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SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- The 8th Annual Grand Slam Parade in downtown Williamsport was a little different this year. Oh, the spectators were again four deep behind the lawn chairs on West 4th Street to celebrate the start of the Little League World Series, and the marching bands, cheerleaders, furry creatures and floats provided what the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce calls "Americana at its best."
What distinguished this parade from the others, though, were the players in the crimson uniforms waving from the float shared by the teams from the U.S. Southwest Region and the Mideast and Africa Region. They were the ones from Lugazi, Uganda, a town 30 miles east of the capital of Kampala, and as they smiled and mugged and threw candy alongside their counterparts from San Antonio, Texas, the spectators on the mile-long route gave the first African team to play in Williamsport the warmest of receptions. After all, the Little League World Series is now a little bigger -- and the world is a little smaller.
"Go get 'em, Uganda!"
"Welcome to America!"
"Good luck, Lugazi!"
The Ugandans will need a little luck since their last real game was a month ago, they have only 11 players, they have never performed in front of a crowd and their first game on Friday (5 p.m. ET) is against a more experienced team from Panama. But they won't lose for lack of trying, or practice. Some 12 hours before the parade, at 6:15 a.m. in the Little League complex in South Williamsport, they marched down from their dormitory rooms in the players' village known as The Grove to the batting cages behind their coaches, Henry Odong and Richard Stanley.
Both of them speak to the origins of baseball in Uganda. Odong, who's known as Bouncer because of his size, is one of the country's pioneer players, taught by Christian missionaries. He even named one of his sons Glen after one of those missionaries, the late Glen Johnson. Bouncer traveled to Williamsport with a photo album tracing his own involvement in the development of Ugandan baseball. "I need to thank so many people," he says, and to that end, he has been busy writing thank-you messages on poster boards in the hopes that they will be seen on international television -- the baseball fans of Lugazi will be watching the first game live on ESPN2 at the Patron Hotel at midnight on Saturday.
Stanley, a chemical engineer and the 69-year-old part-owner of the Class AA Trenton Thunder, is the old-style benefactor of Uganda baseball, having built a baseball complex and village near Mpigi, a town east of Kampala. He also funded the past three trips to the MEA Regional tournament in Kutno, Poland, each at a cost of about $30,000, to bring attention to the talent in Uganda and build a bridge to America.
The first two trips ended in heartbreak. After thinking they had made the championship game in 2010, the players from the Nsambya ghetto of Kampala had to be told they had been eliminated because of an arcane tiebreaking rule. Last year, the same team beat the perennial MEA representatives from Saudi Arabia in the title game only to later be denied visas because of inadequate age documentation. So the Arabian American team from Daharan went again.
For the 2012 regional, Stanley sent a team from Lugazi, a sugar town largely run by the Mehta Corporation. In the championship game, the Ugandans beat a team from Kuwait 5-2, and this time the state department issued them visas.
Now, the sometimes tone-deaf Stanley can be described as a piece of work, but put the stress on "work" because he is as tireless as he is devoted. He's not only the timekeeper and gatekeeper for the team, but also the left-hander who throws every pitch in the batting cage.
But what's clear from the practice later that morning is that the trip to Uganda is not about Stanley or Bouncer. It's about Ronald Olaa, Justine Makisimu, Stephen Lematia, Job Echon, Felix Enzama, Tonny Okello, Andrew Namwanjja, Daniel Alio, Tom Agaku, Rolence Okonzi and Fred Ojerku. These are the newly visible children of Uganda, kids who take joy in baseball, whether it's on the luscious diamonds of Williamsport or the hard-packed lot they share with soccer players in Lugazi. The laughter, the delight in besting one another, the hustle down to first on a missed third strike are the same in either place.
