Uganda vs. Canada -- finally

Ugandan youth players were denied U.S. visas because of poor age documentation

Updated: January 18, 2012, 10:57 AM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

Right to Play, Uganda and CanadaHubert KangPlayers from Uganda and Canada meet for the first time.

KAMPALA, Uganda -- Down the dusty road they came, jogging past the diamonds carved into farmland, toward the players who had come halfway across the world for a baseball game. They should have met five months ago in Williamsport, Pa., but maybe it was better that they do it here, in Nakirebe, Uganda, at a baseball complex that can only be described as, pardon the cliché, ekisaawes kye ebiroto. That's Lugandan for "fields of dreams."

Applause filled the hills as they shook hands, Jonah with Trevor, Gingo with Connor, Augustus with Colby, Khana with Nick …

After introductions by the coaches, George Mukhobe for the players he had nurtured in Uganda, Dean Cantelon for the Little Leaguers from Langley, British Columbia, the kids gathered up their stuff for a combined practice. "I couldn't stop bawling," said Christine Ens, the mother of Riley, a first baseman/pitcher for Langley.

[+] EnlargeRight to Play, Uganda and Canada
Hubert KangThe Canadian contingent arrives by bus.

Despite the rust from not having played competitively since the World Series, the Canadians looked good and ready for the big game Tuesday.

But one look at the Ugandans, who have been practicing day in and day out for weeks, and you know exactly what Jimmy Rollins means when he says, "Man, they can play."

Yes, the Phillies shortstop is here this week for games and events organized by Right To Play, the humanitarian organization with the motto "When Children Play, The World Wins." Also here are Derrek Lee, a free-agent first baseman, and Gregg Zaun, the former catcher and current Rogers Sportsnet broadcaster.

They each had been touched by the heartbreaking story of the Rev. John Foundation team that became the first African team to qualify for the Little League World Series by beating perennial favorite Saudi Arabia in the Middle East/Africa regional in Kutno, Poland, this past summer, only to be told that too many of its players did not have the documentation to warrant visas. (Saudi Arabia went in the Ugandans' place, losing to Langley 6-5 in the first game of the International bracket.)

The U.S. Embassy was not to blame -- the woman who had to deliver the news was fighting back tears, according to witnesses. The fault lay in the chaotic nature of life in Uganda, where birth certificates are not a common practice and many people don't celebrate or even remember their birthdays. So the documentation was sloppily assembled by the Ugandans. This year, hopefully with the help of Little League International, the team will be prepared.

Winston Churchill once wrote, "Uganda is a fairy tale." But that was in 1908, before war and corruption and brutal dictatorship and more war turned the tale into a tragedy, leaving a stain on the "Pearl of Africa" that's only now beginning to fade. The fairy tale for the kids on the Ugandan baseball team might've ended with the crushing news that they couldn't come to America. But, thanks to some very determined adults, it has begun again.

Ruth Hoffman -- a former Little League mother from Vancouver, British Columbia, and a trained accountant who has worked on philanthropic causes in Africa -- read an article about the team in The New York Times and told her husband, hematologist Dr. Edward Conway, "We have to do something." She started calling and emailing around and got in touch with Jay Shapiro, a filmmaker working on a documentary on Ugandan baseball called "Opposite Field." At first, she looked into bringing the Ugandan team to Canada, but, after talking to people, including Mukhobe, she realized it might be more feasible to send the Langley team to Uganda. That meant not only raising the money but also convincing and reassuring the Langley parents.

Things didn't really begin to take off until she made a connection with Right To Play Canada in Toronto. Right To Play, the mission founded by former Norwegian speedskater Johann Olav Koss, wanted to help, but it wanted to leave a more lasting legacy than just a trip. So Hoffman and Right To Play came up with a plan to raise $155,000: $59,000 in travel costs, $35,000 for a field, $35,000 for yearly transportation and $35,000 for continuing education. Right To Play was willing to lend Hoffman logistical support for the "Pearl of Africa Series." But she still had to raise the money.

[+] EnlargeRight to Play, Uganda and Canada
Hubert KangPlayers from Canada and Uganda share a meal.

An anonymous donor pledged $35,000 for the field. Rogers Sportsnet and the Rollins Family Foundation contributed $10,000 apiece. But, thanks to social media and an on-air appeal by Zaun, most of the $136,000 already raised has come from smaller individual contributions, such as the $400 raised at a lunch drive at Crandall University in New Brunswick. Hoffman also persuaded Starwood to comp some rooms and KLM to ship equipment and underwrite locally made goody bags. For months, she says, her basic sleeping hours were 2:30-6 a.m.

Working with Laura Lucrow Hryhorsky of Right To Play Canada, and Shapiro, who had heard from Rollins and Lee after his film clip on Ugandan baseball had run on ESPN's "SportsCenter" on Aug. 14, Hoffman pulled it off. Or so she hopes as she's riding the bus filled with parents from the Kampala Sheraton to the baseball complex in Nakirebe. "This has been like planning a big wedding," she says. "Now all we need is for the groom to show up."

Anticipation builds as the bus climbs up the hill, past the waving children and the farm stalls and, yes, that's a monkey. Suddenly, the complex appears out of nowhere, and it's amazing in itself: three fields, a large, immaculate guesthouse, dormitories and a dining pavilion. All of it was built and funded over the past several years by Richard Stanley, a driven, if slightly eccentric Wagner College chemistry professor and part-owner of the Double-A Trenton Thunder. But that's another story.

Stanley is here, eager to give a tour of his facilities. So is Shapiro, who is with his crew, wrapping up the documentary. And Zaun, a Right to Play ambassador who has offered to run the combined practice. The Ugandan players, however, are not here -- as soon as they arrived, Mukhobe sent them off on a training run.

[+] EnlargeRight to Play, Uganda players and Gregg Zaun
Hubert KangFormer major league baseball player Gregg Zaun gives instructions to Ugandan players.

Ah, now here they come, jogging down the road. As with all kids in that 11-13 age range, there is an initial shyness among the players when they meet. But, soon enough after the introductions, the Ugandans and Canadians are talking to each other, sharing positions in the infield drills run by Zaun, showing off Snoop Dogg imitations. Ruth and Ed go off into the outfield to throw the ball around, and their twin college-age sons help run the outfield drills. The 8,800 miles between British Columbia and Uganda doesn't seem like such a long way.

At the end of the practice, the two teams decide to play one inning, mixed lineups. Gingo Solomon, a pitcher from Jinja who sneaked away from his father to make the trip, strikes out two of his three batters, one on a nasty changeup that catches the low, outside corner. Colby Ring, a left-hander, works out of a small jam in his inning when Gingo grounds out to second.

"They are very good, the Canadians," Gingo says. "But I think that we shall beat them."

He may very well be right. Man, they can play.

Finally.

Steve Wulf is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow ESPN The Magazine on Twitter: @ESPNmag. Follow ESPN_Reader on Twitter: @ESPN_Reader.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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