The journey of Tampa Bay's 'unsung hero' Trung Cao

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — He could not recall if he reached for his sister’s hand or she reached for his, only how hard he held on and that with his free hand he reached for his mother. She was ahead with the others, being led through the alley. At the end of the alley, there was a van that would take them somewhere. Away. The city was coming down. They had to hurry. They had to keep quiet. Trung had to stop crying.

After so many nights that had barked with gunfire, when the sky was streaked with trouble and the neighborhood jolted awake before returning to uneasy rest, the day had come for them. His mother had told him they were leaving and to gather only what he needed. No suitcases. The neighbors must not know. The whispers between his brothers and sisters grew urgent. They hissed his name. He could not decide. He left the house empty-handed.

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The man who led them wore a uniform. He helped them into the rear of the van. He drove. Trung’s oldest sister was in the passenger seat. Nine others, including his mother and his sister’s 3-year-old son, sat on the metal floor behind them. The man eased the van away from the house, away from the neighborhood and into the city.

The van slowed after about 30 minutes. His sister turned and told them to lie down, her hand flat and gesturing to the floor. When the van stopped she held a card with her picture on it toward the open driver’s window. They were allowed to pass. A short while later the van slowed again and this time the man in the uniform identified himself. The van moved again, onto an air base.

In the early evening, Trung and his family — his mother, three brothers, four sisters and a 3-year-old nephew — boarded a large plane from the rear, through a door that fell open like a drawbridge. Other people were there, people Trung did not know. Soon, the engines roared and the plane gathered speed and then left the ground. Trung released his sister’s hand.

It was April 1975. Behind him, Saigon was coming down.

***

His name is Trung Cao. He was 8 years old then. He has never been back to Vietnam.

People come forward, men and women, and at first, there is no reason other than the task. The title. The job description. A friend of a friend. A stranger with no apparent motive.

Trung Cao has not been back to Vietnam since he left at 8 years old. (Photo courtesy Trung Cao)
Trung Cao has not been back to Vietnam since he left at 8 years old. (Photo courtesy Trung Cao)

He’s the guy who does this job. She’s the one who handles that. And that is where it lies, never more than what it absolutely must be, a living transaction on the fringes of you. Your day. Your place. Your life. A wave, a nod, and that is all, if that.

Any more would require undue commitment, a temporary sacrifice of one of the above. And so they move and everyone moves and then there is no knowing what makes them, them, what makes everyone, everyone, what tells our stories, what separates any of it, which is what I was thinking about when Trung Cao, the strength and conditioning coordinator for the Tampa Bay Rays, walked into the small media room here and sat down.

To know, you’d have to ask.

***

His father was a Saigon policeman who died of a heart attack three years before the family fled to Thailand, then to the Philippines, Guam and America. His mother raised him in New Jersey. His older brothers and sisters scattered to cities near and far. As his mother, Vu Thi Do, lay dying years later, Trung dabbed her forehead and read to her from “The Wizard of Oz,” the story she loved of a journey of uncertain length and hidden outcome.

Across their lives together, she had often asked him for more, to be better, to overcome, to try harder. When it was just the two of them in that apartment in Toms River, when he was a boy hoping to thread out the lone classmate who would not mimic his speech or laugh at his clothes, she’d walk three miles to the market because she had no driver’s license, which was unimportant because she had no car. She’d bought what she could afford or as much as she could carry, which was often the same, and so trips to the market were frequent, along the same route, the lady in the traditional Vietnamese ao dai a common sight in the late mornings and early afternoons.

She’d seeded and tended to a garden out back that produced hot peppers that reminded him of home. What used to be home. She honed her English in the daily newspaper’s crossword puzzle and in 30 minutes of “I Love Lucy.” In the evenings they would eat dinner together, she intent on drawing conversation from Trung, he becoming more aware of her loneliness as he grew up, fit in and pushed away the awkwardness. She raised her youngest in the center of her belief that being a war refugee was not a reason to fail, that living for a time with strangers was not an alibi, that being cast — and ultimately accepted — into a new world was not a free ride, that money and luxuries and ease would be other people’s comforts. They would put one foot in front of the other, Do (pronounced Doh) and Trung would, and see what came of it. Like Dorothy did in the story. So she’d sat in the crowd one spring weekend as Trung graduated from the University of Delaware. She’d told him she was proud of him and it brought him to tears he hadn’t anticipated.

