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Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins and his younger sister Shay joined documentary filmmaker Jay Shapiro and his crew in mid-January for the Pearl of Africa Series, a tour sponsored by Right To Play that centered around a game between a Little League team from Langley, British Columbia and one from Kampala coached by George Mughobe. But as Jimmy's daily journal shows, the trip was about more than just a game.
AFTER A LONG TRIP in from JFK and a 9-hour layover in Turkey, we finally landed at Entebbe airport in Uganda at 2 a.m. Everyone's bag made it safely, that's very important. No bags, no cameras, no clothes, no documentary! & We arrive at the Sheraton in the center of Kampala. The top of the hotel is decorated with lights and the guards at the gate mean business.
There is an iron gate blocking one side, so the two lanes are merged down to one, and there is a manned arm pole that is a second line of defense. The guard checks us out, asks the driver a question or two, then passes us through. I also noticed the soldier with an AK47 sitting on the side of the building as we passed. We can finally check in, get to our rooms, shower and get some rest. This day is far from over. No sleep for the weary!
After a few hours of rest, I wake up and take a look around to see what type of view I have from my room. The first thing I notice are all the trees and birds soaring in the sky searching for food. Then I look down and see the hustle and bustle of the city. The boda-boda's, men on motorcycles that act as taxis for the right price, people walking to and from work, employees from the hotel checking in through the guard gates and a man tucked under the shade from the trees facing east, practicing his Muslim religion.
We turn into Coach George's driveway. Through the shirts hanging outside on a clothesline, I see a man in his baseball uniform pacing back and forth. I can't see his face, but I know exactly who it is. As we open the door to let ourselves out, a shirtless young boy runs up to the van, glances at me and makes a beeline to the back seat where my sister Shay is sitting. I have never seen a smile so big on a 5-year-old's face as was on his when he saw her. He put out his hand to help her out of the back seat, and she was instantly his guest for the rest of the day. My sister and I soon found out that the young boy was Coach George's son, Jacobo. As we made our way down the front yard, one of the young men removed a shirt to clear our path, and there he is, with a smile as bright as the African sun and arms spread wide enough to embrace all of Lake Victoria. We greet each other with hugs, exchanged a few words, and the moment is forever in my heart. I then introduce him to Shay, and of course another big hug and smile for her, and he then turns and introduces her to his family. Wife, children, sister, cousin and the two coaches, Jimmy and Aaron, who live with him in his very small house. He then turns in the direction of the kids, who all live in the ghetto of Nsambya, and formally introduces me. They are shy at first as I introduced myself to each of them, but that would soon change.
We head out towards the field, which is a short walk from the house. The kids all grab their equipment and show us the way to the field. As we make our way there, we literally walk through people's homes and kitchens. At that point, the reality of life in the ghettos of Nsambya is unmistakable. Every five feet the women are preparing meals for their families in a tiny metal pot over a small stack of wood. The stench of the outhouses hits you right in the face. The men are playing board games or hustling up some money, but not many are present. Children are running around barefoot on the red clay, which is hard as cement and littered with trash, but this is everyday life in the ghetto. After a three-minute walk through there, a space opens up to the field that the kids use to play baseball.
As we get closer, I can see kids already out there to join the group we met at Coach George's house. But before they play, George wants to show us the ghetto the kids come from. It's amazing that these kids even know what baseball is and care enough to wake up every day, Monday through Saturday at 7 a.m., to practice and play scrimmage games. In this ghetto where just about all of them come from, the "Mother" of the place has helped raise a professional boxer, a world-ranked badminton player and now, hopefully, a major leaguer.
We finish our trip through the kids' home and make our way back to the field. It is literally a field, not a baseball field, but an open area between the ghettos that serves as a multi-purpose plot of land on which they play baseball, soccer and whatever else.
The boys and one girl break up into two teams. The older group makes up one team, and the other is made of the younger kids, and I finally get to see them play ball with my own two eyes. No TVs, no fans, no parents, no in-game entertainment, just the occasional passer-by who is enjoying the game and decides to watch from the sidelines. The joy on their faces from playing a game that is new to their lives, a game they believe one day will provide a way for them out of poverty, a game that they love, was all I needed to see to know that baseball is real to them.
Given the circumstances, the boys and girl play a decent brand of baseball. The talent is undeniable. With proper coaching, these kids will be just as good if not better than the American kids. Not because they are more talented, but because they are hungry and dedicated to learn all they can absorb. They practice and play from the time they wake up till they can no longer see the ball. Ivan, one of the boys who played on the 2010 LL team, is the best player on the field. When he was 6, he went over to Japan with some of the Japanese peace corps workers. Although he lives in an equipment shack with his grandmother, he is the most fortunate in baseball terms. His home is located on the field where the Japanese have been putting on clinics for years, and he gets the most exposure to a higher level of baseball schooling. Many of the boys just need some good coaching and a chance on the stage that the LLWS can provide, and I believe they can be on their way.
After the three-inning scrimmage I run some drills that the players can do every day to help make them better. They take to instruction very well and rarely did I have to repeat myself. About an hour after the drills, the sun started to go down, and it was time to go. Before we left, I tried to sign everything for them that I possibly could. I also passed along my email address and look forward to receiving their emails and corresponding with them.
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