By Haggai Matsiko
Little known base ballers give hope to U.S. president’s campaign
For a bunch of Ugandan 12-year-olds—mostly from the poorest families in the sugarcane growing town of Lugazi, near Kampala, a recent trip to the U.S. was the highlight of their lives.
Unknown to them, even US President Barack Obama, despite being in the midst of a heated campaign and the whole world could not stop talking about them, as Time Magazine’s Michael Scherer writes in September 10 issue.
The Lugazi Little League Baseball Team was at South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, USA, for the 66th edition of the Little League Baseball World Series and even beat one of the teams, Oregon, in a show that got Obama hooked.
Michael Scherer writes: “As the Air Force One takes off from another campaign rally in Ohio, the President settles into his air borne conference room, gum lodged in the back of his mouth, with ESPN’s live coverage of 12 years olds’ World Series baseball on the flat screen. He raves to his staff about the story line, an up-from-obscurity fable of barefoot kids from East Africa playing in central Pennsylvania.”
Soccer-loving Ugandans might not like baseball or even know it but the Lugazi Little Leaguer’s feat was no small one—the reason President Obama whose hair has become even grayer over the heat at White House in the past four years and now Republican Party contender Mitt Romney, had to stop, watch and talk about them.
From CNN, Aljazeera, The Washington Post, New York Times and ESPN, the Ugandan team was big news. ESPN’s crew that live cast the tournament, kept zooming in on the Ugandan team, videos of which Henry Odong, the team’s founder, couch and President carried hoping to show Ugandans including President Yoweri Museveni—he told journalists at Williamsport.
Apart from beating the likes of Africa’s rich-South Africa and oil giants Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to become the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region champion for which they won 14 gold medals at the Little League Baseball World Series (LLWS) this year. The team that back home can barely scrape by, made history as the first African team to play at the tournament in the 66 years that the tournament has made.
When they arrived in the US, thousands gathered to welcome them, wished them Good luck and when they played, people cheered, and others struggled to get their autographs.
“It was overwhelming, we are celebs there,” Odongo, the team’s couch and President told The Independent, “If we went back there, hundreds would gather to welcome us and listen to us.”
Odong is a humble man who offers to pick me and walk with me from the road almost a kilometer from his home in Namugongo, near Kampala.
As we walk, the 6-foot Odong cannot stop pressing his phone. Ever since he returned with the kids, he can hardly reply all the e-mails and accept all the Facebook friend requests—but sadly they are all from abroad.
A staffer at CNN is informing him about their upcoming feature on his team, a crew from Aljazeera is coming to cover his team and many Americans cannot stop congratulating him and praising his team for the example it set at Williamsport, they want to know how Uganda welcomed these heroes.
“We won the sportsmanship award which is the only award after the winner’s trophy,” Odong says, “for being disciplined.”
The people were very generous too. Several Americans and organisations donated tones of equipment for team Uganda and others were queuing up with pledges to come and assist couch the Ugandan team. RxSport, the popular maker of Chandler bats donated to the team bats engraved with their names.
As they boarded a flight back home, aboard Delta to Amsterdam and KLM to Entebbe, one image was in Odong’s mind, scores of people waiting to welcome them at Entebbe airport, journalists to snap away the return of heroes, and why not, an audience or at least a future arrangement with the President.
“Kiprotich brought back one gold medal but we brought back fourteen but far from that we are the first African team to play at Williamsport,” Odong says.
Steven Kiprotich won a Marathon gold medal at the Olympics breaking a forty-year-spell after John Akii Bua won Uganda’s first gold medal in 1972 and the olympics and the little league baseball are certainly two worlds apart.
However, Odong feels that having wrapped himself with the Ugandan flag after they beat Oregon at Williamsport before ESPN viewers and thousands more, most of whom had only heard of Uganda as some uncivilized-gay-bashing country, and emerging the first MEA champions in Africa, his team deserved more than a mere congratulation message, moreover from only the Nigerian National Sports General Secretary. But it is all they got here at home.
