Play Ball: Wil­ton man passes on his love of base­ball to Bhutan’s youth

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By BOB BIRGE Hour Cor­re­spon­dent

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.

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