A Potential Baseball Powerhouse Blossoms in Uganda

Richard Stanley believes Uganda can one day produce as many professional baseball players as the Dominican Republic.

Aug 23 2015, 3:01pm

Photo courtesy Little League Baseball and Softball

"Eventually, Uganda will long surpass the Dominican Republic as far as number and quality of [baseball] players."

The person who said this out loud, and truly believes it, is an intelligent and reasonable man with a more than basic understanding of baseball, even though his quote suggests otherwise. Richard Stanley, a Brooklyn native who worked as a chemical engineer for Proctor & Gamble for 22 years, is part owner of the minor league Trenton Thunder, the Yankees Class AA affiliate. For the last decade, Stanley has devoted himself to growing Little League baseball in the African nation of Uganda.

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Stanley's bold quote was uttered about a week before the Ugandan Little League team—represented mostly by players from the boarding school Stanley built—arrived in Williamsport this week for the second ever appearance by a Ugandan (and any African) team in the Little League World Series. It was said more than a week before, on Friday, the Ugandan little league team upset the Dominican Republic 4-1, a result that has thrust the team into the international spotlight.

In the win, Ugandan pitcher Francis Alemo dominated with a fastball that reached 77 MPH, and with a knee buckling curveball that froze several Dominican hitters. He even lined a two-run double into left center field, and then used his speed to score from second base on a dropped third strike. Alemo, who has only been playing baseball for a few years, looked like all of the characters from the movie Major League rolled into one, and Uganda looked every bit the team that Stanley had described.

Uganda's 4-1 win against the Dominican Republic on Friday heightened expectations. Photo courtesy Little League Baseball and Softball

This one game was enough to make you believe that perhaps Stanley didn't sound so crazy, after all.

In fact, maybe Uganda could become a baseball powerhouse because there are kids in the country now playing competitive baseball year round; because this Little League team is led by three pitchers who regularly throw harder than 70 MPH; because the team destroyed every opponent at the Europe-Africa regional tournament in which one Ugandan pitcher retired 15 batters on 15 strikeouts in a five-inning win, while another threw a no-hitter. Most jaw dropping was that Stanley said that Uganda's best pitcher—who is only 10 years old, and therefore not eligible to play in Williamsport—has been clocked throwing 76 MPH.

Friday's win against the Dominican only heightened those beliefs, although there is a caveat. Top young Dominican players don't actually play Little League. Before Friday, no Dominican team had appeared in Williamsburg since 1996. Most top young Dominican players are preparing to sign professional contracts when they are eligible at age 16. They start working with professional trainers who prepare them, starting as young as 10 years old, to perform well in front of Major League scouts.

And yet Friday's win was still a remarkable achievement for a country who has earned the U.S. State Department's highest terrorism rating, and has a limited baseball history. It's taken almost 15 years of work and at least hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get Ugandan baseball a couple hours of exposure on a Friday morning ESPN broadcast. But here they are, just like Stanley said they would be.

Baseball existed in Uganda prior to Stanley's 2002 arrival as part of a USAID trip. George Mukhobe, a former manager of a top Ugandan Little League team and now in his fourth year as president of the Ugandan Baseball Federation, remembers learning the game from American missionaries while in school in the mid-1990s. But back then, he says, there were only two or three baseball clubs in the entire country, and no one even thought about trying to stay involved in the game after finishing school.

During Stanley's 2002 trip, a Ugandan government official named Christopher Gashirabake saw the Americans playing makeshift baseball games and asked Stanley if he would be willing to build a baseball program in the country. "And my problem is," says Stanley. "I have a difficult time saying the word 'n-o.'"

Knowing that any national baseball program had to start at the youth levels, Stanley approached Little League Baseball, who reached out to glove manufacturer Wilson. The company supplied enough baseball equipment to start a four-team league. Stanley then went to Major League Baseball, who matched Wilson's gift. In late 2003, the International School of Uganda in Kampala—with the help of an American teacher who had built a couple backstops on opposite corners of a soccer field—held the country's first four-team Little League tournament, and crowned the Uganda's first Little League champion.

Afterward, Stanley went back to Little League and had an exchange he remembers going something like this:

"Where do we go now? We have a national champion."

"Oh, you send 'em to the regional tournament."

"Well, where's the regional tournament?"

"In Poland, in Europe."

"Why is Africa in Europe?"

"Because, that's where it is."

The process of sending a Ugandan team to Poland is unbelievably complicated: Team organizers have to gather up birth certificates and parent consent forms for the kids, many of whom come from unstable homes in towns and villages scattered across the country. Then, once all the forms have been gathered, the entire team—all the players and coaches—have to go to a Polish Embassy to apply for their visas in person. The nearest Polish Embassy to Kampala, Uganda, is in Nairobi, Kenya, a 16-hour bus ride away. Just getting to Poland for the chance at qualifying for Williamsport costs about $36,000 for both the Ugandan baseball and softball teams.

