Showing at Little League World Series buoys Uganda enthusiasm for baseball

A Ugandan team participated for the first time in the Little League World Series last weekend. While it's a boost, critics say much needs to be done to put youth baseball on a solid footing in Uganda.

Gene J. Puskar/AP
The Little League baseball team from Lugazi, Uganda participates in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Little League World Series tournament in South Williamsport, Pa., last week.

Uganda’s first-ever showing at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn., last weekend would seem to signal a bright future for baseball in the landlocked east African country.

The team was eliminated after two games, but the talent was evident. When the boys return home this month, they will be greeted like celebrities, and more will want to play. Dozens of sources, from individuals to sports companies, touched by stories of the kids playing barefoot on dusty lots back home, have offered to send money and equipment. Others have offered to coach.

But expectations for the sport – which some 700 boys and girls play here  – won’t be met unless Uganda addresses how the sport is currently being run, according to some observers. 

Behind this fairy tale story is a bout of internal politics and allegations of mismanagement and neglect. "It's gotten very political," says Peter Etabu, Uganda's country manager for Right to Play, a Canada-based NGO responsible for handling more than $100,000 in donor gifts. "We don't want to be a part of it."

A new ball field that was to be completed by now in a Kampala slum has been postponed indefinitely. Equipment supplies, sent by the heaploads after Uganda almost made the Little League World Series last year, have dwindled, with one league team’s storage facility reduced to one bat, two gloves, and a ball. One official has accused another of misappropriating a portion of more than $100,000 sent by an international donor.

Richard Stanley, a chemical engineer from Staten Island, N.Y., and founder of Uganda Little League, has been crucial in developing the sport. Twenty miles west of Kampala, he has built a baseball complex containing all three of Uganda’s only baseball fields and more than 100 dormitory beds.

But he and George Mukhobe, who heads the recently formed Uganda Baseball and Softball Association (UBASA), have barely spoken to each other in months. UBASA is the only local baseball organization recognized by Uganda’s National Council of Sports. Camps have built up around the two former allies, with each being told he doesn’t need the other to develop the sport.

Timothy Magala Semakula, of the National Council of Sports, points to other key shortcomings, like a lack of strategic planning, responsible budgeting, and greater commitment among locals. UBASA, he says, has undertaken few, if any, income-generating projects. Stanley reportedly doesn’t own the property his ball fields are on, and there’s some uncertainty as to what will happen to the complex once he is no longer involved with it.

But there has been some progress. Mr. Mukhobe helped arrange Major League Baseball’s first-ever scouting camp in Kampala last month, which dozens of players attended. And Mr. Stanley has been working with the Uganda sports commissioner to see to it that seven or more secondary schools will be playing baseball in the upcoming school year. He has also persuaded American baseball manufacturers to throw down 900 gloves and more than 1,000 baseballs for the cause.

The exposure from the Little League World Series is an extra boost to the fledgling sport. But Mr. Semakula also knows the biggest impediment to success is structural, and that foreigners and their dollars will provide no quick fix.

“If it goes on like this, we’ll leave no trail of tangible results behind,” he predicts.

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