There are already a few kids there, mostly in their early teens, sitting idly and chatting, waiting for the practice to begin. A few more join them, then another few, and then a node from the coach triggers the familiar choreography. Lazy warm-up laps give way to calisthenics, calisthenics turns into stretching, stretching is followed by light throwing and long toss.
Some kids, especially the younger ones, are clear novices, their movements raw and their gloves heavy and stabbing. But most are fluid in their motions, athletic and focused, balls leaving their hands with ease and joy. A few show such skills that one can’t help but wonder and project what they will look like in a few years. It is a baseball practice like a thousand others I’ve seen or been a part of and yet something is very different.
It is December, it’s hot and two cranes as big as a house just flew by me. I am in Kampala, Uganda, the surprising new hotbed of baseball talent.
By now, you probably know the story of Little League baseball in Uganda. In 2011 a team from Uganda won the MEA (Middle East and Africa) qualifier, ending more than a decade long dominance of the “Arabian American LL” team from Saudi Arabia and qualifying for the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., the first African team to do so. The Ugandans never got to play a game there, though; they were denied entry visas by the U.S. immigration office.
Birth certificates and birthdays are notoriously neglected in East Africa. I’ve been involved with a children’s home in Tanzania for years, and with our kids it’s basically – “It’s Jan. 1 today – congratulations, everybody’s a year older now.” It’s not this way only with the kids. Often, a foreign resident will congratulate a local colleague or a friend only to be greeted with “Oh, it’s my birthday this week. I completely forgot.”
So documentation supplied by the Ugandan federation was deemed unsatisfactory by U.S. officials, making it the first time in history that a team that qualified for Little League World series did not participate. “Arabian American LL” took Uganda’s place in the tournament.
There was a silver lining, though. The story touched many, and a campaign was started leading to the Canadian Little League team, the Africans’ would-be first opponent in Williamsport, playing a friendly game in Uganda. In what would be a perfect Hollywood ending, the team qualified for Little League World Series again in 2012 and this time was granted entry and played.
The Ugandan Little League teams have not played an official international game since.
A few of the kids practicing on St. Peter’s field are playing barefoot. None have their own gloves. The gloves, the bats and the balls are all brought by the coach, who will use the same ones on a different field with different kids tomorrow.
This is a common scene in Uganda, where passion for baseball is catching on faster than the infrastructure. A big challenge is getting schools to adopt baseball programs and form leagues where the children can play often enough to turn their raw athleticism into skill. It is not only baseball equipment that is an obstacle – in a vast country where gas costs about double the U.S. price and where an average teacher’s monthly salary is $100 to $200, travel expenses for a school team are almost prohibitive.
There is a baseball stadium in Gayaza, on the outskirts of Kampala, some 15 miles from where we practice right now. It was been built in early 2014 with the help of the Japanese government on land donated by a local church. The outfield is pretty uneven and some patches of the fence have been stolen already. But it is a real baseball diamond, with full backstop, spectator stand and dugouts. It is a beauty, a far better place to practice than the multi-use soccer pitch at St. Peter’s, where one wild throw can send a precious brown baseball into a construction site or somebody’s garden and render it lost forever. But George Mukhobe, the president of the Ugandan Baseball and Softball Federation and the coach leading the practice, tells me the field here is used only on weekends; it is too expensive to drive to Gayaza every day during the week.
The other challenge is a broader one – getting the kids into school in the first place.
Having money to pay for secondary education, like the one the children receive in St. Peter’s, is by no means a given. For some, it is a gift from a relative living abroad. For some, it is made possible through scholarship programs, funded both domestically and internationally. And yet for many, it is simply unattainable.
Right To Play, an international organization dedicated to using sport and play to enhance child development in areas of disadvantage, supports 12 baseball student-athletes by paying their school fees. When we visited their local office in Kampala, George introduced me to Winnie Nambuya, with the words “This is the mother of 12 of our children.”
The relationship George has with his players goes much deeper than what one usually expects from a federation president or a coach. He tries to secure money for their education. He teaches them not only about turning a double play or snapping off a curve-ball, but about getting through life. He regularly spends his time in the nearby slums, talking to the kids on the streets, trying to convince them of sports as an alternative to life of apathy and drugs. He opens his home to many players, providing them with a place to stay and warm meals. He visits with their families, or what is left of them, to make sure they keep on the right path.
To many, George is a father figure not only because he provides father-like care, but because his life story is just like theirs. He comes from a poor rural area of Uganda, lost his father early and had to fight for everything in his life. He shows the youngsters the potential of a life centered on hard work, faith and sports. They can relate, because most of them come from similar circumstances. Or as George and Steve, his lifelong friend and an ex-baseball player himself, laughingly told me while driving me through Kampala: “This is where the middle-class people live. Over there it is more like high-class. And us? We are neither high, nor middle, nor low, we are of no-class variety.”
