The Little League World Series began Friday, kicked off by a 4-1 win by a team from Uganda over a team from the Dominican Republic. On the surface, it's a huge upset: More than 10 percent of MLB players are Dominican-born, while there has never been an MLB player born in Uganda, or, for that matter, the entire continent of Africa.
But it's not necessarily a fluke. Ugandan baseball is young and has faced a lot of obstacles. But these kids have gotten really good really fast, and they aren't going away any time soon.
Uganda qualified by winning the Europe-Africa regional tournament, held in Kutno, Poland. That regional title is somewhat of a misnomer. The tournament featured 13 teams from Europe and one from Africa -- the Ugandans. And that one team from Africa absolutely dominated, winning all six of its games, five by mercy rule, leaving the tournament with a combined score of 67-2.
Twenty-five years ago, there was no baseball in Uganda: no fields, no bats, no gloves, no pitchers, no hitters. The sport really started in earnest in 2002, when Richard Stanley, an American businessman who is a partial owner of the Yankees Double-A affiliate, the Trenton Thunder, was in the country to help the country grow its vegetable oil industry. A government official asked him to help kickstart the country's baseball infrastructure, and he wrangled enough starter kits from the MLB and Little League to start four teams, via Boston.com:
Two years of shipping and bureaucratic issues later, the country held its first-ever official baseball tournament. A curious thing happened there: After pairing the teams for a semifinal round and then holding a championship between the winners, the kids asked to play each of the teams they hadn't yet played, one after the other. The marathon tournament finally ended six hours after it started.
"This is what impressed me," Stanley said. "They just want to play. ‘Give me a chance, let us play,' and again, you don't see that in America."
Stanley kept going. Soon, there was a baseball complex with five fields near the capital, Kampala, and a boarding school bearing his name providing scholarships for athletically gifted Ugandan children.
But even that wasn't enough to get them playing internationally. Raising money to travel to international tournaments, like the qualifiers in Poland, was a problem. Getting visas for those tournaments was a problem, as NPR detailed:
Parents or guardians had to sign documents, which meant 10-hour bus rides home for some kids. The regional tournament, meanwhile, was in Poland, which has no Ugandan embassy, so kids took other buses to neighboring Kenya for visas.
"Kids have to miss days of school just to get their visas," says (head coach Bernard) Adei.
And Little League rules prevented players who lived at boarding schools from participating, emphasizing leagues based in players' hometowns. That rule was eventually dropped, and the Ugandan team won their regional qualifying tournament for the first time in 2011. But they couldn't get visas to travel to Williamsport, and the tournament organizers replaced them with a Saudi Arabian team.
In 2012, the Ugandans qualified again and became the first African team to make it to Williamsport, but they were overmatched -- Adei says the players had never seen a curveball. They beat a team Oregon in a consolation bracket game, but left the tournament without any meaningful wins.
The team learned quickly. Their win over the Dominican Republic marks the first win ever in a non-consolation round by a team from the Europe-Africa region. With three trips earned to Williamsport in the past five years and today's win proving they're legit, I suspect you'll be seeing a lot of Ugandan teams at the Little League World Series in coming years.
And it's not just the boys -- a Ugandan softball team, the first African team ever at the Little League Softball World Series, finished in sixth.
And they're having a blast. From an ESPN story about their arrival in Pennsylvania:
Indeed, as the Uganda float glided through the annual Little League parade last night, the players were showered with candy and drinks, cushy balls and pins. "The kids were ecstatic," Petty said. "It was great to see them bust out their moves."
Happiest of all was Adei. He didn't get to America as a pitcher, but he is finally here as the manager of AVRS. "The people are very welcoming," he said. "I'm just so impressed with the fields and the facilities and the people. This trip is something I will never forget."
Uganda has a lot of problems. It's one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking in the bottom 20 of GDP per capita. It has human rights problems, with one of the most aggressively anti-gay governments in the world. But stories like that of this baseball team -- a group of talented kids winning games and being incredibly happy while doing it and maybe, just maybe, using baseball as a path to a better life -- make you have hope. We'll be rooting for the Ugandan squad to continue their surprising run as long they can.