Commentary

Friendship and baseball

The story of two boys, two countries and how baseball brought them together

Updated: April 13, 2012, 2:33 PM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine


Mugaya Ken Kenneth: U treated mi just as yo brother i will neva 4get u

Connor McCreath: Hey how have you been. I miss you! Lots of love


[+] EnlargeConnor McCreath
Hubert KangConnor McCreath and the Canadian team made dozens of friends in Uganda.

K

AMPALA, Uganda -- A baseball looks like such a simple thing. But to make a regulation ball (5 ounces, 9 inches in circumference), four layers of yarn are wrapped around a cork core and covered by two identical hourglass-shaped pieces of white cowhide sewn together with red string -- a laborious process that requires 108 stitches.

The idea of bringing together two Little League teams from Langley, British Columbia, and Kampala, Uganda, seemed simple enough. They were supposed to have played in Williamsport, Pa., this past August after the Ugandans became the first African team to qualify for the Little League World Series.

But too many of their visas were denied because of incomplete documentation -- not surprising considering that millions of people in Uganda don't know their birthdays.

So, after reading about the heartbreak of the Ugandan players, a Vancouver accountant and activist named Ruth Hoffman decided to organize an 8,500-mile road trip to correct the injustice. After all, we are part of the same big ball (6.58 sextillion tons, 24,901.55 miles in circumference). She spent four months and countless hours raising funds, soliciting sponsorships, soothing apprehensive parents and making plans in conjunction with the humanitarian organization Right To Play. The Canadian contingent finally arrived at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, on the night of Jan. 14 for the "Pearl of Africa Series."

That was the easy part. Somebody still needed to do the sewing.

Enter Connor McCreath. He is 13 and the starting catcher for the team from Langley. "He's always been a kind of natural leader," says his mother, Jen McCreath, an event planner. "Because I'm a single mom, he's developed a certain independence."

Or, as Connor puts it, "I'm loud, and my teammates are shy."

The two teams met Jan. 15 and shared a practice at the unlikely baseball complex built by American businessman Richard Stanley in Nakirebe, 25 miles southwest of Kampala. But the players were still reluctant to mingle when they met again later that evening for dinner and entertainment at the Ndere Cultural Center in Kampala. Connor plopped himself down at the Ugandans' table and started talking. "That was so Connor," Jen says.

Asked what he talked about, Connor says, "Oh, just stuff. What music do you like? What's school like here? Who's your favorite baseball player? I showed them some of the games on my smartphone. They really liked 'Rat On A Skateboard.'" It wasn't long before the other Canadian kids picked up on their catcher's signal and started making new friends.

Language was not a problem -- most of the Ugandan players speak English fairly well. In fact, they speak and write it with a formality that borders on the poetic. "Baseball has given me opportunities that are to change my life," says Kenneth Mugaya, a pitcher and second baseman. "For sure, I encourage my brothers to play baseball so that they can experience what I have experienced in life."

And all of the Ugandan kids speak baseball. "We knew from the first practice that they knew as much about baseball as we did," Connor says. Given the lack of resources and the competition for athletes to play more popular sports such as soccer, rugby and cricket, it's amazing how good the Ugandan players have become in a relatively short period of time. But teachers from the Japanese peace corps (JICA) and dedicated coaches such as George Mughobe, who learned the game from missionaries, have nurtured fertile plots that one day might yield a player good enough to make the majors. The Ugandans also have another thing going for them. As Jimmy Rollins, the Philadelphia Phillies shortstop who made the trip, says, "They love the game in a way we've almost forgotten."

[+] EnlargeConnor McCreath and Mugaya Ken Kenneth
Hubert KangConnor and Kenneth at lunch with their teammates.

But there is one overwhelming divide between the two squads. The Canadians all live in comfortable homes; Ivan Luyombya, the best Ugandan player, lives with his grandmother and six other relatives in what was once an equipment shed at Kyambogo University, without water, electricity or even windows. Each of the 10 Canadian kids had one or more parents with them; only four of the 12 Ugandan players have a parent who watches their games.

Take Kenneth. Because of the scourge of AIDS, he was left in the care of his grandmother when he was 4 or 5 years old. One day, when he was 6, she drove him to the Mama Jane Orphanage in Jinja, a town near the source of the Nile. He never saw her again.

