- Steve Wulf, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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NAKIREBE, Uganda -- They call it "the Ugandan finish." After a victory, Ugandan baseball players run into the outfield and launch themselves into an all-out slide.
They did it after they played Langley, British Columbia, in an exciting game that was supposed to have been played at the Little League World Series five months ago in Williamsport, Pa. But so did the Canadian kids. Yes, even though the final score was Uganda 2, Canada 1, both teams won.
Before the game, Langley coach Dean Cantelon told his players, "Boys, we have been blessed by the baseball gods. Enjoy this moment." Indeed, the weather was as good as it gets at the equator in January, and as the morning sun crept higher, so did the anticipation. Ruth Hoffman, a Vancouver woman who organized the Pearl of Africa Series along with Right To Play, took deep breaths to relax before the ceremonial first pitch. Two buses filled with baseball fans from the Nsambya area of Kampala, 35 miles away, announced their arrival with vuvuzelas and cheers. Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who paid for the buses, was here, along with Derrek Lee and Gregg Zaun. Standing sentinel was Richard Stanley, a New Yorker who has built this unlikely baseball complex with his own money and vision.
There was also significance in some of the lesser-known spectators who looked down upon the field from the hill that ran along the left-field line and served as a natural backstop. A team of young players from Nairobi had driven 12 hours for the game. In attendance were coaches from as far away as Kuwait, as well as the JICA (Japanese Peace Corps) workers who had helped train the Ugandans. The grandmother of Ivan Luyombya, perhaps the Ugandan team's best player, had traveled here from the equipment shed at Kyambogo University where she had raised Ivan and his three younger siblings, thanks to the generosity of the parents of second baseman Jonah Kizza. Trent Ward, the president of WCT Resources in Oklahoma City, came with his wife and two young sons. Ward is the donor who gave $35,000 for a new field at the Sharing Youth Center in Nsambya. Ward said when he read to his sons about what was needed, "they told me we had to build the field. So this is as much about them as it is me."
All in all, there were more than 200 people in the crowd, which might not sound like much, but it was more than Ugandan coach George Mukhobe had ever seen at one of his games.
"This will give the kids courage," he said. When it came time for Hoffman to throw out the first ball, she took one more deep breath and threw a perfect strike to Ugandan catcher Brian Ssegawa. Plate umpire Chuck Dufton, who had flown in from Ottawa to conduct clinics and call the game, summoned the coaches and told them, "Let's have fun out there."
Mukhobe used six pitchers in the game, one for each inning, and the first, David Arago, wore his black-and-yellow shirt inside out so that the No. 4 was backwards. But there was nothing wrong with his pitching. His first pitch to leadoff hitter Nick Atkinson was a strike, and he got through the inning 1-2-3. The Ugandans like to throw the ball crisply around the horn even after the third out.
Langley's starting pitcher was Yi-An Pan, one of the lanky identical twin brothers who helped Canada beat Taiwan in the Little League World Series, in part because they are Taiwanese and know the language. They're also very talented, and Yi-An struck out the first two Ugandan batters. But then Brian walked, Ivan singled to right and Solomon Gingo hit a ball to first base that took a bad hop. The bases were loaded. Brian scored on a wild pitch to Arnold Ahebwa, whom Yi-An eventually struck out. Uganda 1, Canada 0.
That score stood until the sixth and last inning. But that didn't mean there wasn't any action. Canada threatened in the top of the second against Adrian Lutaya. In the bottom of that inning, Jonah hit what normally would be a two-out single to center. But because it took a totally unpredictable bounce past the outfielders, it could only rightly be scored as a triple. After Abooki Barugahare, the smallest player on the field, reached on a catcher's interference, Kenneth Mugaya came to the plate.
This presented an interesting situation because Kenneth, who was raised at the Mama Jane orphanage in Jinja, and Langley catcher Connor McCreath had become the best of friends. In fact, the Ugandan players were so comfortable with Connor that they would ask him, "What's my name?" every time they came to the plate. "I think he got nine out of 10 right," said Dufton, the umpire. When Kenneth stepped into the box, Connor told him, "Good luck today. By the way, we're going to strike you out."
