Aug 16, 2012, 4:45 PM EDT
Lugazi, Uganda hasn’t yet played an inning in the Little League World Series, but this team of 11-year-olds is already the biggest success story of the tournament.
You may remember last year when we brought you the story of the Kampala, Uganda all-stars, who became the first African team ever to qualify for the Little League World Series. But due to a nightmare of logistic, paperwork and eligibility issues, they were denied a spot in the tournament and had to stay home. Some thought that may have been the country’s last chance.
But to kids who have endured the real hardships of famine, poverty and civil war, this was a small setback indeed. The Lugazi kids began their run toward Williamsport again in May, and last week earned their ticket with a 5-2 championship game win over Kuwait in the Middle East-Africa regional tournament in Kutno, Poland.
That’s a pretty mighty accomplishment, considering that the Lugazi players are all 11 years old (other teams field mostly 12- and 13-year-olds). But after last year’s Ugandan team was disqualified, Lugazi officials wanted to make sure no players were over the age limit. That’s a difficult task sometimes in a country where many children come from single-family homes, and birth certificates can be rare.
But they finally rolled into Williamsport on Monday to begin the experience of a lifetime. Coming from a background where players have to share gloves and many play barefoot, the brand new uniforms and baseball gear that is provided by Little League Baseball for all teams in the World Series must have seemed heaven sent.
“I had never seen such a beautiful field,” third baseman Ronald Olaa, 11, said about Lamade Stadium, up a hill from the cages. “I got mesmerized.”
Lugazi head coach Henry Odong, nicknamed “Bouncer”, calls the time he spends with the team every day back home “Happy hour.” ESPN:
“I leave work at 5 p.m., so instead of going to take booze, wine or beer, I go to the field to play ball with the little kids up to around 7 p.m.,” Odong said.
Although some in Uganda have played baseball since childhood — Odong learned learned the game from Christian missionaries as a child — baseball is a relatively new concept in that country. Head architect of the sport there has been Richard Stanley, co-owner of the Trenton Thunder Triple-A Minor League baseball team who donated a ton of uniforms and equipment and has helped train coaches. Stanley was in Uganda in 2002 on a mission for ACDI/VOCA (Agricultural Cooperative Development International/Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance) when, on the last day of his trip, he was approached by a local politician and asked to help start a baseball program.
The momentum has been building ever since, with Uganda finally reaching the upper level of competition in the majors (11- to 13-year-old) division last year, before bureaucratic disaster struck. And the team almost didn’t make it to the Regionals in Poland again this year, said Stanley.
“By the time passports are obtained and parent consent forms notorized, the visas that allowed them to get to Poland were only delivered to them four hours before they were to board the plane at Entebbe Airport,” Stanley told Off the Bench. “We were finally given the visas by the Polish Embassy in Kenya at 3 p.m., and then had to catch a plane to get him back to Uganda and the Entebbe Airport in time to meet the team who were hoping he would not be delayed.”
Others have also been instrumental in baseball’s growth in Uganda, such as Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. He visited Uganda to work with Little Leaguers last year, and his Jimmy Rollins Foundation donated $10,000 to help fund a game between teams from Kumpala, Uganda and Langley, British Columbia this past January. Those two teams were supposed to play in the first round of the 2011 Little League World Series, before the game got canceled.
That game was played in Nakirebe, Uganda and the host team won, 2-1.
Afterward, when it was time to take team pictures, kids from both sides insisted on one picture with all the players in it, rather of two. They all then did “The Ugandan Slide”, the team’s after-game tradition in which the players get a running start and then slide on the grass, rolling and laughing.
The team will get to do it on national TV on Friday from Williamsport … although with the time difference, the game will not be shown until 1 a.m. in Uganda. One can bet that it will still get a 100 share there, however.
There is a lot of nonsense connected with the Little League World Series — in many ways it’s an overblown spectacle that runs contrary to its stated ideals. But the kids from Lugazi represent the very best of the concept, proving once again that life, like baseball, is best played with as many new friends as possible.
Rick’s Cafe Americain appears on Thursday. Contact: Rickchand@gmail.com. Twitter: @Rickchand.
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