Trung Cao and his family. (Photo courtesy Trung Cao)
Trung Cao and his family. (Photo courtesy Trung Cao)

“Of all those kids on that stage,” Trung recalled, “only one of them started in a little house in Saigon, lived with foster parents, went through all that, and found his way to that stage.”

Near the very end of the story of Dorothy’s journey, on another of those nights he could hear from two rooms away when she pulled her breaths, she said, “Thank you.”

He’d not heard that before from her.

“For what?” he asked.

“Just thank you,” she said.

“There’s nothing to thank,” he said. “You took care of me all those years. And now I’m paying you back.”

“There is no paying back,” she said. “There just is.”

They cried together and then the lung cancer took her.

She’d been sick for so long. Here he paused his story and smiled. He wiped his cheeks with his shirt sleeve.

“I didn’t think she really knew what I was doing for a job,” he said. “I tried to explain it to her but she didn’t understand it.”

He was the minor-league strength coach for the Chicago White Sox then, in 2002. Weeks after she’d died, he’d reached for a White Sox media guide in the house and absently flipped through the pages. He discovered his name had been underlined in pen, the same color of her crossword puzzles.

“Ah,” he’d thought. “She did read it.”

***

On an early May afternoon, Matt Duffy was southbound on Florida Interstate 75, halfway between St. Petersburg and Port Charlotte. His team, the Tampa Bay Rays, had been in Kansas City the day before and would be in Baltimore that night. But not Duffy. The Rays were in first place in the American League East after 31 games and another five weeks without Duffy, who had been injured for more games than he cared to remember since being traded to the Rays three summers ago.

On June 19, 2016, Duffy became the then major league leader in consecutive games played, at 188. The streak was something less than Ripkenian, but still spoke to how it is a chore to show up every day, to play every day, to fit into the manager’s plan every day, even if only over a season and a month.

He sat out the very next day with a sore Achilles’ tendon and has played in 153 games since, out of a possible 449. The Achilles’ issue, turned out, required surgery. There’s been a hamstring injury. And a sore back. And, suddenly, you go from the guy who never rests to the guy who can’t seem to stay on the field, and who on a Friday afternoon is driving 90 minutes to get in a few rehab at-bats with the Charlotte Stone Crabs of the Florida State League.

“Yeah, from that to this,” Duffy said. “It’s frustrating.”

Trung Cao has been described as the "totally unsung hero" by Chaim Bloom, Rays senior vice president, baseball operations. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus / Tampa Bay Rays)
Trung Cao has been described as the "totally unsung hero" by Chaim Bloom, Rays senior vice president, baseball operations. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus / Tampa Bay Rays)

He still shows up every day, only to a different venue, where only a few keep score. He still competes, only against a different opponent. He asks himself to be confident. He reminds himself of the power of one — one more repetition, one more attempt, one more step, one more morning, one more breath. Soon, all those ones become something. They become a journey of uncertain length. The game becomes the game again. The hidden ending. He becomes him again.

All that, he learned from Trung Cao.

“He’s a good guy to have next to me,” Duffy said. “There’s so much to him. The things he’s been through would break so many people. People have no idea. I had no idea.”

Cao is in his third season as the Rays’ strength and conditioning coordinator. Before that, he served in the organization’s minor leagues for 11 years, and in the White Sox’s minor leagues for 11 years before that, and a high school track and football coach before that. He has two young sons of his own, Ethan and Eli, with his wife, Helen.

When they are finished for the day, when there is time on the dugout bench or in the batting-practice outfield, when the weight room is empty and quiet, Matt Duffy and the man known as TC share their stories. They laugh over dumb jokes. They wonder about the world and their places in it. They promise each other to start again tomorrow, to make something of today’s progress, to start over at one.

“He’s a totally unsung hero,” said Chaim Bloom, Rays senior vice president, baseball operations. “And he is freaking awesome.”

