- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

TEMA, Ghana — It was a dream come true for George Ntim, a Ghanaian immigrant to the United States who fell in love with baseball and now is working to bring America’s national game to his soccer-mad homeland.

Thanks to his efforts, major-league figures including New York Mets General Manager Omar Minaya, former Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker and former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Reggie Smith were in Ghana over the weekend, putting some of the country’s finest young players through their paces.

“I tell these kids, they think soccer stars are big, but imagine being the first — the Jackie Robinson of Ghana — the first from their country to play major league baseball,” said Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, who was nearly toppled by a gaggle of youngsters snapping up baseball caps and trading cards.

“Nobody forgets the first,” he said.

Tema, a port town close to the capital, was chosen for the baseball clinic because it has the nation’s only backstop in a country with fewer than a dozen baseball diamonds.

The bleachers were rows of plastic chairs with red and blue canopies to block the African sun. No one was selling peanuts or popcorn, but women arrived with huge trays of boiled eggs and pepper sauce atop their heads, while men on bicycles sold ice cream, thick meat pies and coconuts.

“We’re really at the grass roots of baseball,” Mr. Minaya said as he watched a teenager slide into second base. “You can see how much they want to learn, and go beyond that. It’s really to plant the seeds for the future.”

Mr. Ntim beamed as he looked on. “This is the man who makes the contracts, so if you play well, he’ll take you back to the States and get you to play for his team,” he told the dozens of players, who wore T-shirts emblazoned with Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees logos.

“Sport is the one thing that kids are drawn to, in some cases to take their minds off their poverty, in other cases just to enjoy life,” said Patrick “P.C.” Cline, a missionary who coaches a T-ball league and who recalls the nation’s first encounter with baseball nearly 15 years ago.

A group of children showed up wearing flip-flops and dusty T-shirts, smiling shyly as they tried on borrowed ball gloves, he recalled. They marched up to the T-ball stand, giggling and swinging the bat as if they were trying to destroy the ball.

Hitting straight came later. Pitching came halfway through the first season. An organized youth league that started play two years ago already has 2,000 children on its roster. The league hopes to compete in the Little League World Series in another year.

The talent shown Saturday impressed the American visitors.

“The kids are much further along than we thought,” said Mr. Winfield, who played for six teams and is now the vice president of the San Diego Padres.

“Everybody doesn’t play soccer, or American football. This is another option to stay healthy and learn about life,” he said, adding that some Ghanaians could win baseball scholarships at American colleges.

Mr. Ntim, the guest-relations manager at the Marriott Hotel in New York’s Times Square, organized the trip through the African Development Foundation, a nonprofit he founded in 2003 to help strengthen relations between Africa and the United States.

Mr. Ntim knew nothing about baseball when he left Ghana for the U.S. in 1982. Everything he knows about the game grew out of a friendship with Alfonso Soriano, who was struggling to succeed when they met. Mr. Soriano, who played last season with the Washington Nationals, signed an eight-year, $136 million contract in November with the Chicago Cubs.

Mr. Ntim said he saw Mr. Soriano and other players from the Dominican Republic coming up through the majors and thought, “Why can’t the average kid in Ghana do the same?” So he started making annual pilgrimages back to Ghana, carrying with him $100,000 worth of mitts, catcher’s gear, running shoes and helmets donated by Spalding and Adidas.

League participation is free and all equipment is provided. Players simply show up and play.

“We used to see it as a game that belonged to a certain place, but when you see the skills, you can see it’s getting to a place where we can have it here, too,” said Tema Mayor David Quaye Annan.

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