Baseball in Uganda started its ascent on the international scene in 2002, when, as so often, an American got involved. Richard Stanley is a retired chemical engineer and a baseball enthusiast. After he quit his job at Procter & Gamble, he traveled extensively on various U.N. aid missions and one led him to Uganda. His international background, his baseball involvement (Stanley is a part-owner of the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate) and his inability to take “no” for an answer, made him a perfect man to help build Ugandan youth baseball and softball programs.
A lot has changed in baseball Uganda since 2002. Stanley managed to get Little League and Major League Baseball involved and donate some equipment. A few leagues were formed, then a few more. A few backstops were put on soccer pitches and more and more games were played throughout Uganda.
Soon, it became clear that the children here are both athletically gifted and very determined. They can play. What was missing was game practice to hone their skills and a stage to showcase their talent and show the sports federation that baseball is the sport that can give Uganda international recognition and is worthy of expanded support.
The former is a work in progress. In recent years, international interest in African baseball has increased, thanks in no small part to great documentary work Jay Shapiro has done. This, coupled with the Cinderella story of 2011/2012 Uganda Little League teams, helped raise money and provide for more equipment.
Jimmy Rollins, Derrek Lee and Gregg Zaun have all donated their time and money, and visited the country to learn firsthand of the efforts to spread baseball in Africa. Play Global, an organization that teaches baseball to coaches and youth in developing countries, has held various successful clinics in the region and facilitated building of four batting cages thanks to a Derrek Lee donation.
There is a new Little League complex in the vicinity of Kampala. It is a boarding school equipped with several playing fields. It also features additional dormitories so that visiting teams can be housed there for the duration of a tournament, something that has been done various times with both local teams and with teams from other African countries.
As a result, Ugandan teams started getting better and better, right to the point where they won the regional Little League qualifier two years running. And then, they weren’t invited anymore.
The international bracket of the Little League World Series is organized pretty much like the US one. It is divided into regions and regional champs get to play in Williamsport. International regions changed a few times over the last decade. Traditionally, African teams were slotted in the EMEA region (Europe, Middle East and Africa). Until 2007, this region had dual champions from the same geographical entities – one group where at least half of the kids were from the local country and another one where the majority of the players were American, Canadian or Japanese.
This changed in 2008, when restriction on the number of the expats was lifted and the region was divided into a European one and the Middle East-African one.
One thing was constant, though. Every single year between 2000 and 2010, the same team won in its group – Arabian American Little League team from Dharan, Saudi Arabia, a team composed almost exclusively of American kids who live in the gated compound where their parents work for ARAMCO, world’s richest petroleum and natural gas company.
Although African teams could participate in theory, in practice it was almost impossible for them to take part. Since 2008 only Uganda (four times, 2008 and 2010-2012) and South Africa (twice, 2010 and 2011) were able to send a team to the qualifying tournament. One big reason is that, despite the construction of the Little League complex, Uganda was constantly denied the right to host the tournament. Instead, the Middle East/Africa qualifiers were held in Poland every year.
Little League International covers the cost of team participation in the World Series, but not those for regional qualifiers. This means that if an African team wants to compete it must come up with about $35,000 to pay for the airfare, visas, insurance and in some cases local transport and lodging. For sports programs in the economies like Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Kenya and others in the region, this is effectively saying: “You are not invited.”
For years, African countries have unsuccessfully petitioned Little League International to be allowed to host their own tournament. In the beginning, the quality of the infrastructure was called in question and they were challenged to organize local tournaments instead, with no bearing on the Little League participation, to prove that they are capable of hosting such an event. Even though raising money to travel for a tournament that is basically a dead-end street proved challenging, the neighboring countries came and such tournaments were repeatedly held. And while some support in Middle East could be gathered (the summer climate in Uganda is much more suitable for sports than in the Middle East), the Saudi-American team vehemently opposed the proposal of a Little League qualifier in Uganda, officially citing security concerns, even after the Canadian team played there.
Gathering the money is only one part of the problem, though. Even if an African country is lucky enough to have someone like Richard Stanley working hard on the international fundraising, obtaining visas is a whole new ballgame.
For starters, Poland, the host of the Little League qualifier for African countries, does not have an embassy in Uganda, meaning that all visa requests, interviews and inquiries must be made in its consular offices in Nairobi, Kenya. It takes more than 12 hours on a bus to get from Kampala to Nairobi and if you have never spent 12 hours on a bus in East Africa you are poorer for an experience you might not want to have.