For that reason, Uganda didn't appear at the regional tournament in Poland until 2008, which Stanley describes more as an exploratory mission to see the facilities so that he could replicate them in Kampala, which he did. By 2009, Stanley had helped build a complex with dormitories to house eight teams with the intention of holding a regional tournament.

But Stanley says that Little League Baseball was unwilling to send European and Middle Eastern teams to Uganda for a tournament. Instead, they encouraged Stanley to host an Africa-only tournament. And so, that same year, teams from Tanzania, Kenya, and South Sudan came to Uganda and played a Little League Africa championship, which Uganda won. However, the African champion was still not eligible to compete in Williamsport.

In 2010, Uganda returned to Poland for the Europe/Middle East/Africa championship, a tournament that had long been dominated by the Saudi Arabian team comprised of children of American employees of the oil company, ARAMCO. In the round robin tournament, Uganda beat the heavily-favored ARAMCO team and finished in a three-way tie with them and Kuwait. However, after Uganda was initially informed that they had advanced to the title game on a tiebreaker, they were later told that there had been a miscommunication about the rules and instead had been eliminated.

The following year, Uganda returned to Poland and won the tournament outright, qualifying for the first time ever to travel to Williamsport. But in the lead-up to the 2011 Little League World Series, the Ugandan team was denied visas by the U.S. State Department, who cited discrepancies in their documents. There was suspicion of forgery. Stanley and Mukhobe both said that parents, when interviewed by the U.S. embassy, gave birthdates that didn't line up with what was on their children's documents.

"It is unfortunate, as we were very much looking forward to welcoming the first African team to the Little League Baseball World Series," Stephen D. Keener, President and Chief Executive Officer of Little League Baseball and Softball, said at the time. "However, we have worked very closely with our State Department in recent years, and we very much appreciate their diligence in this matter."

Many in Uganda saw this as a form of exclusionary classism. Documentation in Uganda doesn't work the same way as it does in places like, say, Connecticut.

"Most of the kid were orphans and they were asking them for the death certificates for one parent or both parents, which was not easy," Mukhobe said. "Some of them had their grandmothers and even they didn't even know English, you know?"

"They can run. They can hit. They can pitch. And they play defense. Every one of them," Stanley said. Photo courtesy Little League Baseball and Softball.

Stanley and Mukhobe differ on who was at fault. Stanley says that he gave money to Mukhobe––who was the manager of the team at the time––to gather the documents, while Mukhobe says it was the parents and Little League coordinators who were supposed to gather the birth certificates for him. In any case, the kids from that Ugandan team were not allowed to travel to Williamsport, and Stanley and Mukhobe no longer work together.

The next year, in 2012, a different Ugandan team from a school in the town of Lugazi won the tournament in Poland. They received their visas, and became the first African team to appear at the LLWS.

While the Ugandans were instant darlings of fans and ESPN, they struggled in the tournament, which was understandable given the lack of competitive games available to them at home. However, the Ugandan team earned a reputation for having a stellar work ethic. Every day they woke up at near dawn to hit in the batting cages at 6:30 a.m. Afterward they would join all the other teams for breakfast.

After breakfast, the team would practice and then scrimmage, even on days when they didn't have official games scheduled. Their only win in Williamsport came in a consolation game against Oregon. But Stanley believes they learned from the experience.

When they returned to Uganda after the tournament, Stanley began work on opening the Allen V.R. Stanley Secondary School, a boarding school he hoped to build Kampala. The school welcomed its first class of 11-year-olds in 2013.

At AVRS, each kid is provided with uniforms, shoes, books, and a tablet for their math, science, and english classes that also gives them access to almost 100 additional books. Mornings are spent in the classroom and then students devote two hours each afternoon to sports. The school also has soccer teams, but it's the baseball and softball programs that have taken the school to the international stage. (The AVRS softball team just finished competing in the Little League Softball World Series in Portland, Oregon, where they had the best record of any international team.)

Because of several logistical reasons, the baseball team did not compete in the regional tournament in Poland in both 2013 and 2014. But they returned in 2015 and dominated: a 21-1 win against Belgium; a 16-1 win against Belarus; a 10-0 win against the Czech Republic in a game in which the Ugandan pitcher allowed only one hit in five innings and retired the other 15 batters on strikeouts; a 4-0 over Italy in which the Ugandan pitcher threw a no-hitter; and a 16-0 win against Spain.

In many ways, the Ugandan team at Williamsport shows that Stanley has fulfilled the request Christopher Gashirabake gave him back in 2002. A baseball program exists in Uganda, and it now appears to be flourishing.

"They can run. They can hit. They can pitch. And they play defense. Every one of them," Stanley said.

Stanley hopes to one day bring MLB scouts to Uganda. He says he's been told by contacts within MLB that scouts will make the trip to Uganda if he can gather 150 kids near the age of 15 who know how to play. It's not so far fetched to think that Stanley can do this. He's already accomplished so much.

And then perhaps a new baseball pipeline—one that rivals the Dominican Republic—can begin in the most unlikely place.