Overcoming hurdles both on and off the diamond, a group of youngsters from the small central Ugandan town of Lugazi are poised to make some hardball history Friday when they become the first African team to play in the 66-year history of the Little League World Series.
It was a long journey, in more ways than one, manager Henry Odong said.
He acknowledged that his charges face a tough challenge from the 15 other U.S. and international squads gathered at the tournament's traditional home in Williamsport, Pa.
There's not much tradition for baseball in soccer-mad Uganda, with young baseball hopefuls lacking structure, resources and, in some instances, basic equipment such as gloves and shoes. Organized games are spaced widely apart, and there are no backstops or batting cages in the country, limiting opportunities for batting practice. Off the field, Ugandan baseball has been plagued by internal politicking, a fight over resources and backing, and an embarrassing bureaucratic and visa snafu last year that kept a competing team from Kampala from making the trip after qualifying in the 2011 regional tournament.
To compensate, Mr. Odong and his 11 players, who are all 11-year-olds, started batting practice at 6 a.m. -- a full two hours before the other 15 teams start practice. By the end of the day, the children will have hit more than 600 balls each and run through a host of baseball practice drills ahead of the first-round game with Panama.
"To me, baseball means sweat, hard work, teaching how to play the game correctly," Mr. Odong, who learned baseball from Christian missionaries as a teenager, told MLB.com this week. "I like coaching because I want to see the kids play good ball and teach them my skills and ideas."
The Lugazi Little Leaguers qualified for Williamsport by beating Dubai and Qatar and Kuwait, twice, in a regional tournament last month in Poland. They lost one game to Saudi Arabia, but gave up just five runs in all five games.
Many of those teams are made up of North American children whose parents work in the Middle East. Uganda's players are all native Africans.
Whatever the outcome Friday, Uganda's showing will increase baseball's profile in the landlocked East African country, which perhaps is known most in the West for the dictator Idi Amin and the warlord Joseph Kony. About 700 boys and girls play baseball in Uganda.
The program ironically got a huge boost last summer when a Ugandan team was disqualified from the 2011 Little League World Series because several players' birth certificates were inaccurate, possibly forged. Organizers suspected that some of the children were older than 13, the top age for the tournament, and the State Department refused to issue visas because of discrepancies in the players' applications.
The disqualification, which received wide publicity, was seen as no fault of the players, and international donations poured in -- more than $130,000 and mountains of new gloves, balls, shoes, helmets and bats. In January, U.S. Major League stars, including Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies, visited Uganda and contributed to the cause of building baseball in that country.
"Man, they can play," Rollins said at the time.
Even while trying to recover from the 2011 debacle, Uganda baseball suffered from a nasty strain of internal political infighting among organizers and allegations of misappropriation and mismanagement.
Construction of a ball field that was to have been completed by now in a Kampala slum has been postponed indefinitely. Equipment supplies have dwindled, with one team's storage facility reduced to one bat, two gloves and a single ball. The government failed to follow through on plans to make baseball a top sporting priority.
Richard Stanley, a part owner of the New York Yankees AA-affiliate the Trenton Thunder, who started Little League in Uganda in 2002, has poured a reported $2 million into trying to popularize baseball in Uganda and open a training academy. He said Lugazi's breakthrough entry into the World Series opens the door to new possibilities.
"The government can't deny this exists now," said the retired chemical engineer from Staten Island, N.Y., who is on hand in Williamsport to help with coaching.
The Mehta Group, which owns many of the sugar plantations around Lugazi, has tentatively agreed to build a playing field for the local team after it returns from the World Series. Uganda has just three playing fields built exclusively for baseball -- all built and funded by Mr. Stanley, 20 miles west of Kampala.
Timothy Magala Semakula of the National Council of Sports said Ugandan baseball needs more than donor and corporate support. The sport must have better strategic planning, responsible budgeting, more grass-roots support and fundraising projects.
Otherwise, "we'll leave no trail of tangible results behind," he predicted.
The field in Williamsport is divided into eight U.S. teams and eight international teams. The 11-day tournament is double-elimination until the final weekend, when U.S. and international champions are crowned to face off for the World Series title. For now, Mr. Odong said, his team is the envy of the players' peers back home.
"Some thought it was a joke when we told them we made it. Now all the kids [not just baseball players] want to play ball," he said.
When the Lugazi team defeated Kuwait 5-2 in Poland to qualify for the tournament, some of the Kuwaiti players started crying, Mr. Odong recalled.
"We didn't really understand that. Losing happens," he said.
After the team reached the Little League World Series, he understood why the Kuwaiti players cried.
"Now we see," he said. "Missing out on this is a reason to cry."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.