MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

At tournament, big dreams for Ugandan youth

MLB helping players carve a better path forward

At tournament, big dreams for Ugandan youth

CINCINNATI -- The local boys, having just been run-ruled by the team that traveled all the way from Uganda to be here, gathered outside the dugout between games of a doubleheader to express their respect.

"You're scary, man!" one of them said to Lawrence Zingi, the skinny 16-year-old sitting on the bench.

"You've got an arm, dude!" another added.

Zingi had flashed his fastball on the mound for a few innings of Uganda's 12-2 win over an area 16-and-under squad, then shifted over to short, where he made a couple of eye-catching plays in the field. Were he the product of a traditional baseball background, it would be natural to assume his skills could one day land him a college scholarship, perhaps even a pro contract. But Zingi is simultaneously representative both of the promise Uganda holds as a ground source for this sport and the worry that his talent will be wasted in a system that, for now, has only dead ends to offer him and his countrymen.

"If one of us can make it," Zingi said, "it would open up the world for all the kids. That's what everyone is looking forward to. One person to get a scholarship to open it up for the other guys."

By inviting Zingi and his teammates here to the ceremonies of the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series, Major League Baseball is helping the players from this landlocked East African country carve a better path forward in the game. They are here not in an official capacity related to the tournament but as ambassadors, of a sort. MLB's Youth Programs department, with assistance from MLB International, provided the uniforms, hotel accommodations and meals for the 19 members of their traveling party, which will be playing games here in Cincinnati and in the Philadelphia area throughout the week.

The games themselves are inconsequential, but the experience is valuable to the Ugandans, all of whom are students at Allen V.R. Stanley Secondary School of Math and Science for the Athletically Talented in Nakirebe, Uganda.

Though some of them were able to participate in the 2015 Little League World Series, in which Uganda unexpectedly upended the Dominican Republic in its opening game, Little League has since barred them from entry in the tournament, citing rules that disallow teams from schools that specialize in sports. And because there is no collegiate level of play for these boys to graduate to after they finish their schooling at what they refer to as "AVRS," their baseball lives currently carry what is basically an expiration date at age 18.

"They can play in some adult games, controlled by the [International Baseball] Federation, which plays one game a month," said Richard Stanley, the 74-year-old retired chemical engineer who founded AVRS. "How can you develop players with one game a month?"

That's why this brief exposure matters. It was a wonderful story when Gift Ngoepe, who learned the game while his mother was a clubhouse attendant for a South African baseball club, debuted as MLB's first African-born player earlier this season with the Pirates. But that was a one-off occurrence. In Uganda, they dream of creating a Dominican Republic-like hotbed that routinely attracts scouts and produces a pipeline.

Baseball in Uganda has come a long way since 2002, when Stanley was a volunteer sent to the country by the nonprofit ACDI/VOCA to assist the Uganda Vegetable Oil Development Project and wound up agreeing to a plea from a Minister of Justice representative to launch the game there. There are now 11 schools with baseball and softball teams, and the competition level is improving.

Stanley, though, wants to develop a legit national team that can compete in events like the 2020 World Baseball Classic and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Doing so means breaking down barriers, and he's hoping Uganda can become an international entrant in next year's RBI World Series.

"Can we play? Yes," Stanley said. "Can we win? We'd like to find out."

They won Monday, sweeping the doubleheader against the local squad. Uganda made its share of mistakes -- a missed cutoff man here, a dropped ball there. One kid trotted out to his position having mistakenly left his hat on the bench.

But the talent -- the speed, the fluidity of deliveries (every player on the Ugandan team is groomed to both pitch and play the field), the power strokes -- was evident.

"That is what we are working on," Uganda coach Joseph Drotti said. "Having this chance to come here, we want to show the whole world that in Uganda, there is something happening. We want to show that Ugandans can play this game and we are after something."

Zingi showed it, earning those accolades from the opposing players. As they expressed appreciation for his arm, he gave a sheepish smile. But afterward, he had to admit he liked the attention.

"It makes me feel good," he said proudly. "I like it, I like it."

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.