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Ugandan Little League team strikes out on visas

A youth baseball team from Uganda has lost its bid to become the first team from Africa to play in the Little League World Series because of discrepancies over players' ages and birth dates.

League and team officials did everything possible to ensure players on the Rev. John Foundation team from Kampala were qualified and had documentation, a league representative, Richard Stanley, of New York City, told The Associated Press on Friday. Children who are 11 or 12 as of April 30 can play in the World Series, which is held each August in South Williamsport, Pa.

Stanley is credited by Little League with introducing and establishing the organization in Uganda after building a baseball academy several years ago. He said Friday issues arose when ages and birth dates listed on documentation didn't match those offered by parents, guardians or the players themselves during interviews with U.S. consular officials at the U.S. embassy in Kampala.

Several players provided false birth documents to make their ages appear younger, said a State Department official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity because visa records are confidential.

Until now, the Ugandan team's success was considered a home run for Little League and baseball's international growth. The team would have been the first squad from Africa to play in the 65-year history of the World Series.

Stanley said birth records in Uganda are not strictly tracked, as in the United States.

"Now when the parent comes in, they get asked, 'What's the birth date of your child? Are you the birth parent?' They don't even know what that means in some cases, so they can't answer the question," said Stanley, a retired chemical engineer who owns a 2.5 percent stake in the Trenton Thunder Double-A minor league baseball team. Listed as an officer on a Uganda Little League Baseball directory, Stanley said he has donated about $1.5 million to the organization there.

"So now it's a question of credibility. All you need is one person to not be credible and the visa officer is not obligated to issue a visa," Stanley added, "and if they don't issue one visa, they're not going to issue any visa."

Stanley and State Department spokesman Mark Toner both said it was unclear how many visas were denied.

"In this case, I can assure you that consular officers examined each of these individuals and accorded them every consideration under the law. This is a very difficult situation, but our consular officials are committed to upholding U.S. law," Toner said at a briefing in Washington. "At the same time, they accord these individuals coming in for visa interviews every consideration."

Toner declined to discuss specifics about the discrepancies, but said that officials considered "all appropriate data, place of birth date of birth, family name ... and take all that into consideration before making their judgment."

There is no age requirement for a U.S. visa. However, lying or providing incorrect or misleading information on a visa application is grounds for denial.

In Little League, players discovered to be over or underage can be disqualified, or their teams can be disqualified. That was amplified a decade ago when Danny Almonte of the Rolando Paulino All-Stars from New York City was stripped of the first perfect game in Little League World Series history when he was found to be 14. His team was disqualified and their participation stricken from the World Series record books.

At Little League International headquarters in South Williamsport, vice president Patrick Wilson said the State Department cited privacy concerns in declining to release more details to the organization.

"It is unfortunate, as we were very much looking forward to welcoming the first African team to the Little League Baseball World Series," league president Stephen Keener said in a statement. "However, we have worked very closely with our State Department in recent years, and we very much appreciate their diligence in this matter."

The 11-day tournament begins Aug. 18, featuring 16 teams — eight in the U.S. bracket and eight in the international bracket.

Keener has said Little League has been vigilant in trying to ensure that players are qualified for tournament play, especially since Almonte's disqualification in 2001.

According to Wilson, there were no questions about the age or birth dates of the Ugandan players following Little League checks prior to the Middle East and Africa regional tournament earlier this month in Poland. The Ugandan team defeated a squad from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 6-4, on July 16 to advance.

Copies of documents were also checked by Little League officials at the Pennsylvania headquarters, and the players received visas from Poland for the regional tournament.

Stanley said complaints have arisen in previous years by other teams in its region about players' ages. The Ugandan team this season was asked to supplement birth or age records with supporting documentation from school records "to be proactive," Wilson said. The practice has also been requested of teams in other countries in the past, Wilson said.

No one party was at fault, Stanley said. He held out hope that the State Department might reverse course due to the Ugandan team's historic success.

"We're not trying to cheat anybody," Stanley said, "but then the question is, 'How do you prove a kid's age?'"

Little League officials plan to meet in the next few days to determine how to proceed with the series, with a preference to maintain a 16-team field.

According to Little League, the last time a team that qualified could not make the trip was 1959. A squad from then-West Germany composed of dependents of U.S. Army personnel couldn't make it because the team's manager and coaches could not get away from their military duties.

At the time, just eight teams qualified for the tournament, and the 1959 series was played with just seven squads.

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Lee reported from Washington.

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Online:

http://www.littleleague.org/worldseries/index.html