By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Sunday Sun
In a country where sports like cricket and soccer sell out arenas on a regular basis because of their popularity, the East African nation of Uganda is probably the most unlikely place for the great American pastime of baseball.
But at this year’s Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, the Uganda 11-year-old Little League squad made history as the first team from an Africa nation to win game at the tournament.
They defeated Oregon 3-2 in a consolation game and while the Ugandans would finish the double elimination tournament 1-2, winning just one game was big for the country’s fledgling baseball program that is struggling to find places to play.
“People were very excited at home and they were happy,” said team head coach and Mehta Little League president Henry “Bouncer” Odong. “The Middle East and Africa were happy. The Saudi Arabians had been coming here for here for many, many years, but failed to win a game and we came here once and won a game. I am pretty sure if we come back here next year we may go up to the final point.
Odong and his young Uganda team were the special guests of shortstop Jimmy Rollins and the Phillies and attended Wednesday’s game against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park. Co-coach of the Mehta Little League squad Paul Kateregga said winning in Williamsport and coming out to the ball park with the kids was a tremendous experience.
“This amazing, overwhelming, this a great experience for us being here,” Kateregga said. “We’ve never seen this. We don’t have these types of structures in Africa. This experience for us will only encourage us to do something similar. This is just the beginning.”
Rollins said he was proud of the Ugandan team and the Little League for all the odds they overcome from the struggle of getting visas, something that prevented them from coming to the U.S. for last year’s Little League World Series.
“Considering all that they went through just to get here from the living conditions back home to being able to go to Poland for the African Regional and beating Kuwait to make it the Little World Series is a testament in itself,” Rollins said. “Had they not won a game, just getting on the map is a victory in and of itself.”
As the group of 11 kids was hanging out with some of the Phillies during the team’s batting practice, they, including the two coaches, seemed to be in awe of the ball park with the baseball diamond surrounded by well-manicured, green grass.
“The kids are very excited to see this kind of field and I’m also excited because I asked is this artificial grass or natural grass?” Odong said. “It was a dream come true. We didn’t ever think we would come here.”
Finding a good place to play baseball in a nation where cricket and soccer rule is no easy task for Odong, who runs the Mehta Little League based in the town of Lugazi located 31 miles east of the capital city of Kampala.
“Our fields are so bad that we use soccer fields. When soccer comes, we have to leave and the soccer fields are not as good as (Citizens Bank Park). The cricket fields are somewhat fair, but when you’re playing ball around mid-day, the cricketers come they say they want their field, so you have to leave or you tell the kids let’s just play one inning,” Odong said.
Odong said he is looking for help from anyone in the U.S. interested in donating money to help build baseball diamonds in Lugazi.
“We do not have the ball fields,” Odong said. “At least, let’s get a ball field to the area where I am.”
In makeshift ball fields that exist in Lugazi, there is no back stop to keep the ball from going all over the place. Odong said sometimes games are delayed or stopped trying to search for the ball.
“We do not have a back stop,” Odong said. “When the ball goes far, it goes something like 200 meters. Back home we bring about three balls and they should not get lost. When the ball gets lost in the grass we have to look for it.”
Back in January of this year, Rollins visited Uganda and donated batting gloves, shoes, mitts, gum and candy. He also provided instruction to the players and coaches. Rollins was surprised to learn that the players had a fundamental understanding of the game.
“There are some kids from the first team that weren’t able to make it, who are 14 or so,” Rollins said. “Now, those kids can play. They’re a little more well-rehearsed in the game of baseball. There’s definitely a future. One, because they love playing, and two, they’re not going to stop playing.”
Odong said that baseball was introduced to Uganda and to the town of Lugazi by Christian Missionaries from the Unlimited Potential Inc. in 1997 by its president Tom Roy. He believes there will be some Uganda major leaguers in the not too distant future.
“With this kind of motivation, I’m going to do my level best to do what I can to make sure that some of these kids come here and that is if these kids are willing to work hard because it’s not so easy to here,” Odong said. “They need to play a lot of games so they understand what they have to do.”