The Little League World Series is in full swing. Perennial teams like Japan are still alive, but so is a country making just its second-ever appearance: Uganda.
The team has experienced highs and lows so far. Sunday night it lost 7-0 to Venezuela, but the squad is still alive thanks to a win over the Dominican Republic in its first game.
It will have to beat Taiwan Monday night to stay in contention. The game airs on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. EDT.
It’s all quite a feat, considering that, unlike the other kids here, most of these guys just started playing baseball. A couple had never even touched a baseball until two years ago.
“I held the ball like a stone. I didn’t know how to throw the ball,” says pitcher Francis Alemo, who grew up in a small farming village before joining the team.
Third baseman Pius Eschoni was equally confused when he first encountered a field.
“I thought they were playing a movie, acting a movie. They told me this is baseball,” says Eschoni.
Every player on the team learned America’s pastime thanks to a New Yorker named Richard Stanley. The chemical engineer went to Uganda as an aid expert and ended up setting up a sports academy, outside Kampala, aimed at building baseball talent in this impoverished nation, which has little organized youth sports.
“We want the kids to understand that there’s a way forward for them in athletics,” says Stanley.
The main goal of Stanley’s boarding school is to educate boys and girls, who play softball. But he also wants to mold students into elite athletes, pros if possible.
That’s the dream for Eschoni, whose family lives in Lugazi, where most people end up working for a local sugar manufacturer.
“Baseball is a sport. And sports and discipline are synonymous. When I maintain my discipline and I practice a lot and I put discipline, it will take me somewhere,” says Eschoni.
For now, it’s taken him outside Uganda — first to Poland and Belgium and now to the U.S.
At a picnic before the series started, the Ugandans mingled with players from all over the world.
Everyone wanted to meet them, shake their hands or take a photo with them. At first, the boys reluctantly mixed with the other teams. But as time wore on, they lightened up, relaxed and even cracked a few smiles.
Still, when it comes to the competition, they’re always serious. After chowing down on hamburgers and pasta salad, Uganda’s catcher Jovan Edaku said teams with deeper baseball roots don’t intimidate him.
“Those people are also human beings like us. So we can’t fear them. What they have is what we have. That’s why we’re going to challenge them also. We’re going to show them what we have,” said Edaku.
What he thinks they have is great pitching and great hitting.
That trifecta was on full display during their stunning 4-1 win on Friday over the Dominican Republic.
The Ugandans were dominant throughout, especially Alemo, who was virtually unhittable through four innings.
“So many people, they don’t know where Uganda is and they have not heard a lot about Uganda, but our coming here is going to tell the world that you’re going to see the kind of baseball Uganda has and these kids are going to prove that,” says Bernard Adei, the team’s manager.
And no matter what happens in Monday’s game, the Ugandan players are happy to be playing. Says second baseman Joshua Muwanguzi of his teammates: “They’re like my brothers. They’re like family members. Baseball has brought us together.”