Undefeated and Uninvited – Playing Ball in Land of Crested Cranes

It is a gorgeous day, sunny and warm, the kind where a shade and a lemonade could be your two best friends.  The grass of the school yard is sparse, a bit too long and ranges in color from lush green to burnt yellow. The dirt underneath it is dry and just that right shade of red that almost begs you to rub some of it on your hands and pick up a bat.

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, 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 of them 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 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 & Africa) qualifier, ending more than a decade long dominance of “Arabian American LL” team from Saudi Arabia and qualifying for the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania as a first ever African team to do so. They never got to play a game there, though, as they were denied entry visas by the USA immigration office.

Birth certificates and birthdays are notoriously neglected in whole of East Africa. I’ve been involved with a children’s home in Tanzania for years, and with our kids it’s basically – “It’s January 1st today – congratulations, everybody’s a year older now”. It’s not this way only with the kids. Often times 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”.

This led to documentation supplied by Ugandan federation being deemed unsatisfactory by US officials and resulted in a visa denial, making it the first time in the history that a team that qualified for Little League World series did not participate, as “Arabian American LL” took Uganda’s place in the tournament.

The omission from the tournament had a silver lining though. Their story touched many and as a result a campaign was started leading to Canadian LL team, their 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.

They have not played an official international game since.


Coach George Mukhobe with a group of outfielders during practice on St. Peters Nsambya Secondary School field

A few of the kids practicing on St. Peter’s field are playing barefoot. None of them 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 of what it costs in the US and where an average teacher’s monthly salary ranges from $100 to $200, travelling expenses for a school team are almost prohibitive.

There is a baseball stadium in Gayaza, in outskirts of Kampala, some 15 miles from where we practice right now. It’s been built in early 2014 with the help of Japanese government on the land donated by a local church. The outfield is pretty uneven and some patches of the fence had been stolen already. But it is a real baseball diamond, with full backstop, spectator stand and the dugouts. It is a beauty, a far better place to practice than the multiuse soccer pitch of 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 Ugandan Baseball and Softball Federation and the coach leading the practice, tells me that while they use it on weekends it is just 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.


Mr. Kirungi Augustine, the deputy head teacher and Mr. Mungere Regis Mubiru, head teacher of St. Peter’s S.S.S. Nsambya, home to 1500 students and many very talented baseball players.

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 use sport and play to enhance child development in areas of disadvantage, supports 12 of baseball students-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 funds 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 of his 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, has lost his father early and had to fight for everything in his life. He shows them the potential of a life centered around 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.”


Mbabazi Rose, a baseball mother and grandmother with coach Mukhobe. George coached her two sons, Jimmy and Moses, her daughter Sylvia and her grandson Aboki.

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 travelled extensively on various UN aid missions and one of those led him to Uganda. His international background, his baseball involvement (Mr. Stanley is a part-owner of the Trenton Thunder, Yankees AA affiliate) and his apparent lack of capability to take “no” for an answer, made him a perfect man to take on the challenge and help build Ugandan youth baseball and softball programs.

A lot has changed in baseball Uganda since 2002. Richard Stanley managed to get Little League and MLB 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 – the children here are both athletically gifted and very determined. They can play. What was missing was game practice to hone their skills, but also 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 their expanded support.

The former is a work in progress. In recent years, international interest in African baseball has peaked, in no small part thanks to the awareness raised form great documentary work Jay Shapiro has done. This, coupled with the Cinderella story of 2011/2012 Uganda Little League teams, helped raise funds and provide for more equipment.

Jimmy Rollins, Derrek Lee and Greg 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 already been done various times with both local teams and with teams form other African countries.

There is the already mentioned Stadium of Ugandan-Japanese friendship and there are new batting cages provided for by Derrek Lee.

As a result, Ugandan teams started getting better and better, right to the point where they won the regional LL qualifier two years running. And then, they weren’t invited anymore.


National Friendship Stadium in Gayaza, built with support of Japenese government

The international bracket of 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). Up 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 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 their group – Arabian American LL team from Dharan, Saudi Arabia, a team comprised 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 for it 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, Europe 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 try and compete they 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 the ones in Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Kenya and other countries 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 to be very challenging, the neighboring countries came and such tournaments were repeatedly held. And while some support in Middle East could be gathered (summer climate in Uganda is much more suitable for sports than the one in Middle East) Saudi-American team vehemently opposed the proposal of a Little League qualifier in Uganda, officially citing security concerns, even after 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.

The challenges go far beyond birth certificates.

For starters, Poland, the host of LL 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 of their parents, but the ones living in single-parent families, or even with an aunt or grandmother have it almost impossible. In order 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 allowing them 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, the three teams (11-12 boys, 13-14 boys and 11-12 girls) Ugandan LL and Mr. Stanley managed to raise the funds for were all denied entry visas to Poland. The embassy raised concerns whether the teams would be able to afford the transportation costs from the airport in Warsaw to the baseball complex in Kutno, a hundred mile ride with a bus, despite multiple assurances that those costs would be covered.

That came on top of 2013 withdrawn invitation after noticing that some of the kids 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.


Kawanguzi Ashraf, a kid with a great swing and nobody to pay his school fees next year

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. Most nobody cared.

The recent attempt to make baseball a more global sport is the World Baseball Classic, an extremely 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 all that well world-wide, despite WBC expansion plans and TV ratings. Omission from the Olympics was a big deal – not in the US, perhaps, but for sure in the countries where baseball fights for funding. 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 Uganda team 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 giving Africa their own Little League qualifier, their 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.


George greeting his former player Paul Wafula. Paul just returned from Japan, where he is playing baseball professionally for Hyogo Blue Sanders of the Kansai Independent Baseball League.

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 towards his single parent home 15 km 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.


George and the author, Kampala, Decembner 4th 2014

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