Felix, who goes by Fefe, is probably the best player on the Ugandan team, a pitcher/shortstop/catcher with a quick and powerful bat. Even though all the players now have baseball shoes, Felix still prefers to practice barefoot, hitting liners off Bouncer, running around the bases with abandon, frustrating Stanley when he steps to the plate left-handed -- "You hit a homer in Poland right-handed!" -- only to hit yet another line drive.
It says something about Felix, and the world we live in, that his favorite player is Nick Punto, the Red Sox utility infielder. Felix told Jay Shapiro, a documentary filmmaker who has been following Ugandan baseball for several years, that he saw Punto, then with the Twins, on a DVD a few years ago and "liked his energy."
The Ugandans also like giving each other nicknames. Justine is Chulu. Tonny is Jack Sparrow. Ronald is Hustler -- don't challenge him in pingpong. Job is Uncle Pee. And Tom, the smallest of the players, is Kamunguluze, which means Dizzy.
The other day, the Ugandans shared a practice field with a team from Fairfield, Conn., that is representing New England. "What a great experience," says Bill Meury, the Fairfield coach. "They have some naturally talented players with really good arms, but what I truly enjoyed seeing was the fun they had. It was a good lesson for our players -- you see the Ugandans practicing without shoes, or one shoe for whatever reason, and you're reminded of what the game is all about."
As it happens, the Ugandans were the first team to arrive at Williamsport, pulling in the night of Aug. 9 after two eight-hour flights separated by a seven-hour layover, and then a three-hour bus ride. Waiting to meet them were their two volunteer hosts, Gary Weaver and Frank Missigman. Known as "uncles" or "aunts," the hosts take care of each team, coordinating schedules and watching over the players, coaches and parents. Weaver, a Methodist minister who has been an uncle for 17 years, says, "As soon as I found out that Uganda was the team I would be hosting, I started studying up. Did you know that the Ugandan national anthem is the shortest in the world? Sometimes they play it twice to fill up the time."
Among the first things the Ugandans taught Weaver was the useful Lugandan phrase, Nko ma wo: I'll be right back. But all of the kids speak English, if shyly, and as more and more new players arrived, the Ugandans actually made them feel at home. Almost every opposing player who passes by them on the property waves. "They've helped speed up the socializing in The Grove," says Weaver. "You know what I noticed? On the Monday night of the first week, I saw the same kind of camaraderie between teams that you usually don't see until Friday of the second week."
For all the harmony Weaver sees, there is a cultural circumstance that separates this team from all the others he's hosted. "Parents provide so much of the Little League experience," he says. "In years past, I've tried to honor that by calming them down, doing them favors, even saving seats for them at the parade. But this time around, we have no parents. Less work maybe, but it is a little sad that these wonderful kids don't have their families here to share this with them."
Their families, mostly single-parent, are back in Lugazi, far too poor to travel. The per capita income in Uganda is $1,300 -- one of the lowest in the world. The housing in Lugazi can't hold up to the rain, and it rains a lot. Electricity and water are never taken for granted.
So imagine what it's like to be plucked from Lugazi one day and deposited at Volunteer Stadium the next, filming an ESPN segment with Nomar Garciaparra. That's what happened to Justine and Ronald when they, along with players from the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast Regions, were chosen to help him demonstrate some fundamentals.
But they both took it in stride, following Garciaparra's instructions perfectly. When Ronald was introduced to Garciaparra, he told Nomar that he had heard of him through the Internet, but that he was surprised when he saw him because he thought his name was Japanese, like Nomo. "Then he told me how he got his name," said Ronald. "It's his father's name backwards. That's cool."
Garciaparra was equally excited to meet the Ugandans -- he noted on a Williamsport broadcast two years ago that they were on the cusp of making the LLWS. "It's great anytime a new team makes it here," he says. "But this is a new continent. I just hope they realize that their success in Williamsport won't depend on wins and losses. It's about the friends they'll make in The Grove, and showing the face of Uganda to the rest of the world. This isn't the last time Africa will be represented."
As they say in Uganda, Nko ma wo.