They didn't get a chance to -- Connor threw out Abooki trying to steal second to end the threat.
In the top of the third, the other Canadian twin, Yi-Fan Pan, hit a shot to center that ended up as a triple. But George Bekunda got Cole Cantelon to ground out, stranding Yi-Fan. Kenneth did not strike out in the bottom of the third, but he did make an out on a nice 1-3 play by Yi-An, who left after that inning with six strikeouts.
Solomon walked Yi-An to start the fourth, but then struck out Connor and Riley Ens. After the second strikeout, Yi-An tried to steal second and got caught in a perfectly executed rundown -- the Ugandans call it a "circus," and their fans demonstrated their inside knowledge of the game by applauding as if they were at one.
Yi-Fan took over on the mound and struck out the first two batters. Then Ivan hit a ball along the right-field line that bounded down a hill for a ground-rule double. He stole third, but Yi-Fan struck out Solomon to end the inning.
Augustus Owinyi breezed through the top of the fifth. Yi-Fan walked Arnold Ahebwa to start the bottom of the inning, then gave up a misplayed single that lured Arnold home, where Connor tagged him out on a beautifully executed relay.
Yes, the Ugandans are good. So are the Canadians, who were undermanned -- they brought 10 players, and one of them couldn't play because of heat stroke -- but were finally getting their sea legs.
Ivan, who was saved for last because he's Uganda's best pitcher, retired the first two batters in the top of the sixth. So the Canadians were one out away from a 1-0 loss when Cole hit a ball that handcuffed Augustus at first and resulted in a two-base error. Yi-An then hit a ground-rule double down the right-field line to tie the score. He might've scored on Connor's subsequent bloop single to right, but he didn't get a good two-out jump. Ivan struck out Riley to end the inning.
There it stood, 1-1 in the bottom of the sixth. The tallest player on the field (Yi-Fan) versus the shortest (Abooki.) The team with resources versus the team without. Just like in the movies, Abooki stroked a solid single, and then stole second. Yi-Fan got the next two batters, though Abooki advanced to third on a fielder's choice. That brought Augustus to the plate.
Augustus had made the error that opened the door for the Canadians in the sixth, but his at-bat was about a little more than redemption. He had been on the 2010 team that went to the Africa/Middle East regionals in Kutno, Poland, only to be told he was too young to play. And he was one of the members of the 2011 team that beat perennial winner Saudi Arabia in the regionals, only to be told they couldn't travel to the U.S. without proper age documentation. Fate kind of owed him.
He singled between first and second, and Abooki raced home, well ahead of the throw. Uganda 2, Canada 1. The Ugandan players picked up Abooki (which wasn't hard) and carried him around. As fans streamed down from the hill to join in the celebration, Cantelon gathered his Canadian players and told them how proud he was of them and how lucky they all were to be a part of this. Coach George wandered off into the outfield, overcome with emotion.
And then, suddenly, the players took off into the outfield, Ugandans followed by Canadians, sliding just for the pure joy of it.
Exhausted, they came back in for the medal ceremony and a team picture -- not two team pictures, but one team picture. They conducted interviews with media members who had never actually seen a game before. After gathering up their equipment -- the Ugandans had been given new bat bags by Easton -- they wandered back to the lunch pavilion together and ate alongside each other: black-and-yellow shirts mixed with white-and-red ones.
They'll play again later this week, near the source of the Nile in Jinja, but not before going on a safari together at Lake Mburo National Park. The trip will be as eye-opening for the Ugandans as it will be for the Canadians because most of the players have never been able to afford to travel around their own country.
As for the 200 or so witnesses, well, they not only saw a great game -- "I especially liked it that the little guy scored the winning run," Rollins said -- but a great beginning.
Call it the Ugandan start.
The Ugandan team finally got to face a team from Langley, British Columbia, in an exciting game that was supposed to have been played at the Little League World Series five months ago in Williamsport, Pa.