Ugandan squad a symbol for hope in LLWS

Ugandan squad a symbol for hope in LLWS

Ugandan squad a symbol for hope in LLWS
From the ash heap of shattered dreams, a nation's hopes will finally be realized when Uganda meets Panama in the Little League World Series on Friday.

Last year, after qualifying for the tournament in regional play, a team from Kampala -- Uganda's capital -- was denied entry to the U.S. because of visa and birth certificate issues.

This year, a squad from Lugazi is in Williamsport, Pa., practicing for Friday's first-round game, the first time that an African team will take part in this global baseball showcase.

"To me, baseball means sweat, hard work, teaching how to play the game correctly," said Henry Odong, Lugazi's 34-year-old head coach, who learned baseball from Christian missionaries as a teenager. "I like coaching because I want to see the kids play good ball and teach them my skills and ideas."

Uganda is unquestionably the underdog against Panama, a nation that has produced the likes of Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history, and Marlins slugger Carlos Lee.

But adversity is a way of life for kids in Uganda. For some, their baseball spikes are the first pair of shoes they've ever worn. So intimidation isn't likely to be a factor.

Uganda reached the World Series by defeating Kuwait, 5-2, in the Middle East-Africa regional tournament held in Kutno, Poland, in July. The event is played there to avoid the intense Middle East heat.

After losing to powerful Saudi Arabia, 2-1, Uganda beat Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait and then Kuwait again in the championship game.

"I have been training these kids for a very long time, so I expected them to win, since that has been my dream," Odong said.

Odong's team is sponsored by the Mehta Group's Lugazi Sugar company, Uganda Little League's first corporate sponsor, which has already pledged to build a practice field this fall. Odong is a store accountant for the sugar firm's sister company, Cable Corp.

After work, he spends "happy hour" with the team.

"I leave work at 5 p.m., so instead of going to take booze, wine or beer, I go to the field to play ball with the little kids up to around 7 p.m.," Odong said.

Ironically, the 6-foot-4 coach is nicknamed "Bouncer."

"When baseball was introduced in my school, I was the tallest kid and very big, so that's what they called me," Odong said.

His Lugazi team is comprised strictly of 11-year-olds. Odong wanted to avoid any possibility of players not being eligible because of their age.

"I strongly believe this is going to change a lot in baseball circles," Odong said. "Even right now, a lot of kids who stopped playing are coming back. I'm sure that we're going to have a lot of kids wanting to play ball."

Perhaps most amazing of all is the fact that Uganda's Little League program is less than a decade old. It was first introduced by Richard Stanley of Staten Island, N.Y., a part-owner of the Double-A Trenton Thunder, an affiliate of the Yankees. He got the ball rolling after going to the third-world country under a United Nations economic development initiative.

When Ugandan officials learned about Stanley'sbaseball background, they invited him to establish a program there. Stanley, 70, has spent more than $1.5 million of his own money carving a 40-acre complex, which includes Little League and full-size diamonds, housing and offices out of the lush African landscape in Mpigi, 20 miles west of Kampala.

In January, a Canadian team from Vancouver that was supposed to play against Uganda in last year's Little League World Series, traveled to Mpigi for a highly publicized "Let Them Play!" contest. A huge crowd turned out for the game, which Uganda won, 2-1.

Uganda and Canada might be headed for another showdown, since Uganda's second game in the double-elimination tournament is against the winner or loser of a first-round game between Mexico and Canada.

After the tournament, Lugazi plans to play exhibitions in West Windsor, N.J., and Plymouth Meeting, Pa., take in a Thunder game and attend a Phillies-Mets game hosted by Phillies All-Star Jimmy Rollins, who accompanied Canada's Little League team to Uganda in January.

Win or lose in Williamsport, the Lugazi team has opened doors not only for kids in Uganda, but third-world nations around the world.

"While kids on some teams are sleeping, they're on the field for practice at 6 a.m. every day," Stanley said. "They'll go all day without food and water to play baseball. All they want is a chance."

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