MLB equipment drive to aid Ugandan children

MLB equipment drive to aid Ugandan children

A family packed up its car recently and drove from Kansas City to Philadelphia, cramming a father, mother, two children and a dog in a vehicle that was filled with baseball equipment. Their destination was Pitch in for Baseball, a non-profit group that distributes equipment to needy youth baseball organizations.

The family may have set a record for the distance traveled to donate equipment, said David Rhode, the charity's executive director. But the gear could travel much further, perhaps even to the other side of the world.

Major League Baseball will conduct an equipment drive during Game 3 of the World Series, to be played on Saturday at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Some of the gloves, bats and balls will be earmarked for the East African nation, where it will be used by Uganda Little League Baseball, an arrangement brokered by Pitch in for Baseball. There, it will help a group of children who know little about the game but know plenty about hardship.

Worn and a bit battered, the gear may not have high resale value, but it can provide immense emotional value for children in a nation with a per-capita GDP of $1,266, according to the International Monetary Fund.

"For tax purposes, [the equipment] is not worth much," said Rhode. "But it's sort of like one of those MasterCard moments -- it's priceless. This stuff has been transformational for the kids and the communities. It may be the first item that kid has owned. That's huge."

The charity has been partnered with the Uganda Little Leagues since 2006, and in that span, the operation has grown to include three other Little League charters in three other nations. It all stems from a trip that Richard Stanley, an engineer from Staten Island, took there in '02. While working on a project to rebuild the nation's vegetable oil industry, which was decimated during the rule of Idi Amin in the 1970s, Stanley was asked to seed youth baseball leagues.

His efforts were successful. Thousands of Ugandan youths play baseball today in programs that are run by their schools. Stanley has spent eight years jumping bureaucratic hurdles, and he estimated that he's spent $1.5 million of his personal funds on the project, but he said that the project has been worth it.

"Any kid, when given the opportunity, just wants to play," said Stanley, who is also a minority owner of the Double-A Trenton Thunder of the Eastern League. "I don't care [what] the sport [is] -- they just want to play. Give them a league, give them direction, and they just want to play."

Stanley said that the demand for equipment is outweighing the number of gloves, bats and balls that he can provide. In that way, the partnership with Pitch in for Baseball is especially helpful. In return, Stanley uses shears that he's spent nearly a decade sharpening to cut through red tape. He's flown to Uganda 26 times since 2002 -- so often that he received several free trips and cargo transportation from British Airways. The equatorial nation, he believes, provides the perfect breeding ground for baseball players.

"[The weather] is perfect to play an outdoor sport any time of the year," he said. "The talent over there is immense."

He added, "Where else can you do this for so many kids and do it relatively cheaply?"

Baseball, in turn, provides the youths with a chance to explore and interact with the world. Stanley said that several children were able to leave their villages for the first time in their lives while traveling to baseball tournaments. On those trips, the children saw, for the first time, the nation's Parliament in Kampala and an airport. Baseball, in short, gives the children a vehicle to escape poverty.

"It's a question of opening up the world for these kids and opening up their talent to the world," Stanley said.

The story about baseball in Uganda was captured by Jay Shapiro, a documentary filmmaker. Shapiro spent two years filming a movie about Ugandan baseball players, and he agreed that there is considerable talent in Uganda. Shapiro believes that there will eventually be a Ugandan player in the Major Leagues.

"If they've got a place to play and a goal to shoot for, the only thing stopping them is plight and circumstance," Shapiro said, adding, "Imagine if somebody made a documentary in Puerto Rico 10 years before [Roberto] Clemente came out."

Shapiro recounted a story he witnessed last offseason, when the first Major League game was broadcast on Ugandan television. A few children met up at their school early one Sunday morning, gathering around a black-and-white television with a wire hanger serving as a makeshift rabbit-ear antenna. There, they watched a replay of a game from September 2009, when Derek Jeter tied Lou Gehrig's record for the most hits in Yankees franchise history. It was the first baseball game broadcast in Uganda; now, it's a weekly occurrence, with in-season games being replayed a week after they happen.

When the week's broadcasts are finished, who knows? Maybe the children go to the nearest baseball field and pretend to be Jeter, rapping a hit off the Rays' Jeff Niemann to tie a legend's mark. Maybe they use gloves and a bat donated by a family from Kansas City.

"It's the juxtaposition of kids in poverty and a new field," Rhode said. "It's a 'Field of Dreams' moment for the kids when they are playing. A lot of the difficulties they have are left on the other side of the white lines. They get an opportunity to be kids and leave their troubles behind."

Sunil Joshi is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.