Galvanized by viral photo, Bhutan Baseball readies for special US trip

February 6th, 2024

Matthew DeSantis knew he had a good shot. DeSantis, the co-founder of the Bhutan Baseball and Softball Association, took a look through the viewfinder, where members of the Thimphu Red Pandas -- the first baseball club in the country -- were playing in front of Bhutan's famous Buddha Dordenma statue. As the fog rolled in off lush, rising hills and the batter, Ugyen Pelzang, unleashed his swing to send the ball skyward, DeSantis clicked the shutter.

With the simple press of a button, the future of Bhutanese baseball was forever changed.

When our story with DeSantis and the members of Bhutan Baseball ran in August, the photo soon went viral. Retweets and likes rolled in by the dozen, the hundred, the thousand. Commenters posted fire emojis and called it the photo of the year. Like a modern, social media-ready take on Albert Spalding's baseball world tour photo that featured Major League players atop the Sphinx, this image was seemingly destined to be remembered as one of the greatest ever taken in baseball's long canon. (Prints, which benefit Bhutan Baseball, can be purchased here.)

The photo that changed it all. Photo by Matthew R. DeSantis / @matthewrdesantis

More important than the instant fame, though, was what it meant for the people and players bringing baseball to the country known as The Last Shangri-La.

Messages of support flooded in. First came a video response from Curtis Granderson, who has been a supporter of the organization since he first learned about the work that the association was doing years ago. Soon, more messages arrived from former players like Tyson Ross, Jeremy Guthrie, Randy Johnson and Edwin Jackson to name but a few.

"To go from absolutely nothing and reach a point where we have people around the world encouraging us to continue to develop and continue to play the game that we all love is really a powerful moment that we're just really excited to be a part of," DeSantis said over the phone recently. "We're super, super grateful to everyone who's reached out to us and just shared their excitement for the game with us. It's really encouraging."

Equipment donations -- the most sought-after necessity in Bhutan -- soon arrived, too. That included one from Rapsodo, the company that makes the tracking devices used by Major League teams to do real-time player and ball tracking. It's the definition of a game-changer from a development standpoint and an absolute necessity in a sport where data becomes more important every year.

"As baseball has developed into more analytical study, it's really important to be able to present these metrics to future universities, and professional teams that we're looking to make relationships with," DeSantis said, dreaming of a future where Bhutanese baseball players are playing overseas and in universities. "Those parties will require data-driven analytics. So, that's one reason, but then the second is just for self-improvement of the players. Being able to share with them these metrics really helps them to develop their own personal skills."

Photo by Matthew R. DeSantis / @matthewrdesantis

Now, Bhutanese baseball will have its biggest opportunity yet: The Hudson Valley Renegades -- the High-A affiliate of the New York Yankees -- will be hosting a Bhutan Baseball day this August. With special jerseys and a T-shirt giveaway featuring DeSantis' viral image, the team will be looking to honor the ballplayers who are dedicated to a sport they have never seen played professionally.

Concept art for the Renegades' special Bhutan Baseball jerseys.

At first, the Renegades' plan was much more modest. Hudson Valley GM Zach Betkowski saw the photos and imagined how cool it would be to get some caps and shirts out to the players in Bhutan.

"I thought this was a really cool story," Betkowski said over Zoom from the team's offices in Fishkill, N.Y. "I would love to see if there's a way that the Renegades can support and help this in any form. I think the initial iteration was how can we get caps and Renegades T-shirts in the hands of the athletes. It just turned into this much bigger story and much bigger thing."

After connecting with DeSantis and his colleagues, co-founder Karma Dorji and Ramon Riesgo, the idea quickly morphed. While the event for fans will be on Aug. 20, the experience for the Bhutanese players will hopefully take up the better part of the week. The goal: With money raised by a jersey auction and other fundraising efforts, the team is looking to fly out as many Bhutanese players as possible. They'll land in New York City before traveling up to the Hudson Valley, where they'll be given a tour of the region before taking to the field for a coaching clinic with the Renegades players and coaches. They'll also take part in a special business of baseball discussion hosted by the members of the front office, pointing out to these baseball dreamers that even if a career as a professional baseball player is rare, there are still opportunities to work in baseball.

From there, they'll return to New York City, stop by the MLB offices, and hopefully finish their trip with a stop at a Major League ballgame up in the Bronx.

"It's exciting to us because very few of our players have ever seen international play or ever been on the field and been in the batter's box in competition against anyone outside Bhutan," DeSantis said. "This is an exciting opportunity for the kids to be able to see to what baseball is like at this level."

Photo by Bhutan Baseball & Softball Association

While the game promotion is set, the rest is still in its planning stages. The success and extent of it will now be up to the fans. Flights from Bhutan are certainly not cheap, and the cost of housing, transportation and meals can quickly rise. Quite simply: The more money that is raised for the event, the more players can come along for the experience, the more remarkable the itinerary can become.

"I think for us, the possibilities are endless," Betkowski said. "The one thing I would say is 100 percent of the money raised will go back to this endeavor. Even if at the end of this and all the athletes have flown out, they've eaten, they've stayed here, they've had a great time, and there happens to be more money in that pot of fundraising, we would love nothing more than to be able to buy equipment or merchandise for the athletes to take that with them or to ship to them."

But why the Renegades, why Hudson Valley? That answer comes back to the very thing that connects sports fans from across the globe.

"The more places we can foster baseball and help grow the game, especially from a grassroots level, is just going to make the sport better, it's going to make the sport stronger, it's going to make it more of a universal game than it already is," said, Joe Vasile, the Renegades' director of PR and broadcasting. "As a baseball fan, and as someone who the game of baseball has given so much to as a professional, it means a lot to have the opportunity to give back to the game in this very small way, to help make an impact growing the game at the international level. The idea that we have the ability to do this as a Minor League Baseball team -- it's still so surreal that this is something that we're getting to be a part of."

"I think baseball is its own community, regardless of it being in New York, the Northeast, the United States of America, for that matter. Baseball is one community," Betkowski said. "My hope would be that we can inspire other teams to support endeavors like this, whether it be through Bhutan baseball directly, or I'm sure there's so many other international subsets of baseball where there's this renaissance of the game."

Photo from the Thimphu Red Pandas

From here, the future awaits. The Bhutan Association is looking to expand from beyond the six districts where baseball is currently played, and they expect to launch the first collegiate league sometime this year. There have been constructive conversations with Baseball United about having a Bhutanese player featured on a team's upcoming roster, becoming the first professional baseball player from the country along the way. With baseball back for the 2028 Olympics, there are discussions about restarting a Bhutanese national team.

"We've spent a decade now where we've been silently playing and building a sport, and in a way we built our own form of baseball, where the kids have this great joy of a sport that we've learned together with very little international exposure," DeSantis said. "All of a sudden seeing that go from this kind of enclosed ecosystem of the game to having the world and fans around the world recognize all of the players, hard work and country, it adds a lot more excitement on the field."

Photo by the Thimphu Red Pandas

As for the success of the event in the Hudson Valley? Well, Betkowski has one idea how that might look.

"I think the ultimate ultimate metric of success would be if we get a 14-year-old athlete that comes on this trip and in four or five years, that athlete is drafted by an MLB team," Betkowski said. "To me, that would be super special."

To bid on the jerseys and help raise funds for the team, click here and select "Wappingers Falls, NY."