Source: South Williamsport, Pa.
Date: Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012
Ever wonder what others are doing while you're fast asleep in the wee hours of the morning? While most 11- and 12-year-olds are fast asleep as the sun rises, the boys from Lugazi, Uganda Little League are awake and making their way down to the batting cages.
Why you may ask? The answer is simple: for the love of the game.
"My favorite part of this experience is playing baseball and hitting in the batting cages," said player Stephen Lematia. Hitting in a batting cage is something most players here in South Williamsport do on a daily basis, but not the boys from Uganda.
"The first time these boys saw a batting cage was in Poland," said coach Richard Stanley. "It's a prized possession to them and they would spend every waking minute in there if they could."
The journey to South Williamsport has been an exciting one that has seen a lot of firsts for the boys from Uganda. However, as great as these firsts have been, they would not have been possible without the generosity and dedication from Stanley.
Stanley, an adjunct chemistry professor at Wagner College, travels to and from Uganda three times a year to run clinics and teach players and coaches how to coach and play the game. He has been doing this since 2002. Upon his five-week arrival in May, he became involved with the team and began teaching the players and coaches' proper fundamentals of the game.
"They had to learn everything," said Stanley. "Throwing, adjusting, base running, pitch selection, you name it."
Prior to Stanley's involvement, the kids who played didn't use much strategy in playing baseball.
"The mentality was that as long as you threw it hard it didn't matter where it went, and as long as you swung as hard as you could, that was good enough," he added.
The boys loved learning and practiced many hours a day, even when they had a game, simply because they love baseball.
After making progress in their skills, the boys participated in a tournament in Uganda comprised of five different leagues. The many hours of practice and their hard work paid off as they won the championship game, 3-2, and earned a berth to the Middle East-Africa Regional tournament in Kutno, Poland. However, this is where this amazing journey would have ended without the generosity of Stanley, as traveling to Poland was going to be very expensive.
Fortunately, Stanley was willing to pay the cost to transport 13 boys and three coaches to Poland, a cost most people significantly underestimate. How much did it cost? Try $35,000.
"The cost of passports, visas, plane tickets, hotels, food and other costs add up pretty quick," said Stanley. "A visa costs $75 a person."
Aside from the costs, getting passports and all of the written permission from the parents was a process in itself, as well.
The cost and time spent getting the paperwork done was well worth it though as the boys were able to play on the second real field they had ever seen and ultimately end up winning regionals, earning a berth to the 66th Little League Baseball World Series as the first team ever from Africa.
Last year, a native Uganda team won the Middle East-Africa Regional, but their visas got denied for inconsistencies with the paperwork.
"Just a few weeks earlier, the boys had never seen a baseball diamond," said Stanley. "They played on open fields with little grass, a lot of rocks, and cardboard bases."
This is almost unheard of in the United States, but in Uganda where there is very little equipment, the boys are happy as long as they have somewhere to play the game they love.
"Coming to the United States is a dream to these kids. They have made so many friends, I can't even describe how great it has been."-- Uganda Coach Richard Stanley
Making it to the Little League World Series is a huge deal to these boys and coaches.
"Coming to the United States is a dream to these kids. They have made so many friends, I can't even describe how great it has been," added Stanley.
The players themselves aren't taking the trip for granted at all.
"It's a dream come true," said player Rolence Okonzi. "Many people want to be here but can't."
The journey from Lugazi, Uganda to South Williamsport was not a short trip as it took almost 24 hours to make the 4,000 mile voyage.
The journey began with a nearly nine hour flight from Entebbe Airportin Uganda to Amsterdam. Upon arrival, they sat in the airport for six hours before they boarded another nearly nine hour flight to New York. It then took two hours for everyone to make it through immigration. From there it took another four hour bus ride to make it to South Williamsport.
The firsts continued for the boys upon their arrival to the United States and South Williamsport. One of the most noteworthy firsts was when the team was given their brand new equipment, which included individual cleats, helmets, batting gloves, bats, sneakers, uniforms and caps: something they didn't have back home.
"The boys were overjoyed and very appreciative of the new equipment," said Stanley. "There is little equipment available to these boys in Uganda."
"It felt awesome when they gave us the new equipment because we each got our own things," added Okonzi. This is something these boys are not used to, as they share the very little supplies in Uganda.
Steady, abundant food is another first these boys have had the pleasure to partake in here in the United States. "The kids are eating like crazy," said Stanley. "If food is available in Uganda, you eat it. You never know when you're going to have the opportunity again."
At first, the boys were hesitant to stray away from their typical diet of bread, potatoes and rice, but they quickly learned to love the food available in the Grove, where all the players' dorms are located.
Some of the boys' favorites here are spaghetti, eggs, chicken, hot dogs and ice cream sandwiches.
"I had never tried an ice cream sandwich before and it was very good," said Okonzi as he chuckled. "Coach Stanley said it would taste good and he was right."
Although all of these are huge firsts for these boys, the biggest one they have come across was the crowd they played in front of this week at Volunteer Stadium.
"Before here, the biggest crowd they played in front of was in Poland when there were 50 people watching," said Stanley. "They were definitely nervous and distracted on Friday."
Regardless of the outcome, the boys and coaches are having an unbelievable experience here.
"Anybody that has the opportunity to be here at the Little League International complex is blessed," Stanley said. "This is a special place that can't be compared to anywhere else."
When Okonzi was asked if he will remember this experience for the rest of his life, he replied "totally."
In the boys' spare time at the Grove, they have enjoyed swimming, eating and stomping the competition from the other Little League teams on the ping pong table.
This amazing summer of firsts, made possible by coach Stanley and the hard work of the team, is one that will never be forgotten by the boys from Uganda. The smiles on their faces this week have been magical to see. They truly play for the love of the game.
Stanley hopes to continue helping young players learn the game of baseball and softball and is planning to start more leagues that can hopefully become Little League affiliated.
To learn more about the Uganda Little League team and the efforts of coach Stanley, check out the Uganda Little League website: http://www.ugandalittleleaguebaseball.org/