Then, there is a series of Catch 22s. Not until the local tournament in Uganda is played are the names of the players to participate in the qualifier in Poland known – and the vast majority of potential participants do not have a passport when the tournament starts.
Once the winner is clear, the bureaucratic tournament played against the ticking clock starts. To obtain the visa you need a paid-in-advance plane tickets. To get the tickets you need passport numbers. To expedite the passport issuing you need the letter of invitation from the Little League. To get that letter you need a copy of your passport.
The precious days and weeks trickle away, in an ever growing realization that administrative complexity is the gift that keeps on giving. The proposed interview sessions in Nairobi are initially set up so that different kids receive different dates during the week to appear there, set up so that they would need two days of travel and an extra night in a Nairobi hotel. There is conflicting information on what the Little League-arranged medical insurance covers and whether it is enough to obtain the visa.
Obtaining the documents is complicated enough for kids who live with both their parents, but those living in single-parent families, or with an aunt or grandmother, find it almost impossible. To get a visa for a minor, both parents listed on a birth certificate must sign a document. If that is not possible, the remaining parent must obtain a court order to represent the child, and obtaining such a court order is both lengthy and expensive. The moral of the story– if you are poor and want to play in our tournament, you better not be an orphan.
After all these obstacles were somehow overcome in 2014, and after Stanley and the Ugandan Little League managed to raise the necessary money, the three teams (11-12 boys, 13-14 boys and 11-12 girls) were all denied entry visas to Poland. The embassy raised concerns whether the teams would be able to afford the 100-mile bus ride from the airport in Warsaw to the baseball complex in Kutno, despite multiple assurances that those costs would be covered.
That came on top of 2013’s withdrawn invitation after officials noticed that some of the kids had changed schools from 2012, after finally receiving the needed financial support to attend a better academic institution.
The moral of the story– if you are poor and want to play in our tournament, you better not strive for quality education.
Baseball is by no means a global sport.
There are about a dozen countries in the world where it can be considered a national sport, no more. It has lost its place on the Olympics, eying a temporary return thanks to the fact that Japan is hosting 2020 Games. For decades, baseball World Cups featured teams made up of American students and Japanese industrial league squads trying and failing to beat the Cubans. Mostly, nobody cared.
The recent attempt to make baseball a more global sport is the World Baseball Classic, an aggressively marketed competition in which liking pizza is enough to grant you the right to start for the Italian team. No passports needed, no court orders, no overnight bus drives for an interview. World Baseball Classic has been a great success, because many hats were sold. Hell, I bought two t-shirts myself.
But underneath the surface, baseball is not doing well world-wide, despite WBC expansion plans and TV ratings. Omission from the Olympics was a big deal – not in the U.S., perhaps, but for sure in the countries where baseball fights for financing. Many national sports federations now support baseball at only a fraction of the level they used to, because Olympic sports come first.
And then, when a spark comes from within, baseball ignores it. Sure, it made for a great story to have the Ugandans in Williamsport in 2012 and everybody loved them. They autographed more balls than anybody else. ESPN was there. And BBC. But, what has happened since? Instead of Africa having its own Little League qualifier, its teams are forced into a game they can’t win, the game against money and bureaucracy. On the field, they are good enough to compete with anyone. Off the field, the way the game is rigged, they may never be.
We are only a few disillusioned enthusiasts away from losing the best thing that happened to baseball in a long, long time. And the kids in Africa who embraced this sport are on a verge of losing the game that is much more than a game to them.
Even though it is already dark, the kids want to keep playing, bad hops and bruised bodies be damned. For a few hours those gloves were theirs, and when this is over the gloves will disappear into the equipment bag, along with the illusion that they are athletes whose only worry is to play the game right. I don’t want it to stop either. I, too, want to hang on to an illusion that they are just like their counterparts in the States or in Europe, because as long as they are on the field, there is nothing different about them. I want to hang on to the illusion that they will always be able to play baseball if they want to, and that the only thing between them and success is hard work and more hip rotation in their swing.
The moment the practice is over, so is the magic. Ashraf is not the surprisingly smooth stocky-build corner infielder with a sweet, compact swing anymore, but a 16-year old kid walking off the field toward his single-parent home 15 kilometers away, and back into the reality in which there is nobody to pick up his school fees for the next semester.
George is not the gifted coach anymore, but a concerned father of some 30 kids dispersing from St. Peter’s Nsambya field into the dark Kampala night and an uncertain future.
And I am not a baseball friend from far away enjoying himself among his baseball buddies anymore, but a frail voice burdened with a desire to tell their story, knowing full well that whatever words I manage to put together will not do justice to their dignified struggle to play ball.
All pictures courtesy of Bojan Koprivicia.