This week we are in the midst of the Little League World Series, which joins the Olympic Games and the World Cup of Soccer as the only three sporting events truly global in nature. Last week, 43,000 fans flooded Lamade Stadium, as a local team from nearby Lock Haven took on the youngsters from Kentucky. Each August, 16 teams from around the globe converge on tiny Williamsport, Pa., to vie for the World Series title. It is a huge event in the lives of 11- and 12- year-olds and their families. Richmond-area residents may still talk about the 1968 Little League World Series, a 1-0 victory for Japan over a scrappy bunch from the Tuckahoe Little League in Henrico. This year’s tournament is off to a flying start with many exciting games, including a game perhaps dubbed as the best game ever played in the 65-year history of the event. Many, however, will remember this year for the team that isn’t in Williamsport.
Baseball is relatively new in Africa. The region is generally represented in the series by a Middle Eastern team that is generally made up of American players whose parents are serving either in military service or as diplomats. This year, for the first time ever, a team from Africa won the region and was headed to Williamsport to compete. By virtue of a victory over Saudi Arabia, the Reverend John Foundation Little League would be traveling to Central Pennsylvania from Uganda to compete. In an effort to expand the game, the team was started eight years ago by Richard Stanley, part owner of the Trenton Thunder (Eastern League rival of the Flying Squirrels).
The Ugandan fairy tale came to an abrupt halt, however, as several members of the Ugandan team were denied travel visas by the United States State Department. It was a tough call for all concerned in this security conscious world. In Uganda, record keeping is sporadic at best. For most, a birth certificate just doesn’t exist. Proof of identity is almost impossible. Most of the players’ parents proved little help due to their own illiteracy.
Uganda’s inclusion would have been huge for all of Africa. It would have been an opportunity to expand a game that for the last 20 years has been shrinking among minority participants. The saddest part of course is that these kids earned their way.
After the tears from the news, the Ugandan Thunder proved gracious in defeat. They gathered around the only TV in their community to cheer for the squad from Saudi Arabia that had taken their slot. The players and coaches saw the Saudi team’s success as their own. Most commented that they would continue to play and, just like Little Leaguers everywhere, play with Major League aspirations.
For Richard Stanley, who has plowed $1.5 million of his own money into youth baseball in Uganda, the State Department decision has been devastating: “You know, some of these kids don’t even know their birthday,” he said. “There aren’t many ice cream and cake celebrations here.”
A handful of kids have lost out on an opportunity. Unfortunately baseball and the entire world lost too.