***

He sat with his legs crossed, the team bus having been loaded and driven away, leaving Trung with a mostly empty clubhouse for an afternoon. He is cheerful. His eyes are expressive. Years ago, he was a strong safety, he ran track, he played basketball, a little baseball. He was an athlete. Now he makes athletes or, at least, makes them more athletic, then puts them back together again. He told his story. He laughed. He leaned forward in his chair. He cried. He tried to remember the details — the burnt orange peels that masked the odor of his dead father’s body, the veteran in the wheelchair that killed himself on the street out front, two brothers on a motorbike driving into the path of a truck, the kindness of a couple in Delaware when his world spun out, those final hours with a mother who’d tried so hard and with such dignity — and what they left him with today.

“Optimism,” Cao said. “Optimism. Optimism. No matter how bad it was, that things are going to be OK. For me, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Because a kid, separated from your family, living with a couple that has two American kids, you gotta think about, ‘Where’s my mom?’ Don’t sleep at night. My sister and I talk about it a lot more now. Because you never lose that hope. If there’s a pinhole, there’s a light down there. That’s what drives me. … It’s hard for me to describe to somebody, because they haven’t experienced what I’ve gone through. There’s always a side of a story for somebody you don’t know about. So don’t judge people by what you see. You don’t know what’s going on on the inside.”

The man they call TC is a lively presence here. His voice carries. They trust that it brings a sort of honesty, what they need to hear when they don’t always want to hear it. If he’s ready, well, then they must be too.

The better part of his life has been spent just like this.

“OK, you ready!” he’d shouted into a crowded clubhouse. “Vamonos!”

Like that, one player gathered his things, stood and trotted after TC.

Trung Cao is in his third season as the Rays’ strength and conditioning coordinator. (Photo courtesy Tampa Bay Rays)
Trung Cao is in his third season as the Rays’ strength and conditioning coordinator. (Photo courtesy Tampa Bay Rays)

“Man, you need those people,” Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said.

They greet each other with a loud “Hai!”, their arms flexed and ready for action, their faces screwed in mock intensity, for reasons neither fully understands. It’s just a thing, created from affection, in fun. It lasted. When you’re a 31st-round draft pick from a college hardly anyone has heard of, you notice the people who notice you.

“He’s always been available, from day one,” Kiermaier said. “He treats everyone fairly. For guys like me, that’s a beautiful thing. And I’ve never beaten him to the field. He is always in there, always available.”

When Kiermaier wanted to improve his break on stolen bases, Trung not only worked with him but sent him videos of Usain Bolt and Ben Johnson. When Kiermaier wants to put in extra work at 1 p.m. on a game day in the middle of a thousand game days, Trung gets to the park at noon. When Kiermaier is dragging, Trung gets bigger, more positive, more enthusiastic.

“He always says, ‘I’ll be there,’” Kiermaier said. “Those are the people you love to have in your corner.”

***

What most know is where family is. Where home is. Where their people are. Where they come from. What to count on. What most know is they are anchored, somewhere.

The split-level house near where the rivers meet in the Da Kao ward had four bedrooms for 12 people. Tam and Do, the parents, had one. The other three were divided up for the children. Trung was their youngest by nearly eight years.

“He was a good boy,” Tuyet, Trung’s oldest sister, said. “No. 1 in the family.”

She laughed.

“He was the baby,” she said, “so whatever he wanted everybody gave him.”

Tuyet worked on the air base, translating for U.S. soldiers. Sometimes, the work was mundane. Others, she turned Viet Cong communications into hard intelligence. She knew the man in the uniform who would come to get them if the communists broke through. He’d told her to be prepared. In the final weeks, in what had begun to feel unmistakably like the final weeks, no one in the family strayed far from the house, in case the man in the uniform arrived in the van.

“My neighbors knew where I worked,” she said. “If I stay, the Viet Cong kill me.”

A month later, her husband rowed a boat down the Saigon River with about 30 others.

Forty-four years have passed. Her brothers and sisters have held jobs, raised families, aged into their retirement. Their children have gone through college. Some have served in the armed forces. Now their children’s children bring a new generation. Tuyet’s grandson called just the other day. His school assignment was a report on where his family was from. She told him about the house near the rivers, the war that came, followed by the van. She told him about his great-grandparents, his aunts and uncles, their journey of uncertain length and hidden outcome. His father was the 3-year-old in that van. His uncle was nearby, eyes wide, asking, “What’s going on? Where are we going?”

He was 8 then. He’s thinking of going back.

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