But he did find a home at Mama Jane and a school at St. Noa Mawaggali and baseball. And then a friend from Canada. "From the moment I saw the two of them together," Jen says, "I knew they were kindred spirits."


Kenneth: How is school in Canada?

Connor: Very good. Hey, how have you been? I miss you!

Kenneth: In Africa, life is a struggle, but life is good, though I miss u. Nice time


[+] EnlargeMugaya Ken Kenneth and Connor McCreath
Hubert KangJonah Kizzi, a player for Uganda, and Connor McCreath, a catcher for Canada, check out Connor's cell phone.

O

n the second full day of the tour, the two teams spent time together at the Sharing Community Center in the Nsambya ghetto of Kampala. This is the unofficial headquarters for baseball in Uganda, where many of the players learned the game under the tutelage of Mughobe. But they learned the hard way, literally -- on the concrete playground. Someday, with the help of a businessman from Oklahoma City named Trent Ward, there will be an honest-to-goodness baseball field in the vacant lot adjacent to the center. Ward, the president of WCT Resources, gave $35,000 for a new field.

On this day, after a tour of the lot and the facilities, the kids gathered for a lunchtime show in the auditorium, and you could see that the cadres had already begun to dissolve. The Canadians were sitting with the Ugandans, sharing phones and getting email addresses. The Ugandans got up onstage to show off their break-dancing moves, and so did Canadian pitcher/outfielder Nick Atkinson -- much to the delight of the audience.

But on the walk to the field at St. Peter's School, the mood quickly changed. As the Ugandan players led the way through the maze of huts and squalor and hopelessness, the Canadian contingent got a sobering glimpse at not only Africa but themselves. "How can we complain about anything when we are so lucky?" Jen says. "How can we be unhappy with all that we have, when they seem happy with so little?"

The chasm between the two worlds is daunting. That became apparent last year when the Ugandan Little League team brought its papers to the United States Embassy to get visas for the trip to Williamsport. In truth, the documentation was sloppy and incomplete, but you would need to hire a detective to find the birth dates of some of the players. And the papers had been good enough to get visas to Poland for the Africa/Middle East Regional that Uganda would win. Held to a higher standard, the documents weren't good enough. It wasn't the U.S. Embassy's fault -- the woman who gave them the bad news was in tears. Hopefully, with the assistance of Little League International and the State Department, the papers will be in order the next time the opportunity arises.

But what hurt the Ugandans the most was the knee-jerk assumption that they were trying to get away with something. That's the way adult bureaucrats think. That's not the way 13-year-old boys think. "They don't have shoes," Connor told Jay Shapiro, the director of "Opposite Field," a documentary on Ugandan baseball. "Why would they have birth certificates?"

Connor wasn't exaggerating about the shoes. One of the highlights of the pickup game that afternoon on the hard-packed field at St. Peter's was when Brenda, the lone female player, took off for first base after a third strike got by the catcher. Even barefoot, she easily beat the throw.


Jen: How are you doing in school? Is it good to be back at school?

Kenneth: Ya its good coz I meet ma other friends, it's really good

Jen: That's good to hear. We are very busy and Connor has been back playing hockey.

Kenneth: ok he told me he loves playing snow hockey. Is it easy to learn?

Jen: You need to learn to skate first. He does love playing but really loves baseball the most.

Kenneth: Baseball is my first priority.


[+] EnlargeConnor McCreath
Hubert Kang"I'm loud," says Connor, "and my teammates are shy."

F

or the big game at Nakirebe between Canada and Uganda on the third full day of the trip, the Ugandan Little Leaguers decided to test Connor's friendship. The first time each player came to the plate, he would ask the Canadian catcher what his name was. "I think he got nine out of 10 right," says Chuck Dufton, the Canadian umpire who worked the plate. Connor begs to differ: "I'm pretty sure I got 'em all right."

Either way, it was an impressive feat: After only two days, he knew Abooki and Gingo and Ivan and Jonah and Augustus and Eddy. When his new best friend, Kenneth, came to the plate in the bottom of the second with runners on first and third and two outs and Uganda leading 1-0, Connor told him, "Good luck today. By the way, we're going to strike you out."

They didn't, but only because the Ugandans also tried to test Connor's arm: He gunned down Felix Barugahare (Abooki) trying to steal second. The throw elicited oohs and ahhs from the decidedly pro-Uganda and definitely pro-baseball crowd that lined the hill surrounding the field.

