Sunday February 6 2011

Baseball dreams of future in Uganda

Dempster, a coach with Major League Baseball’s envoy program, shows young players the right stance.

Dempster, a coach with Major League Baseball’s envoy program, shows young players the right stance. 

By Paul Post

The road leading into the Mpigi, Uganda baseball complex, about 15 miles west of Kampala, looks like a place dreams go to die, not flourish.
The deeply-rutted, unpaved drive passes by houses where people literally scratch out a living in the dry, red earth.

In stark contrast, the bright green diamond-shaped baseball fields that kids play on represent hope, a jewel in the Pearl of Africa. The 40-acre facility has been developed by Richard Stanley of New York City, whose goal is to make baseball Uganda’s national sport, giving players a chance to earn college scholarships and perhaps become professional athletes in the U.S.

“Major League Baseball knows what we’re doing here,” Stanley said. “They’re very supportive. Some day we’ll get a true African team in World Cup play or the World Baseball Classic.” Nearly 100 young athletes, ages 9 to 16, took part in a recent two-week (Jan. 17-28) baseball camp in Mpigi conducted by American coaches Pat Doyle and Sam Dempster, who work in Major League Baseball’s envoy program, teaching and promoting baseball throughout Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

Intense camp
Most players came from Uganda, with some from Kenya and Tanzania as well. “We’ve been learning all kinds of skills -- running, hitting, fielding, throwing -- all the things you need to know to play baseball,” said 16-year-old Jimmie Ssekandi of Kampala.

Doyle and Dempster also trained more than a dozen coaches how to conduct practices and organize drills, so they can teach the game in their respective cities such as Kampala, Lugazi and Jinja. At present, six different coaches are now in the process of organizing two teams, one for players ages 12-and-under, and another for teens.

“When school is out, in late April/early May and August, each program will bring their top 14 players in each age group to the complex to play in a tournament that will last about 10 to 14 days with a game every day,” Stanley said. “Next January, we will again bring the best 90 to 100 players to spend two weeks with the envoys. It is our target to have a competitive team playing in international tournaments in three years or less.”

Stanley is a retired chemical engineer for Procter & Gamble Co. Since 1980, he’s also co-owned a number of minor league baseball teams in the U.S., where younger professional players gain experience and develop their skills before reaching the major leagues. At present, he’s part owner of a minor league team affiliated with the famous New York Yankees.

Several years ago, Stanley volunteered for a United Nations program to help developing nations economically. When officials in Uganda learned about his background in baseball, they invited him to start a program and he gladly accepted the challenge.

Big investment
To date, he’s spent $1.4 million -- almost all of it his own money -- to acquire land and build fields, player dormitories and housing for coaches. Two small baseball fields have already been completed and two larger ones for older players have been graded and just need to be seeded with grass.

Long range plans call for construction of a school for 1,500 student-athletes, a quarter-mile running track along with basketball and tennis courts. A genuine humanitarian, Stanley also envisions a first-rate medical center where Ugandan men and women could be treated for prostate and breast cancer, respectively.

“It’ll take about $5.5 million to do everything we want,” he said. Stanley has been meeting with Ugandan government officials to promote the idea. During the recent two-week camp, he took Daniel Tamwesigire, Uganda’s commissioner of physical education and sports, and his assistant -- Lamex Omara Apitta -- on a personal tour of the complex to give them a first-hand look at what’s going on.

“It was really productive,” Stanley said. “They were very supportive. You can’t ask for more than that.” The Mpigi complex is one of the most advanced baseball facilities in all of Africa and has already hosted a tournament with other countries such as Kenya and Tanzania. One of Stanley’s big goals is to send a Ugandan team of 11- and 12-year-olds to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in the U.S. The event is held each August.

Little League International is organized into eight regions around the world. At present, Africa does not have a region of its own. African teams trying to reach the World Series must take part in the Mid-East regional tournament that includes Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Last year, Uganda thought it had won the tournament, but was denied a trip to the World Series because of a controversial scoring rule.

Instead of being discouraged, the incident made Stanley even more determined to have baseball take root and blossom in Uganda, which he considers a baseball paradise. “The great advantage we have in Uganda is that the temperature never goes below 62 or above 82,” Stanley said. “They can play year round and because it sits on the Equator they have 12-hour days, 12 months a year. It’s the perfect place to play baseball.”

Major League hope
Some day, as more and more kids play the game, someone might become good enough to reach the major leagues in the U.S. Even for those who don’t, baseball has plenty of other benefits. Henry Odong, a 25-year-old Ugandan coach, began playing baseball when he was 6 years old. Naturally, he would love to see one of his players become a rich and famous professional some day. But that’s not all that matters.
“I don’t think about the money,” he said. “To me, baseball means sweat, hard work, teaching how to play the game correctly, making friends. The rest will come.”

One of the best thing about young African players is that they’re eager to learn and improve. “When you teach kids who want to learn, that’s what makes it worthwhile,” Odong said. “It’s nice to have someone believe in you.” Stanley has a grand vision for baseball in Uganda. Now he just needs more people to believe in him and the young athletes he’s trying to help. “These kids are great,” he said. “They play all day and never get tired. They’ve got the talent. All they need is more practice and competition. All they need is a chance.”

Paul Post is a freelance writer from Glens Falls, New York in the USA.