticut. The pair, funded largely through donations at first, steadily grew their baseball and softball programs until six of Bhutan’s 20 districts formed youth clubs. Now, the association boasts four baseball and softball leagues for children and teenagers, around 6,000 boys and girls.

DeSantis and Dorji have been buoyed by the enthusiasm of the children they’ve trained. Pelzang, who started playing baseball at 15, said he was curious to join a sport totally new to his country. DeSantis added that he saw a sense of fun infuse his players in Bhutan, who played hard but rarely let tensions between teams or competitiveness sour the mood. To his relief, there are no parents haranguing umpires or arguing calls.

“We haven’t seen any of that yet,” DeSantis said, chuckling.

DeSantis said that Pelzang’s viral home run, which came during a spontaneous pickup game in June, showed how far the sport had come in Bhutan. Pelzang joined Thimphu’s team, the Red Pandas, in 2019 and has since blossomed into a fearsome power hitter, DeSantis said. He jokingly called him “Bhutan’s Babe Ruth.”

“Gentle personality,” DeSantis said. “But not at the plate!”

The other players around Pelzang in the photo were veterans of DeSantis and Dorji’s baseball camps who joined in 2010, DeSantis said. Even as he snapped photos of the game, DeSantis caught himself reminding the pitcher to bend his back and Pelzang, one of the team’s taller players, to watch his follow-through.

“Seeing them now, as young adults hitting the ball that far, while also having memories of them as young children tumbling around with hats and gloves too big for their heads and hands, was a special moment,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis hopes the awareness and fundraising from the photo can help continue to push Bhutanese baseball forward. The photo was liked on social media by several former and current major leaguers including Nick Castellanos, CC Sabathia and Randy Johnson. Former Tigers and Yankees all-star outfielder Curtis Granderson sent a video message from Chicago to Bhutan’s baseball players, encouraging them to continue playing.

Pelzang and his peers will. They are now the senior players on their teams, eager to guide the next generation of Bhutanese kids learning the game. More opportunities may come soon. Last year, Pelzang became one of two players who earned the first scholarships for baseball at Bhutan’s Royal Thimphu College, which doesn’t field a team but awards scholarships for athletic achievement. In August, the Bhutan Baseball and Softball Association joined Baseball United, a Dubai-based professional league, which will guarantee a roster spot on one of the league’s four teams for Bhutan’s first pro baseball player.

Pelzang knows he’s blazing a trail. He said Bhutan’s story could be an example for any underdog striving for the big leagues.

“Even though we don’t have the proper facilities, we try our best to train and improve ourselves,” Pelzang said. “And if we can do it, any players around the world can do it.”



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here