- - Friday, January 27, 2012

KAMPALA, UGANDA — When a Ugandan baseball team was denied U.S. visas last summer to play in the Little League World Series, Ruth Hoffman swung into action.

The Ugandan squad was the first African team to qualify for the contest, and they were to play a Canadian team from British Columbia.

But some of the boys — in a country where even the president is not sure of his age — turned out to be too old to play under Little League rules.

“I was overcome with emotion, a sense of injustice, that here were a group of young players who had worked hard to earn the right to compete in the World Series — and through no fault of their own — were denied this opportunity,” said Mrs. Hoffman, a Canadian mother of teenage twin ballplayers.

“The idea to play the game came to me right away,” she added, explaining how she started a fund-drive with the nongovernmental organization Right to Play to pay for the Canadians to travel to Uganda.

The game between the two teams was played on the outskirts of Kampala on Tuesday, in what was dubbed the Pearl of Africa World Series. The Ugandan team, known as the Rev. John Foundation team, won by a score of 2-1.

The Canadian team’s visit and the pregame controversy helped boost the profile and promise of baseball in Uganda.

Mrs. Hoffman and Right to Play have so far raised $136,000 to help nurture baseball in this East African nation.

Money not used to cover the travel costs of the Canadian players and coaches on the trip to Uganda will go toward building a playing field in the Nsambya neighborhood of this dusty capital, she said.

Leftover funds will also cover education costs for players and transportation expenses so teams in Uganda can play against each other.

The Canadian visit has also attracted current and former Major League Baseball players Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies, Derek Lee of the Baltimore Orioles and Gregg Zaun, who retired in 2010 from the Milwaukee Brewers.

They have been teaching the Ugandan kids some fundamentals of the game like running through first base instead of sliding into it. The players missed such basics because of a shortage of quality coaching.

Many of the kids have not even seen a professional game and have had few if any Major League Baseball players to look up to until now.

When asked who his favorite baseball player was, Jonathan Kizza, 13, a second baseman for the Ugandan team said, “Jimmy Rollins. … ‘Cause he’s here.”

Mr. Rollins, through his Jimmy Rollins Family Foundation, has donated $10,000 toward developing baseball in Uganda.

Wilson Sporting Goods has offered to sell $45 gloves at $10 a pop. Uganda Little League Baseball’s website says 15,000 children are sharing about 700 gloves. Balls and bats have been donated. Baseball scouts are set to come over.

The Ugandan Ministry of Sports and Education plans to launch a school devoted specifically to the development of baseball talent.

Some, like Mrs. Hoffman, are betting the Ugandan team could make it to the Little League World Series as early as this year.

Others are more cautiously optimistic. Chief among them the man who helped kick-start baseball in Uganda, Richard Stanley, an owner of the Trenton Thunder, a New Jersey minor league team.

In 2002, Mr. Stanley helped start Uganda Little League Baseball. He funded the construction of three playing fields, dormitories and a dining hall near Kampala.

Mr. Stanley solicited support from Major League Baseball and Little League International. He also piqued the interest in African baseball among Detroit Tigers President Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland.

Mrs. Hoffman, a certified accountant, says she is confident the money pouring in is going to be used for its intended purpose.

“Right to Play is as rigorous about where the money goes as I am,” she said, adding she is confident baseball has a very bright future in Africa’s Pearl.



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