The score stood at 1-0 until the top of the last regulation inning, the sixth, when Yi-An Pan doubled home Cole Cantelon with the tying run. Yi-An had pitched the first three innings and given way to his identical twin, Yi-Fan. Both Pan brothers are unusually tall (and talented), so it looked like a total mismatch when Yi-Fan pitched to Abooki, easily the smallest player on the field, to lead off the bottom of the sixth. But somehow Abooki got his bat on the ball for a clean single. As he did earlier in the game, he took off for second, but this time he beat Connor's throw. With two outs, Augustus Owinyi singled to the opposite field and Abooki came home with the winning run. The crowd -- Ugandans and Canadians alike -- loved it as Abooki was carried off the field.

The hosts do something very cool -- coach Aarone Kirya calls it "The Ugandan Finish" -- after big victories. They run into the outfield and launch themselves into all-out slides. But this time they invited the Canadians to join them, and so it was that the outfield in Nakirebe suddenly sprouted yellow-and-black and red-and-white flowers. Then all the players returned to the infield for the medal ceremony and photos.

Exhausted by the game and the sliding and the festivities, Connor packed up his catching equipment, making sure he had gotten everything. Waiting for him, so they could accompany him to lunch, were seven Ugandan players.


Gingo (Samuel): Hello, Connor how are you? I would like to thank you for everything you have done for me and Kenneth. You showed me the love that I never expected to get, but you, your mum and cantelon family illuminated my heart with love. Thank you dear. I miss you every and every day.

Connor: Samuel I have learned so much from you guys and we will be coming back! You are a very good person and so is Kenneth I miss you guys


[+] EnlargeConnor McCreath with Ugandan Players
Hubert KangConnor and the Ugandan players on the bus.

R

ight after the postgame lunch, the two teams -- one team now, really -- headed south in two buses for a safari in Lake Mburo National Park, as well as a visit to nearby Lyantonde, sponsored by Salama Shield, a Vancouver-based nongovernmental organization that helps the poor and powerless in Africa. In the course of the bus ride, many of the exhausted kids fell asleep. "One of my favorite memories of the trip is watching Connor fall asleep draped across Kenneth and Jonah," Jen says.

The morning after, the group with Kenneth and Connor went on an expedition to Lake Mburo Park, and the eyes of the Ugandan kids -- most of them had seen little of their own country -- were opened just as wide as the Canadians' as they saw zebras, impalas, warthogs, monkeys and great crested cranes (the national bird) in their own habitats.

That afternoon, Kenneth and Connor were enlisted to conduct a baseball clinic on a soccer pitch in Lyantonde, introducing the game to about 30 kids. Connor spoke and Kenneth translated his instructions into Lugandan. Following their lead, all the Little Leaguers turned into little coaches, demonstrating the basics of baseball with compassion and patience. "That was great fun," Kenneth says.

"They had never thrown a ball or swung a bat or used a glove before," Connor says, "so it was amazing to see how quickly they picked up the game. I loved the looks on their faces. They were having such a good time they were laughing."

[+] EnlargeConnor McCreath and Mugaya Ken Kenneth
Hubert Kang"We knew from the first practice that they knew as much about baseball as we did," said Connor.

The next day, Day 5, the group got a firsthand look at the good works of Salama Shield. As part of its microfinancing initiative, it provides livestock to women and children so family members can use the animals for nutrition and income generation. Connor, who's comfortable around animals -- "Goats are like dogs, really" -- pulled one goat along on a rope and presented it to a family in the village. He's less comfortable giving a speech, however. "Here is goat," he told them. On the road back to Kampala, the group stopped at the equator, where there's an actual painted line separating the Northern and Southern hemispheres. For a few dollars, you can also see a dubious demonstration of the Coriolis effect that dictates in which direction draining water will spin on each side of the equator.

By the sixth day of the tour, the stitching had taken hold. On that day, the two teams went northeast of Kampala to Jinja. The baseball field there is little more than a pasture and is so easy to miss that the last step in the directions is, "Don't cross the Nile!" But down a dusty road is where Gingo and Kenneth and many others learned to play under the sometimes strict tutelage of the JICA workers. Up the hill from the field is St. Noa Mawaggali, the school Kenneth attends.

