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Aug '11 02

Old World Pastime – Ugandan Diamonds: An African Baseball Tale



John Miller, a Belgian-American journalist, and a player/coach for the Brussels Kangaroos, is in his fourth year of writing Old World Pastime, a take on baseball as lived in 21th century Europe.

The unbelievable tale of baseball in Uganda and its recent setback (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/sports/for-uganda-little-leaguers-exhilaration-and-then-heartbreak.html) offer a precious morality tale.

We start with a group of Americans and do-gooders, led by a retired U.S. engineer named Richard Stanley, who brought the game to this land-locked nation of 32 million eight years ago.

Baseball is not an easy sport to give to a culture unused to bats and diamonds. It’s even harder when kids are undisciplined, many of them orphaned, in a place where per capita income remains well under $1,000 a year. We in European baseball should not think we have it so rough.

But as images shot by American filmmaker Jay Shapiro, who is making a documentary called “Opposite Field” (www.opposite-field.com), can attest, these coaches and their backers have brought not just baseball to Uganda, but good baseball.

Last month, putting icing on the cake of an extraordinary story, Uganda earned the to participate in the crown jewel of youth sports by beating Saudi Arabia 6-4 in the finals of Little League’s European Championships in Kutno, Poland

That is no small achievement. On the sunny compounds of the desert kingdom, Little League baseball is a religion. There’s not much else to do down there. So they play and play and play. Saudi had reeled off some 20 consecutive championships.

In the early 2000s, I coached my little brother’s Little League team. We went to four European championships and won two of them, both in age categories where Saudi was not competing. In the 2002 finals, Saudi whooped us, 10-1. Nobody could ever beat these guys.

Thus my intense reaction on hearing the news that the U.S. State Department had denied Uganda’s visas was: How could a bunch of bureaucrats deny these kids their chance at glory, especially after they beat Saudi? Don’t they understand how hard it is?

I called a connection at Little League. We’re going to back the State Department on this one, he said. That’s outrageous, I said. I needed to know more.

But it took only a few more phone calls and a follow-up statement by the State Department on Saturday to confirm what had happened: Uganda, in a mad scramble for visas to travel to Poland and get its best kids certified for Little League, had played around with its paperwork, likely making at least some kids appear younger than they were.

Little League runs the world’s biggest and greatest youth sports tournament, a global battle involving millions of kids and thousands of teams. To qualify, leagues around the world must respect a host of rules, governing everything from helmet use to TV rights.

Two are sacrosanct: Kids must be 11 or 12 years old on April 30, and they must live full-time in the place they’re playing for. An older kid, as Danny Almonte from New York famously demonstrated in 2001, can skewer the whole tournament.

In over 50 years of running their event, Little League, and the State Department, have never denied a World Series participant because of visas. And it had a huge public relations interest in bringing the first African team ever to the World Series.

This, I grudgingly concluded, was a totally legitimate denial.

On Sunday, my last call was to George Mukhobe, Uganda’s coach. At 34, he is roughly my age, and I knew I could identify most with him.

“The kids are the right age,” he said at first. Then, he added, “well, in Africa, sometimes it’s difficult, we don’t have birth certificates.” He continued: “This is not my responsibility, I’m not these kids’s parents or guardians, but if somebody has broken the law here and needs to take the fall for [fraud], they can take me. I’ll coach baseball in prison. I just love this game.”

So, here you have a dedicated man, somebody who has brightened lives and developed the talents of young men, a true coach, brought down by the failure of his society, for whatever reason, to systematically document the births of its children, thus opening the temptation to bend the rules of youth sports.

The State Department and Little League made the right call in holding Uganda to the same standard as other countries.

Mr. Mukhobe and his fellow baseball coaches in Uganda have accomplished something life-altering and perhaps more valuable here, besides bringing joy to a lot of boys.

They have forced a nation’s attention on one of its shortcomings, one that applies to both baseball and lifting a nation out of poverty: You can train the best ballplayers, build the best motorcycles or grow the best mangoes, but if you can’t certify them, you can’t export them. It’s just the way it is.

Meanwhile, baseball endures and, through failure, teaches us what we might do better next time.

Wait til next year. And Go Uganda.




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