Ugandan, Aussie Little Leaguers dream big

Ugandan, Aussie Little Leaguers dream big

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Central Pennsylvania is a world away from Kampala, Uganda, both in terms of distance and in lifestyle. So is Sydney, Australia, for that matter.

But on Friday, Kampala will make just its second appearance and Sydney its third in the Little League World Series.

After defeating a team from Barcelona in the Europe and Africa Region Championship in Kutno, Poland, Uganda's AVRS Little League earned the right to travel more than 7,000 miles to Little League's headquarters. They were scheduled to take on the Caribbean Region Champions, Los Bravos de Pontezuela Little League of the Dominican Republic, to open the tournament on Thursday morning, but rain delayed the day's slate of games.

Just three years ago, in 2012, Uganda's Lugazi Little Leaguers became the first team from Africa to take part in the LLWS. Despite suffering a pair of losses, the appearance alone was staggering for a group of players from a country whose sporting strongholds include cricket, rugby and soccer.

MLB has played a supportive role in Uganda in recent years, donating equipment through MLB International since 2003, and running periodic clinics. In '12, All-Star shortstop Jimmy Rollins and retired first baseman Derrek Lee even accompanied a group of Canadian Little Leaguers on a trip to Uganda for a friendly exhibition and some informal instruction.

"There is no doubt in my mind that with the right training, these kids could play college ball, go professional," Lee said at the time.

The boys from AVRS Little League, which is associated with the AVRS Secondary School, weren't the only Ugandan players who earned international attention. The league's softball team also reached the Little League Softball World Series, and they finished last week's tournament in Portland, Ore., with a 2-3 showing.

Uganda's presence at various levels of international competition -- several prospects have participated in MLB's European Academy in recent years -- is proof of the game's growth in that country and others.

"They really believe and know that one day someone from Uganda will be in the big leagues and will shine a light here," said Rollins during his visit, "and that will give the others hope that they can get there also."

Although cricket is the national pastime, baseball has made great strides in Australia, which has sent a team to the LLWS every year since 2013, including this year's regional champs from Cronulla Little League.

"Baseball has always been a small sport in a relatively small country," said Darren Fullerton, the team's manager and a former pitcher in the Australian Baseball League. "But what I'm seeing now, with the return of the ABL, is that it gives the young kids heroes to follow. If you add to that the advent of Little League, you can just see the interest is growing."

Cronulla Little League hails from a suburb of Sydney; both of its predecessors from the previous two summers had called Perth home. The Australian team's first test in Williamsport will come against Cardenales Little League of Venezuela.

"We've worked really hard, and we have a lot of admiration for the kids in this group," Fullerton said. "They're always going to be overmatched relative to most of the other countries and the American teams, physically as well as the amount of baseball that we play.

"Our ambition is to come here and compete. If we can win a game, that will be very special for us."

Allison Duffy is associate editor for Major League Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.