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Uganda moves past Little League World Series pain

Unlike in most of Africa, soccer is not the top sport at the Rev. John Foundation School in Uganda's capital. Instead, a fairly foreign American game is No. 1 and catching on quickly.

"Baseball is our main game here," head teacher Emmanuel Bazannye said of his school. "Even the girls love it. The girls want to participate after seeing the boys doing it. We say that what the boys can do, even the girls can do."

Baseball is not widely played in Africa, but Uganda looks poised to be the launching pad for the game's entry into this soccer-dominated continent.

Last year a team of young Ugandan ballers made international news. They qualified for the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, but were denied travel visas by the U.S. State Department because of problems with documentation.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement at the time that: "Some of the applications included birth records which several parents admitted had been altered to make some players appear younger than they actually are." The State Department said applicants who were over Little League's age limit did not qualify to play and therefore did not qualify for a visa.

"We cried for two good days," said George Mukhobe, the coach who would have led the team to America. "It meant a lot for those kids."

Augustus Owinyi was the team's first baseman. Although now too old for Little League, he still shows up during practices, pleasing coaches who see it as a sign of his commitment.

Owinyi wants to be like Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. The 13-year-old Owinyi met Rollins when the American visited Uganda in January and that memory makes him dream of playing Major League Baseball someday. His hopes for a career in baseball made the State Department's visa denial especially painful.

"I felt very sad," he said. "They gave us back our passports and said we were not to go. Some of us cried. I love this game. I see my future in this game."

Ugandan sports followers say the school's success in international competition has contributed to baseball's popularity among schools that once were skeptical about the American game.

The school is preparing for a national baseball competition, where the winner will travel to Poland in July. It's the first international opportunity for Ugandan youngsters following the failure to go to the Little League World Series.

The visa refusal inspired a fundraising drive that raised enough money to bring to Uganda a team from Canada that the Ugandans would have faced if they had competed in South Williamsport.

In January, the Ugandans beat the Canadians 2-1. Coach Mukhobe said that the win was more proof that Uganda had baseball talent.

Baseball still lags behind soccer across Uganda. But it's catching on among schools attracted to its relative novelty and the government now backs the game's introduction in schools.

About 60 schools encourage baseball, Mukhobe said, and this year a national baseball league was launched after it was endorsed by sports authorities. The baseball season started in mid-March.

Barnabas Mwesiga, a retired Ugandan soccer players who in 1989 was hand-picked by an American missionary to introduce baseball to the East Africa country, said his goal of "spreading the game" had been fulfilled.

"We had about six hard balls and two bats in those days," he said. "That was all. The gloves came much later."

Richard Stanley, the U.S. coordinator for Little League Baseball in Uganda, said he is now working with 10 schools and that "many more wish to join."

But Stanley, who has spent over $2 million in baseball programs here — including on the country's only ballpark — said there were problems even at committed schools like the Rev. John Foundation School. The Ugandans are too dependent on donated equipment and the games they play are usually casual, he said. He wants to see more seriousness.

"The problem with the Rev. John School is that they have no place to play their games, which is a real problem with baseball in Uganda," he said. "In order to develop the players and the sport we need teams to play many games, not just one or two a month.

"This seems to be the idea of many schools in Uganda which we are trying to break free of. It is that attitude that will prevent them from producing truly competitive international teams."

The competition between Canada and Uganda, dubbed the Pearl of Africa Series, was watched by more than 300 ardent baseball fans, including about 70 from Canada and the U.S., according to Mukhobe.

"Everybody was excited," Mukhobe said. "We thought that all hope had gone after failing to go to America. But beating Canada brought that hope back."

Right To Play, a humanitarian group that advocates the right of children to play games, raised more than $100,000 to fund the Uganda-Canada match. Not all the money was spent, and Mukhobe said that the remaining $35,000 would be spent on building a new ballpark, sponsoring the Little Leaguers' schooling and underwriting baseball competitions.

All the 12 Little Leaguers who would have competed in the U.S. are now enrolled in different Ugandan schools. Some, orphaned and recruited from the slums of Kampala, had been about to drop out before they started playing competitive baseball.

Uganda's baseball coaches hope to recruit more boys.

One potential player is Isma Kyasanku, who watches baseball practice every Wednesday after class. As a pitch is sent down toward home plate, the 14-year-old sometimes jerks his head, anticipating a hit.

"Next term I want to join them," said the young Ugandan. "Most of my friends play baseball."