Disappointment at home
Not a minister or even a Local Council One has even mentioned them. No local company has expressed interest in even congratulating them. But if you think that is a shocker, when they returned, there was not even a single journalist at the airport.
It was only a few colleagues from Lugazi and Mpigi where Richard Stanley, the founder of Uganda Little League has built Uganda’s only three baseball fields and a camp that waited for the little-heroes-away-from-home and nobodies-back-at-home.
Odong has one word for Ugandans, disappointing! “How could it be that the whole world saw?” he wonders as we approach his house, “the whole world rejoiced, but Uganda did not see. I was extremely surprised to see Uganda very quiet as if we did nothing for them. The journalists could not come because they were not facilitated.”
At his two-roomed house, his three year old son Glenn Johnson—he named him after the baseball player—ushers us in, he runs quickly to the bedroom and returns with one of his father’s oversize baseball glove. “I want to play my baseball,” Johnson says and he jumps around his dad showing off how they throw a ball.
A maroon sofa set that has seen better days, a small flat television set, two stools and a table dot his sitting room. But it is as if Odong has no table, his table is next to the wall and on top of it, he put a stool which carries what seems like his most important items—baseball trophies.
Apart from the wallpapers of baseball players and the different tags from 2001 when he and his little leaguers were in Kenya to 2003 when he was in South Africa and 2012 when they made history in the US all for baseball, the most outstanding feature are the trophies.
A few more trophies sit on his Aiwa triple-deck radio that is on top of a subwoofer —all together, they are about ten and he says he gave out a few others. He has been playing baseball since 1994 when it was introduced in his school, SCOUL Senior Secondary School, in Lugazi.
Always a substitute on the team until 1999 when almost all the best players left and he became the leader, the baseball teams here have more to thank for his devotion than anything else.
He coaches both the little leaguers and the majors’ club, Victory Rovers, which too is changing the name to Mehta Baseball Club to attract sponsorship from the Mehta Group of Companies. It is the little leaguers that have brought the fame but he is also very passionate about the majors.
He has been part of the team since the 90s and has seen it change names from Pacific Rollings when he was still playing for it as a student in 1996 to Pirates Club, Victory Rovers and now Mehta baseball club. The team has changed names because of the changes in membership and now ownership, he explains as we walk through apartments here in Lugazi where we travelled several kilometers from Kampala to meet the little leaguers.
Sitting on the stairs of one of the Mehta apartments in Lugazi, where his team has its meetings—they do not have a camp let alone an office—it is clear the Christian missionaries like Tom Roy and Russ Carl under the organisation, Unlimited Potential Incorp Inc (UPI), who introduced the game in Uganda would not be disappointed.
When they introduced it, it was to help spread the gospel of Jesus, and before Odong’s team start their meeting—most of them in their early 20’s, with unkempt hair and some, sagging pants—they first launch into a prayer for blessings and God’s guidance.
Two of the little leaguers—the Captain Daniel Alio and his Assistant Felix Enzama– say they look up to the majors. Discipline is a must here, the little leagues are quick to cut our interview short to first pray—it is clear why they were praised for discipline at Williamsport.
“I used to watch them pray and always wanted people to watch me play like them,” Enzama whose left eye is still healing from a sore after he was hit by a baseball tells me, “but we did not have balls so we used to roll polythene bags and use them as our balls.” He adds that after seeing them struggling, Odong encouraged them, started couching them, and formed their team.
“I trust my baseball now, I want to train and play with the majors and I want people to see me play and say that I am from Uganda,” Enzama whose mother vends brooms and a father involved in small patch food crop cultivation, mainly for home consumption says.
With baseball, he hopes to escape the misfortune that trapped most of his siblings—they could not make it past Primary Seven because they lacked fees.
His captain, Alio is equally dreamy.
