Uganda holds its own against the world — in Little League Baseball.
Brushing nerves aside, 11-year-old Daniel Alio focused on one goal as he stepped to the plate: reach first base without getting tagged out.
Alio got his wish — and more.
“When I made contact with the ball, it just went automatically and kept going,” Alio says months later from the 11,500-acre sugar plantation in Lugazi, Uganda, where his school is located. “It went toward the big cameras in the outfield and far beyond the fence.”
As it turned out, Alio had hit a two-run homer — one of baseball’s greatest feats — before a crowd of 5,827 wildly cheering spectators. Alio was representing Uganda as part of Africa’s first-ever team to cross the ocean and play in the 2012 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
“The fans watching our game applauded so loudly,” Alio recalls. “I was full of great happiness as I rounded the bases. When I reached home plate, my team lined up to congratulate me.
“People seeing the first African team — they were so happy. Even though we lost that game [3–9 to Panama], people wanted to take our photos and have us sign autographs. The people said, ‘Oh, you have won our hearts.’ It was amazing.”
Little League Baseball is the largest organized youth sports program worldwide, with nearly 200,000 teams registered across more than 80 countries. Of these teams, only 16 qualify for the annual World Series in Williamsport. At the 2012 tournament, eight teams came from the United States (baseball’s birthplace), with eight other teams traveling from Canada, Chinese Taipei, Curacao, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Panama . . . and Uganda.
Alio’s team is called the Lugazi Mehta Little League Team — sponsored by the Mehta Group and by Richard Stanley, a retired American businessman who, since 2002, has helped develop baseball in Uganda. Stanley served as a coach for the Uganda team at the 2012 World Series.
To earn a spot in the tournament, the team needed to clinch the Uganda National Championship and then acquire funds and legal documentation to travel to Kutno, Poland. In Poland, they had to win the Mideast and African Regional Tournament.
“When we arrived in Poland, it was a dream come true,” says Henry Odong, 35, the team manager. There, the boys surprised even themselves, defeating the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait to win the tournament.
This was an especially significant accomplishment, Odong says, because the Lugazi Mehta Little League Team consisted entirely of Ugandan players, whereas the teams they played were composed mostly of American children whose parents work in the Middle East.
With those wins, the team was on its way to the United States. Once there, the 11 boys and their coaches were showered with media coverage, parades and visits with Major League players.
The journey was not just the result of one team’s success, however; instead, it marked almost two decades of effort for Ugandan baseball.
Odong fell in love with baseball in 1994 — when a visiting American brought the sport to his secondary school in Lugazi — and he’s spent the past 19 years advancing the sport in the area. During his lunch breaks at the engineering company where he works as a store accountant, Odong solicits sponsorships and seeks permission from school administrators to teach baseball to their students.
Even in a football-loving nation, Odong says he’s found that once children try baseball, they’re hooked — hooked on the sensation of hitting the ball and watching it fly, of diving to catch the ball, of sliding into bases. “The whole thing is very interesting,” he exclaims.
Although Odong worked his players hard over the years to grow in their ball skills, he was never sure that one of his teams could make it to the pinnacle of baseball success: the Little League World Series. “I told the boys, ‘Even if we don’t get to go to America, let us continue playing because we enjoy the game.’”
So when the team found itself in Williamsport in August 2012, Odong was thrilled beyond his wildest dreams. The trip marked a milestone in Ugandan baseball. Before, he explained, “Ugandan children — including me — who played the game had nowhere to go.”
But now? “It’s possible that some of these young athletes might even develop into professional players one day.”
“Wherever we’ve introduced baseball, kids are really willing to play,” he says. Indeed, there are currently 27 active leagues playing in Uganda, 16 of which are chartered with Little League Baseball.
While young people in Uganda take immediately to the game, some parents and school officials are more hesitant, because they are not familiar with the sport. “To build understanding,” Odong explains, “we are hosting training clinics on how to coach and umpire. We want to educate adults in the game and attract their support and involvement.”
One headmaster whom Odong has already won over is Geoffrey Nuwagaba of Mehta East Primary School, where several of the Ugandan Little League players are enrolled. Nuwagaba credits baseball with putting their 1,315-pupil school, community and nation on the map.
“To me, it was a miracle that some of our students were able to travel to the United States,” Nuwagaba says with a broad smile. “I’m the headmaster and I don’t even have a visa.”
“Henry [Odong] and baseball brought prestige to our school,” he adds. “We are now known from Lugazi to America.” In return, the school is providing free education to all Little League World Series players who attend.
“We see ourselves as African ambassadors,” Alio says. “The series was not about winning the whole thing but about making history. We were the first team to ever represent Africa in the [Little League] World Series. Some people there had never heard of Uganda. Some people had heard of Uganda but did not know where it is.”
The future seems bright for young baseball players in Uganda, as fields, equipment and coaches increase across the country. Odong is hopeful, too, that as Ugandans participate in international tournaments, they will spread enthusiasm for the sport when they return.
For now, though, he’s keeping his eye on next year’s team . . . and setting their sights on August 2013 in Williamsport.