Play Ball: Wilton man passes on his love of baseball to Bhutan’s youth
WILTON — A love of baseball has taken 30year-old Matt DeSantis to a place about as far as one can go from his native Wilton, a place literally on the other side of the world.
In 2013, DeSantis was asked by Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, the president of the Bhutan Olympic Committee -whom he already knew -- to help develop baseball in the Southern Asia country at the eastern end of the Himalayas.
DeSantis, who is back in Wilton for two weeks before returning to Bhutan on Tuesday, took some time last Thursday to talk to The Hour about his experience.
Long before DeSantis even knew where Bhutan was on a map -- it is bordered to the north by China and to the south, east and west by India -he was part of big baseball family in Wilton.
His three younger brothers --- Nick, Michael and Will -- all played for Tim Eagen at Wilton High School.
Will graduated last month and capped his career at Wilton by playing on the Warriors’ team that won its first FCIAC baseball championship in 20 years.
However, Matt DeSantis attended Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, where he played baseball for four years and served as a captain during his senior year.
At Choate, DeSantis met Wangchuck, who also was a student there, while they were playing basketball and they became close friends.
With family in the New York area, Wangchuck -- the half brother of Bhutan’s current King -- often was a guest at the DeSantis’ home in Wilton.
“At a young age, he was a nice guy to open my eyes to the outside world,” DeSantis said.
Wangchuck would tell DeSantis about how peaceful his native county was and over time, DeSantis became intrigued.
Finally, in 2010, DeSantis visited Bhutan for the first time, roaming around the country for two weeks strictly as a tourist, but something clicked inside.
“It’s a very untouched part of the world,” DeSantis said. “It’s very protected from outside influence. They follow this motto called gross national happiness. Aside from GDP (Gross Daily Product), that’s how they drive all of their government decisions.
“Does it meet the pillars of gross national happiness? Those consist of socioeconomic and environmental sustainability, so when you’re there, you really feel this connection that they have with their own people and with their surroundings. It’s pretty beautiful.”
In 2006, based on a global survey, Business Week rated Bhutan as the happiest country in Asia and the eighthhappiest country in the world. Bhutan is believed to be the only nation in the world that has a happiness rating.
It seems that DeSantis’ life has been guided by a spirit of adventure and before arriving back in Bhutan in September of 2013, he and a friend, Misha Greenberg, spent 41 days hiking through the Pyrenees Mountains in France and Spain, starting at the Atlantic Ocean and ending at the Mediterranean Sea.
They tried to follow a guide written by an individual who had hiked through the highest parts of the Pyrenees numerous times, but found the book was outdated.
“We’d go two weeks sometimes without seeing another human,” DeSantis said. “Occasionally, you’d run into paths but for the most part we were going on our own trail.”
After DeSantis returned to Bhutan, he started working for the Bhutan Olympic Committee.
Will DeSantis helped his older brother by organizing a fundraiser in which he collected old baseball equipment that was sent to Bhutan. Eagen also was involved in the effort.
Before DeSantis’ arrival, a Japanese group had been teaching baseball in Bhutan to a group of about 20 kids every other week for six months.
Baseball was introduced into the country in the 1990s by a group of Bhutanese who would play pick-up games every other week but, according to DeSantis, the initiative only lasted about a year.
DeSantis found that many of the children he instructed were sons of the original founders of the sport in the country.
He and his group combined forces with the Japanese people to conduct coaching clinics every day for four months for about 400 kids ranging in ages from 6 to 18. The group also put together some exhibition games.
Archery is the national sport in Bhutan while soccer and basketball also are popular. Baseball, as one might imagine, is pretty primitive.