“Ugandans should wait for me,” he says. Alio says he looks up to Jose Hamilton and wants to play for the New York Yankees, his best team—he watched them play while camping in Mpigi where Richard Stanley has built fields for tournaments.
But locally, he looks up to George Drani, one of the players in the major’s team. “He throws and is a good hitter as well,” Alio says of Drani who also doubles as the Mehta Little Leaguers’ assistant manager.
Enzama and Alio, both 12, still do not understand what they achieved; they say they were overwhelmed by sitting on an aeroplane and going to a foreign country. “Most of the people were cheering us even though they did not know us,” Alio says, “We were also given new uniforms and bats with our names engraved on them and we were very happy.”
They also made friends but, says Enzama, being kids from very poor familes, they know not computers, let alone Facebook and, therefore, cannot keep in-touch with their friends.
However, for Drani, no words can express what the boys did. “I am still on my knees thanking God,” he says as he removes his baseball cap and looks to the sky, “we are going to get scouts from the US, we are the first African team to make it there and now everyone is going to know about us.”
A holder of a Kyambogo University diploma in Agriculture—he works with the Out-growers department of the Mehta sugar plantation—he recounts of all the hurdles they have gone throw with baseball since he started playing as a P.4 kid in the 90s.
Drani and his then 8-year-old brother were in the team that qualified for the MEA championships after beating Kenya and South Africa in 2001 and failed to make it to Poland because of lack of funds.
He no longer regrets now because at least the team he assists couch, made it even past Poland to Williamsport. “But it has not been easy, most of our parents are poor and unable to support us and we do not have sponsors but we have been playing and supporting the young team,” he says.
He says that about 95 percent of the players in the small team are orphans and that the parents that are there are very poor. Apart from the small support from Stanley, Odong and some of the other team members have had to put in their small earnings.
“We had to transport the parents of these kids to Kampala, ministry of foreign affairs to get them passports because being kids they had to be interviewed with their parents and the parents did not have money,” he says. “Most of their parents sell brooms and roasted ground nuts to earn a living.”
Odong says that training these kids is extremely demanding.
“Because we do not have a camp, we train them when they are from school, and if they do not go to school there is no training. So apart from couching them you have to be like their parent and ensure that they are in school,” he says.
He is currently looking around for someone to sponsor Alio’s education because with his meager earnings from a cable company here at Mehta’s estate, Odong can only do so much. But following that appearance at Williamsport, his team is a hopeful bunch—they have agreed to cede ownership to Mehta—with a few schools around, he can sponsor some of them and also sponsor the team.
They are hopeful they will produce professional players for international teams.
“Countries like Venezuela are poor but they produce professionals, these kids can become professionals and change their communities” Odong says. However, they still have a long way to go.
Baseball in Uganda still lacks structure, as Drani says they are not even sure there will be a national tournament next year because there are no sponsors. There are only three baseball fields in the country and none in Lugazi.
They use the cricket field, which belongs to Mehta and they cannot access it all the time. As it is, they have no cages, which limits batting practice because they can hit a glass window if they hit so hard. At the national level, baseball is still a mess.
Last year, a team that had qualified for a tournament abroad could not make it– they were denied visas because of inaccuracies in their data. Some the equipment donated to the Uganda Little League have also reportedly disappeared and disputes between George Mukhobe, the President Uganda Baseball and Softball Association (UBASA) and other officials, Richard Stanley being one of them, blur the game.
Although, Odong is the Vice President UBASA, he says he does not know of such disputes and it has not affected his little league world. And his team cannot stop talking about Richard Stanley—who they credit for giving them a semblance of hope.
As we bid each other farewell, it is raining but about ten of them; girls and boys, brave the rain to play baseball in a field between the apartments. “You see those kids,” Drani says with a nod of contentment, “parents who used to think baseball was a waste of time are now sending us more and more kids.”
It is that hope that makes Odong and his Little Leaguers think about nothing else but conquering Williamsport come next year. It is the kind of hope and courage that US President admired about these kids as he too hopes to have another shot at the White House.