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Big-league hopes begin on dirt field

Big-league hopes begin on dirt field

TEMA, Ghana -- Community Seven Baseball Field would make a groundskeeper cringe, and it would not pass any sort of inspection.

Although the field now has a backstop, it lacks grass, baselines and dugouts, and that's to say nothing of the soccer goal at shortstop.

Even so, Community Seven is Ghana's nicest field, a literal diamond in the rough, and for players such as Kofi Frimpong, it is something else.

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"The dreams begin here, and I want to take them to America," said Frimpong, 18, an infielder on the Ghanaian national team. "College or Single-A, this has to lead somewhere."

Visited by an MLB delegation that included New York Mets general manager Omar Minaya, Ghana is one of baseball's developing frontiers in Africa, and the field in Tema -- on the Minaya group's travel itinerary -- is the weekend host of the Ghanaian national baseball team.

Frimpong is a team captain, an achievement for a teenager playing with mostly twentysomethings.

The senior national team comprises players from Ghana's capital, Accra, and Tema, just 20 miles down the road. Tema is Ghana's industrial hub, located in the southern part of the West African nation. Pinpointed near the center of the world map, Tema is Ghana's baseball capital, according to many.

The players who come out are Ghana's baseball heroes, a distinction of relative obscurity in a nation where football (soccer) comes first, second and third, with boxing a distant fourth.

"It is difficult, just like trying to put Ghana football in the United States," said Cephas Adonoo, an executive member of the Ghana Baseball and Softball Association (GHABSA). "For many, it is difficult to understand the value of baseball."

Adonoo meant the Ministry of Sport, which has been slow to embrace baseball's development.

Meanwhile, GHABSA nurtures baseball on its own. For now, however, little more than love of the game brings the national team members out every weekend.

"These are people who have lives and families and responsibilities. You cannot tell them to train, give their energy and time, without something," Adonoo said. "They have to have their survival. Their clothes are not washed by anyone else, so when they come, they get 10,000 cedis."

Before the July 1 redenomination of the cedi, 10,000 cedis was worth just more than a dollar. Survival comes cheap in Ghana.

"It's nothing, but it's still something," Adonoo said.

From the time he arrived in Tema, Hugo Banzini did not stop. GHABSA's games and tournaments officer, Banzini parked his Nissan and hit the field, jumping right into coaching mode.

His day began before 8 a.m., when he began the drive to coach Little Leaguers in Accra. There, he gave kids encouragement and instruction. In Tema, Banzini is dealing with a more polished product.

A handful of coaches call the shots in Tema, including one Japanese. Everyone knows everyone else; it is the same crew week after week, to the man.

"The umpire you see is the only one we have," Adonoo said, explaining the importance of everyone present. "He has been doing great."

For his part, the umpire has the theatrics down pat. He could be calling strike three at Shea were it all about showmanship.

In Accra, there was no need for umpires.

Banzini navigated among trees across a dusty soccer field located between a pair of schools. After parking and removing the makeshift bases from his trunk, Banzini had made the pitch ready for pitches.

By then, 10 kids were walking from one of the school buildings, carrying a bag of equipment.

Banzini changed into a Mets shirt and walked over to see who showed up that day. What he found was a group of kids no older than 15, some of whom had never played. Ten kids made a pile of 14 flip-flops -- some came barefoot. Banzini's cleats were the only close-toed shoes on the field that morning.

The national team wears jerseys to practice, mostly of outdated Japanese teams (with one Phillies Jim Thome jersey in the lot), but there are no baseball jerseys among the rookies. Nor are there soccer jerseys, which is something in a country that idolizes Michael Essien, a Ghanaian who plays soccer for English side Chelsea, and his contemporaries.

First, the players form groups to play catch. The dust on the grassless field never settles. All-dirt infield? Try all dirt, all field.

Nobody is perfect, least of all kids who are wearing gloves for the first time.

"You make an error, but still the game is coming," Banzini explains to the kids. "It's coming straight at you, so you have to be prepared."

Banzini fell in love with baseball when he was in Cuba. He won a scholarship to study athletic training in the island nation, where he learned Spanish and baseball. After living in Latin America for a time, Banzini returned to his country, and since then, he has been involved in baseball.

"Even if you have kids playing with a stick and a paper ball, you can start teaching them baseball," he said. "That only goes so far. Right now, the biggest crisis is equipment. You can start to teach without it, but then you need it later."

Lack of gear is one of the top problems facing baseball in Ghana. Even if the disposable income existed for parents to buy bats and gloves for their children, the local sporting goods store does not stock baseball equipment.

"We have taken gloves to leatherworkers here and tried to get them made," Banzini said.

Banzini's commute to the rookies lasted almost as long as the practice itself. Even mild Saturday traffic in Accra would swallow the gridlock of Philadelphia, Atlanta, Houston or Los Angeles -- if not in volume, then in chaos.

The trip to Tema is easier, as most of it occurs on an expressway, and Banzini's work there is different as well.

Most national team players have been playing for more than 10 years, a veritable lifetime in a 50-year-old nation where baseball started up in the late 1980s.

Frimpong has been playing for 12 years. Baseball, he said, has become his identity among friends and family.

"The people know how long I have played, and they want to see, 'What is he doing?'" Frimpong said. "They know how long I have played -- 15 years is probably the max for guys you see today -- and they want to see what will happen."

Does that make him a poster child for baseball in Ghana?

"If I can be like Essien and get into the pros, everything is going to explode in Ghana," he said. "The exposure is the thing. Then the kids will want to be like Kofi Frimpong. But without that, maybe they keep thinking [baseball] is something temporary. But I promise, once someone gets big, the game is just going to grow."

What does he want to happen?

"Right now, I am trying to get into college in America," he said. "I want to go to the University of Miami. Maybe I can try college ball and make something happen. The visa is what will decide."

Frimpong's worries about getting a visa are warranted. He had an opportunity to play a summer league in Canada last year, but he was unable to get a visa.

While Frimpong hopes to become Ghana's Essien of baseball, he has his own set of baseball heroes, ones that may not be expected.

"Ted Williams, he is my man," Frimpong said. "And people like Connie Mack and Cal Ripken. He was Mr. Every Day."

When asked who his favorite active player was, Frimpong said Jose Reyes, "because he can do it all."

Reyes is a sensible hero for Frimpong. Reyes' versatility on the field, his ability to "do it all," is exactly like what Frimpong will have to do to make his baseball dreams come true in America.

If he can get into college, if he can complete his preparatory intensive English-language course in time, if he can find a way to pay for school, if he can find a way onto the baseball team, and if he can hold it together, he may have a chance.

All he needs is a visa.

Stephen Ellsesser is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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