Although school was out, it was still an inviting place with a shaded courtyard and inspirational signs above many of the doorways. On one such sign was this message: "When you were born, you cried while the world rejoiced. Live a genius successful life such that if you die, you will rejoice as the world cries. Who will cry when you die?" It's signed, "Aarone."

As it happens, Aarone is Aarone Kirya, one of Mughobe's assistant coaches. As he watched the game in progress, he remarked on how well the tour had gone, how much he liked Rollins and how proud he was of Kenneth. "It's not just about the baseball," he said. "It's about the friendships they've made." When asked whether that was what he had in mind when he wrote those words that hung above the door, he smiled and nodded.

[+] EnlargeMugaya Ken Kenneth and Connor McCreath
Hubert KangKenneth and the entire McCreath family have grown close because of baseball.

Because Connor and Jen wanted to see Kenneth's orphanage, and because the "Opposite Field" film crew wanted to shoot some footage there, and because Rollins and his sister Shay wanted to come along, and because two journalists from Rogers SportsNet in Canada had gotten wind of the trip, well, a rather sizable contingent descended upon Mama Jane's Orphanage on the other side of the Nile.

That did not sit well with the headmistress of the school, Mama Agnes. Rollins might have faced Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling without blinking, but they weren't nearly as intimidating as Mama Agnes. In truth, she was right to be annoyed at all these muzungus dropping in unannounced on her orphanage, which is usually home to 116 children, ages 3-18. But after a quiet, respectful conversation with Jay Shapiro, whom she had met on a previous visit, she ushered all of the visitors into her office and proceeded to give them a lecture on common courtesy and a history lesson on the founder of the orphanage, Mama Jane, a woman born into privilege who devoted her life to children without homes. The visitors didn't catch every word of the talk, but they did understand one thing. "Kenneth is in a good place," Jen said.

Indeed, with Kenneth as the guide, the visitors saw happy children, clean facilities and a strong emphasis on learning. His own quarters were among the nicest in the dormitory, the result of both seniority and achievement. Kenneth might have been dropped off there, unwanted, seven years before, but now he had a home and a family.

"Not bad," Connor told him. "What's your day like?"

"I leave for school at 6 and get back at 6."

"Now that sucks."

That night, the last night in Uganda for the Canadians, Jen and Connor went to visit the many Ugandan players who are staying at Mughobe's crowded house in Nsambya. "Not a lot of room," Jen said, "but a lot of love."


Eddy Adrian Lutaya: I am sad that u went back to Canada

Ken Dubois: Me, too, Eddy. I will talk to you soon.

Eddy: I am happy now and I dream of the next game with Canada


[+] EnlargeConnor McCreath and Mugaya Ken Kenneth
Hubert KangConnor and Kenneth wear each others jerseys that they traded.

T

he last day of the tour, when the two teams joined the Kyambogo Buffaloes for one more game at Kyambogo University, wasn't an easy one. The sun was bright, and Rollins and Derrek Lee were there, and the baseball was crisp and fun. But there was also the knowledge that the game and the visit were about to end, and the fear that they might never see each other again.

The McCreaths and Kenneth weren't the only people to make strong connections. Dean Cantelon, the Canadian coach, and his family grew particularly close with Gingo, whose uncle had stopped paying his school fees because he didn't approve of his playing baseball. When it came time to board the buses back to the hotel, every player found another player with whom to switch jerseys, red for black, black for red. Email addresses were confirmed one last time. (If only the Internet could provide food and water and shoes as easily as it does words.) Hugs lingered and often were repeated.

When the Canadians got home from their 24-hour journey, they all had messages waiting for them in their email boxes and on their Facebook pages. And they have continued to play catch with their friends 8,500 miles away.

[+] EnlargeConnor McCreath and Mugaya Ken Kenneth
Hubert KangKenneth and Connor bid farewell.

Families such as the McCreaths are exploring ways to sponsor American educations for the Ugandan players. Lee is funding an effort to send batting cages to Uganda. The sewing continues, one stitch at a time.

The other day, Coach Cantelon, who has sent money to Gingo for school and his mother's medicine, got this message from him: "You people are really very good and you have destroyed the shadow of sorrow that has been covering my soul. Your love has illuminated my heart. I have written a story of how I met you on the muscles of my heart. You have filled the biggest portion of my soul."


Kenneth: mis u too J en C, i think he is also hardworking, ya, coz he has a big dream to achieve

Jen: He sure does, as do we all :)


Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer