Sunday, July 31, 2011

For Uganda Little Leaguers, Exhilaration and Then Heartbreak


The New York Times

July 30, 2011

For Uganda Little Leaguers, Exhilaration and Then Heartbreak


KAMPALA, Uganda — Felix Barugahare has no idea what a sporting goods store is. He shares a glove and swings someone else’s bat, and there is a good chance that his baseball cleats are the first pair of shoes he has worn.

Felix is a second baseman for the Rev. John Foundation Little League team, the first team from Africa to qualify for the Little League World Series. But the players’ aspirations for international success were dashed Friday when they were denied visas to travel to the United States. The State Department said that some of the visa applications included birth records that “several parents admitted had been altered to make some players appear younger than they actually are.”

It is a sad coda to an inspirational story of a fledgling program for poor children who hoped to test their skills against the best teams in the world. More frustrating for Uganda is that for the second year in a row, a seemingly open path to South Williamsport, Pa., where the tournament is held, has been blocked by adults behind closed doors rather than by children on the playing field.

Many of the boys on the foundation team live in crowded homes with their extended families, subsisting on as little as $100 a month. Some have no parents. And when there are parents in the picture, they are often illiterate, making it difficult to verify the birth certificate information and complicating State Department interviews.

Saying that “what happened shames our country,” Godfrey Mabirizi, the vice chairman of Uganda’s National Council of Sports, told The Associated Press on Saturday that in the future the council would verify players’ ages and documents. He also said the council would investigate and punish those responsible if they were found to have lied about players’ ages.

With the boys’ bleak prospects, there is little mystery why they have embraced America’s national pastime.

“Because there is a future in baseball,” said Felix, who is called Abooki and who began playing four years ago after his uncle took him to a playground where children were playing the game.

Felix lives in a one-room house, divided by a curtain, in an area of Kampala called Nsambya. He shares it with five others, including his grandmother, who is ill. He has one set of clothes: jeans shorts, a blue T-shirt and a black baseball cap that he never parts with. To reach the playground, he walks a narrow path separating the rows of densely packed one-story houses, most made of brick, some of mud.

Like children and adolescents everywhere, Felix is motivated by a complicated mix of current emotional needs and future dreams.

“Many people know me now,” he said. “I want to continue playing and join the major leagues, but if I can’t, I want to become an umpire. Through baseball, I have made many friends. Baseball is better for me than soccer. In baseball, I can be known in Uganda. In soccer, you just play.”

Uganda has had few international sports heroes, probably because resources for training are scarce. Soccer, boxing and distance running are major sports. Some Ugandans have gone to the Olympics, and one, Moses Kipsiro, won the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at last year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

In a short time, however, baseball has begun to capture the imagination of the young, in part because of the incentive of being able to compete internationally.

The Little League World Series, the pinnacle of the organized youth game, started in 1947 with teams only from the United States. Teams from Mexico and Canada joined in the 1950s. During the ’60s, the tournament grew to include Europe and Asia. The current 16-team format, which includes eight international teams, was adopted in 2001. This year’s play is scheduled to begin on Aug. 18.

Ivan Matovu, a pitcher who is Uganda’s top player, said he had been looking forward to visiting the United States.

“I want to see how American people live,” he said.

For Ivan, baseball is a chance for a better life. His parents separated when he was 3. Then his father died and his mother remarried and left him with her parents. His grandfather, who died last year, was the groundskeeper of a rugby field where baseball practices took place.

“Boys played baseball in the field next to the house,” Ivan said. “I liked it and started to play.”

Now his grandmother, Deziranta Namigadde, who is about 50, is his sole provider. Together they and two teenage girls and a boy in primary school live in a round tin shed, about eight feet in diameter, that was previously used to store tools. The house is dark and cramped. There is no netting to protect against mosquitoes that might carry yellow fever or malaria.

The other children are relatives of Ivan’s, although he calls them his brother and sisters. He is the only one who sleeps on his own mattress. Toilets are in a separate structure about 20 yards from the shed. The children fetch water from a well.

Ivan already has an idea about the doors baseball can open. At 6, he went to Japan with a group called JIGA, Japan’s equivalent of the Peace Corps, which provides baseball equipment to developing countries.

Where Felix is outgoing, Ivan is reserved — until he steps on the diamond, where he immediately takes charge.

“I would like to be a major league baseball player,” he said. “I want to achieve it by practicing hard.”

Little League baseball was introduced to Uganda eight years ago by Richard Stanley of Staten Island, a part-owner of the Yankees’ Class AA Trenton Thunder.

Stanley, 68, has spent more than $1.5 million of his own money carving emerald diamonds out of Uganda’s rich red earth, including a 40-acre complex in Mpigi, 20 miles west of Kampala, the capital.

He first visited the country under a United Nations economic development program. He founded the first youth team in Kampala in 2005.

Though baseball has caught on quickly here, only 200 children in the country actually play in Little League. The main obstacles are the lack of equipment and coaches.

In contrast to the United States, parents here are simply not involved. Most coaches are young men in their 20s and 30s, like Kirya Aron Jacob.

“Kids here have to explain to their parents about the game,” Jacob said. “Hardly any support is given to the kids, and sometimes, the parents stop their kids from playing baseball. But these kids have developed vision and hope for their lives through baseball, and most of them dream of playing in the major leagues.”

For the last two years, coaches from Major League Baseball’s Global Envoy Program have conducted two-week camps for players of all ages at the Mpigi complex, which is at the end of a long, rutted dirt road lined with small banana tree groves and windowless brick houses.

The children get up early, train all day and stick around for pickup games long after formal drills end. They all know English — Uganda is a former British colony, which Winston Churchill called the Pearl of Africa because of its lush, green landscape.

“Good dashing!” a player yelled out as his teammate hustled to first base.

“Boom!” was an affirmation of anything good, a solid hit or a sparkling defensive play.

Stanley travels to Uganda several times a year to oversee games, build fields and meet with government officials, whose support is needed for the program’s expansion.

Uganda, which was to play its first Little League World Series game against Canada on Aug. 19, qualified by winning the Middle East-Africa regional tournament last month against Saudi Arabia, which had won the zone for the last 11 years. The tournament was held in Kutno, Poland, to avoid the intense heat of the Middle East.

The victory seemed a vindication of sorts. A year earlier at the same tournament, Uganda defeated Saudi Arabia in a protest-marred game in pool play, but a loss to Kuwait and a tie-breaker rule that was first misinterpreted in Uganda’s favor — the criterion was fewest runs per inning allowed — kept the team out of the regional final.

This year, Uganda took a 6-1 lead into the last inning in the championship game. The Saudis loaded the bases with two outs, and a weak pop-up that should have ended the game fell between the shortstop and the third baseman. After a series of wild throws, the three base runners scored, leaving the batter standing on third with the potential tying run at the plate. But the next hitter grounded out, giving Uganda a 6-4 victory and igniting a wild celebration on the field.

“I feel good that we beat the Saudis and are the first African team to go to the U.S.,” Felix said.

Players chosen for the Ugandan team come from Little League programs in Kampala, Jinja, Mugazi and Soroti, about 100 miles to the north. In May, they were taken to Mpigi.

“The individual programs have no formal schedule of games,” Stanley said. “To qualify for tournaments, teams have to play at least 12 organized games. So we brought them here. They all played 14 to 15 games in the space of 10 days.”

The Little League World Series was to have been the first step toward his ultimate goal: sending players to the big leagues, just as in the Dominican Republic, South Korea and Japan.

“The world will come to know about baseball in Africa,” Jacob said before the State Department announced its decision. “This will put Uganda on the world baseball map.”

Unfortunately for the Ugandans, for this year at least, that talent will not be on display for the world to see.

“A kid may not know his birthday,” Stanley said. “They don’t have cake and ice cream.”

Tadej Znidarcic contributed reporting.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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