- - Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A group of Ugandan youngsters will become the first African team to play in the Little League Baseball World Series when it takes the field against Panama on Friday.

The Lugazi Little League team qualified for the finals in Williamsport, Pa., 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.

The team is under no illusion about the challenge ahead, said head coach Henry Odong, 35.

Baseball in Uganda lacks structure and resources. Organized games are spaced widely apart, and there are no backstops or cages in the country, limiting exposure for batting practice.

To compensate, Mr. Odong and his 11 players, who are all 11-year-olds, start batting practice at 6 a.m. — a full two hours before the other 15 teams start practice in Williamsport, the home of the Little League World Series since 1947.

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.

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 producing 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 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.

The discrepancy 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, major-league stars, including Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies, paid a visit to Uganda and contributed to the cause of building baseball in that country.

“Man, they can play,” Mr. Rollins said at the time.

But as the year rolled on, Uganda baseball suffered from a nasty strain of internal politicking between 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 has failed 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, said Uganda’s 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, 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 Lugazi 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 the capital, 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.

For now, coach 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 said.

“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.”

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