Uganda's Little Leaguers Inspire Big Leaguers, Too

Now that organized baseball sees the potential, it's just a matter of time before African names such as Agaku and Okello start showing up on lineup cards in the U.S., whether it's college or pro ranks

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP
    Members of the Little League baseball team from Uganda stand on the field before the start of of a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays Wednesday, Aug. 29.

    Felix Enzema watched in amazement as an elevated subway train rattled by outside Yankee Stadium, carrying fans to the new billion-dollar ballpark.

    Where he comes from, people bring goods to market on the back of a bicycle.
    Then Enzema and his fellow Uganda Little Leaguers — including program founder Richard Stanley, who brought minor league baseball to Glens Falls in upstate New York with Frank Schafer of Queensbury — took their seats in the outfield.
    The "Bleacher Creatures" were starting their time-honored "roll call," yelling out the names of Yankee players, one by one, until each one acknowledges their chants with the wave of a glove.
    "Now let's hear it for our special guests," yelled "Bald" Vinny Milano, the group's leader. "U-GAN-DA! U-GAN-DA! U-GAN-DA!"
    The entire section stood and cheered, hundreds of them, saluting the first African team ever to reach the Little League World Series. The same thing has happened wherever they've gone, from small-town recreation fields to big league ballparks, during a three-week odyssey that ends Thursday as they head home to Lugazi, a city not far from the source of the Nile River in their East African homeland.
    "In America we are superstars," Henry Odong, Uganda's head coach, said with a broad smile. "I wonder why people are asking for our autographs. It's something I'm going to go back home and tell people. We have a lot to tell about America."
    His team's history-making adventure from abject poverty to international stardom has inspired people from all walks of life, all around the globe.
    "It puts everything in perspective," Phillies slugger Ryan Howard said. "These guys love the game of baseball. You can see it on their faces, what it means to them. This is the true definition of determination."
    Howard, a former National League MVP, is one of the many stars the Ugandans met during a tour of the Phillies' ballpark on Tuesday, led by shortstop Jimmie Rollins who traveled to Uganda in January. He showed them everything — the clubhouse and fitness room, where kids lifted weights and climbed all over expensive exercise equipment. Then they were treated to Philly cheese steaks at a stadium restaurant where they were announced and paraded through another mob of adoring fans.
    "How do you rate this?" said Richard Stanley, of Staten Island, who founded Uganda's Little League program nine years ago.
    On a scale of 1 to 10, you can't.
    Only a few weeks ago, the team was practicing in a courtyard between buildings in their overcrowded, poverty-stricken home town. The best field they had ever played on is the one Stanley carved out of the red earth at his baseball complex in Mpigi, about 20 miles west of Kampala, Uganda's capital.
    Now, after watching the Phillies and Yankees this week, they've seen baseball at its highest level and can grasp what it takes to get there. "It's really a great experience for them," Odong said. "They didn't know baseball could bring them this far. I hope all of them are going to work extremely hard to come back."
    Now that organized baseball sees the potential, it's just a matter of time before African names such as Agaku and Okello start showing up on lineup cards in the U.S., whether it's college or pro ranks.
    "These kids have the talent," Yankee skipper Joe Girardi said. "As long as they continue to play, there's no reason some of these kids can't come over here and play."
    Rollins was one of the first stars to visit Uganda and put on a clinic. Others are already making plans. "I went to Panama with Mo (Mariano Rivera) a couple of years ago," Yankee outfielder Curtis Granderson said. "I've been to New Zealand and I was in South Africa for the 2007 African championships."
    A true baseball ambassador, Granderson also runs a "Grand Kids Foundation" for inner-city youth in Chicago. He went out of his way to talk with Uganda players before Wednesday's game, as they watched pre-game infield drills from the Yankee dugout.
    "What it means is that anything and everything is possible as long as you stay focused and put your mind to it," Granderson said.
    For all the inspiration they've given America, these 11 Little Leaguers are now national heroes back home. From Yankee Stadium, they went directly to Uganda House, where Uganda's ambassador to the United Nations is headquartered, right across from the U.N. building in Manhattan.
    The team's incredible achievement coincides with the 50th anniversary of Uganda's independence — on Oct. 9, 1962 — after decades as a British colony. For many reasons — political, social, economic — African kids weren't free to play baseball.
    Not any more.
    Pius Bugembe is chairman of the Uganda American Association of Greater New York, a group representing the interests of the roughly 1,000 Ugandans living in the metropolitan area. "When I first came to the U.S. I knew nothing about baseball," he said.
    Now he's a teacher at Cardinal Hayes High School in The Bronx, by Yankee Stadium, and goes to as many games as he can right after work.
    "When these kids came here, I was in tears watching them play Panama in the World Series," Bugembe said. "I never dreamed baseball would be played in Uganda. May God bless them a trillion times."

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