Play Ball! (Ugandan Style)

Kawanguzi Ashraq is an 11-year-old shortstop, so it’s no surprise that Derek Jeter is his favorite baseball player. What is unusual is that Ashraq, who lives in Uganda, plays baseball at all.

A Ugandan baseball squad sports team T-shirts with a design reminiscent of the Trenton Thunder logo.
Courtesy of ugandalittleleaguebaseball.org.

“It’s my dream to become a professional baseball player, too, someday,” he says.

Such dreams likely would not exist in Uganda were it not for Richard Stanley, part-owner of the Trenton Thunder minor-league baseball team. Stanley brought baseball to this landlocked East African country five years ago as an outgrowth of his volunteer work in Uganda with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Since Stanley began pitching in, more than 15,000 Ugandan youngsters have heard the siren song of America’s pastime. “They play all day without water, without eating, without anything,” says Stanley. A minor-league owner for almost 30 years, Stanley, 66, has helped numerous prospects reach the big leagues, including Robinson Cano, Joba Chamberlain, and Melky Cabrera, all of whom played for his Trenton team on their way to the New York Yankees. Stanley believes Uganda will produce a major leaguer within ten years.

But first things first. This month, Uganda will host the first All-Africa Little League Tournament, with teams from South Sudan, Kenya, and Tanzania, and possibly Ghana and  Cameroon, as well as Uganda. The goal is to be sanctioned as an official event—perhaps next year—whose winner goes to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Until now, the official Middle East-Africa Regional Tournament—one of sixteen Little League-sanctioned regional tournaments worldwide—has been held in Poland, and attendance has been too expensive for African teams.

Stanley says the Ugandan players are up for the heightened competition. He reports that many can run, throw, hit, and catch as well as their American counterparts. But, he adds, “They don’t know what to do with the ball when it’s hit to them and there’s a runner on base, because they haven’t played enough games.” 
The young players have no lack of enthusiasm. Says 13-year-old Okuda Alex, “The most fun part of the game is when I make a double play and I’m cheered on by my fellow players.”

Stanley, of Staten Island, got involved in a roundabout way. Upon leaving Procter & Gamble after 22 years as a chemical engineer, he began working as a volunteer with USAID. Word of his baseball background got out, and before long he started shipping cartons of gloves, bats, balls, and helmets to Uganda. Since then, firms such as Wilson Sporting Goods and organizations like Major League Baseball, Little League, and Pitch In for Baseball,  have donated supplies for the Ugandan program.

Ugandan baseball still requires significant improvisation. According to ugandalittleleaguebaseball.org, the 15,000 players share about 700 gloves. “Many of them play without shoes; that’s what they’re used to,” Stanley says. “For bases, we take sacks of grain, fold it over and stitch it good and tight.” Games are mostly played on all-dirt infields or grass soccer fields without the benefit of cut-out diamonds.

But that is changing. This year, Stanley helped break ground on a new baseball complex near Kampala, the capital, on the shores of Lake Victoria. Two diamonds have been completed for the summer tournament, along with dormitories for up to 300 players and a guesthouse for coaches and officials.

“These fields are a real excitement to the children,” says Washington Mugerwa, vice president of Uganda Little League. “Some have even walked miles just to see what a baseball field looks like.”

Ultimately, the planned 40-acre complex will have six fields surrounding a 1,500-pupil school for high-achieving student athletes. Stanley purchased the property himself and is looking for donors to help pay for the facility.

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