This is the most unusual baseball you will probably ever see, and perhaps the most gratifying.
Manipur is a state in northeast India, squeezed in between Bangladesh and Burma, one of the poorest areas of the country. It's racked by corruption in government and occasional violence from insurgent groups that hide in the forests and hills.
It's the unlikeliest place in the world, probably, that you would expect to find people playing baseball. And yet, they do, and passionately so. It was introduced by U.S. Army soldiers who were stationed there during World War II, and the game caught on with the locals, even though the fields they play on have the occasional cows or horses sauntering through the outfield and they had to sew ancient gloves together just to have equipment.
That is, until Major League Baseball sent representatives from their international outreach division to teach coaches in Manipur, so that the local kids could learn baseball from their own people. Jeff Brueggemann, who pitched in the Twins system in the 1970s and 1980s before injuries ruined a promising career, and Dave Palese, an archetypical New York baseball guy (and I say that in an endearing way, because the enthusiasm of this college baseball coach for the game shines through), are the two Americans who spend time in Manipur coaching the coaches. They also got Spalding to donate equipment, including gloves, bats and balls, to the kids in Manipur.
It begins slowly but as the film goes on, you can see the bond made between these two Americans and the coaches and kids they instruct. There's even a scene where the Americans teach some military men -- in full uniform -- how to play the game.
The film is narrated by Academy Award winner Melissa Leo. In it, producer/director Mirra Bank shows the poverty that most people in Manipur live every day, but also their desire to make something of themselves. It's really no different than any place baseball players have lived over time and wanted to "get out," whether it is inner-city slums in the USA or the small towns of the Dominican Republic. Baseball has become a way for the people of Manipur to have something to be passionate about, even more so now that they have better equipment and instruction from Americans.
Thought-provoking and beautifully photographed -- the area has gorgeous vistas of mountains -- this film is well worth seeing.
If you live in the Phoenix area, or if you're going to be here for spring-training games, this film will have a one-week run at the Harkins Camelview 5 cinema, 7001 E. Highland Avenue in Scottsdale, beginning March 7. It will also be featured this Thursday at the Sedona Film Festival in Sedona. The film will also play in New York City in May, Los Angeles in June, Chicago sometime in the summer, and also in Kansas City, Palm Beach, Columbus, Portland, Cleveland and Durango County, Colorado. DVD release is expected in the fall.