Jimmy Rollins sees potential in Uganda

Jimmy Rollins works with Ugandan Little Leaguers during a trip with the Right to Play organization. Hubert Kang

KAMPALA, Uganda -- Jimmy Rollins has been mobbed on the field before. But this time is the offseason, and this place is a hard-packed scrub playing area below the St. Peter School in the ghetto of the capital of Uganda. And the reason the players are hoisting him up on their shoulders is even better than a big hit in a big game. This is their show of appreciation. The Phillies shortstop has been laying out for them.

He has been dancing with toddlers at a Right To Play event at St. Stephen School while shouting the refrain, "Get another friend." He has been teaching players in Lugazi the intricacies of eating sunflower seeds. He has made better infielders out of kids who already were pretty good. He has given a bravura freestyle rap performance on a stage at the Sharing Youth Center. He has handed out shoes and batting gloves and candy and gum. Together with his younger sister, Shay, he has embraced his first trip to Africa in a way one might not expect from a one-time MVP, three-time All-Star shortstop who just signed a guaranteed three-year, $33 million contract.

"I can't think of a better way to break in a new glove," he says.

When Rollins first saw filmmaker Jay Shapiro's piece on Ugandan baseball on the Aug. 14 "SportsCenter," he tweeted his appreciation, and Shapiro reached out to him. "I talked to a lot of players," Shapiro said, "but Jimmy stayed in it for the long haul."

The Rollins Family Foundation provided $10,000 for the Pearl of Africa Series between the Ugandan Little Leaguers who were denied a trip to Williamsport, Pa., because of visa problems, and the team from Langley, British Columbia, that they were supposed to play in the first round. But it's Rollins' effervescent presence that has made an even bigger difference. Upon first meeting Ugandan coach George Mukhobe at his home, Rollins presented him with a pair of high-end sunglasses and said, "You need these to be a real coach."

Size has also mattered. Because Rollins is 5-foot-8, he is at or below eye level with the players he has met in Lugazi, in Nsambya and at the baseball complex in Nakiribe. He and Babu Alex, a talented shortstop and pitcher, have become fast friends. "As a shortstop, I want to be Jimmy Rollins," said Babu, who has two younger brothers who are also shortstops. "As a pitcher, I admire Cole Hamels. I have four pitches, including a knuckleball."

This can't be said enough: The Ugandans can play. "They are so fluid and natural," said first baseman Derrek Lee, who's here with his brother, Bryan, to lend a hand. "None of the robotic stuff you see in America, where we're probably overcoached."

"First day I got here, I'm like, 'Really?'" Rollins said. "I watch this skinny kid named Kenny take a swing, and as soon as I heard the sound, I go, 'Got it!' … and the ball landed way up on the roof of the school.

"But it's not just pure talent. They understand the game. I'm constantly going, 'How do they know this?' And they're not shy, they're not afraid to make a mistake. That's what makes them so coachable."

Rollins also has been indefatigable. At the end of each day, he goes back to his hotel and writes in his journal so that his wife, Johari, who is pregnant with their first child, can experience what he has been seeing and doing. When asked what he's going to tell his teammates about Uganda when he sees them in a few weeks in Clearwater, Fla., he says, "First, I'm going to tell them, 'I saw some real ballplayers.' Then, I'm going to tell them, 'We need to go to dinner.' It's gonna take at least two hours."

Hopefully, he'll tell them about his performance on the stage of the Sharing Youth Center at a lunchtime gathering for the Canadian and Ugandan teams on Martin Luther King Day. Babu lured him up onstage to mime a Gym Class Heroes rap, and Rollins ended up doing a freestyle rap that went something like this:

"One two one two, in Uganda baseball comes through

Big D Lee in the house and so is me doing it everyday casually

Because we like to play and get down, Uganda, Nsambya, the big towns

I'm not done, we get it down, we get it too, I stand up and push, it's on you

And when the ball leave the field I'm gonna clown

Walk down the baseline, throw a pound

To the sky, up high, to my fans, we got a plan

Everybody just say baseball … baseball

Everybody say baseball … baseball"

After the show and a tour of the empty lot that Right To Play hopes to turn into a baseball and soccer field, the entire group took a sobering walk through the labyrinthine ghetto, finally popping out at the St. Peter field. While the two teams practiced, Rollins gave his backpack to a small boy to watch. "At one point," said Rollins, "I looked over, and I could see that he was curious about something inside the pack -- his hand was on the zipper, you know the look -- and I figured out what it was. So I went over, found the chocolate-covered peanuts, gave him some, and the rest of the afternoon, he guarded that pack with his life.

"The amazing thing to me is that, as poor as the people are, they don't feel sorry for themselves. No long, drawn faces. They need so much, and yet, they're happy."

The afternoon ended with a pickup game among the older Ugandan players, including Babu, who was snapping off curves from a mound that had no rubber -- or mound, for that matter. And talk about pressure: There was no backstop, so the catcher had to make sure the precious, if ragged, baseball did not get by him and roll down the hill. But there was something pure and joyous and almost antique about the sandlot game. Baseball before it got so serious.

At the end of the game, Coach George asked Rollins to speak to the players. As George's son Jacobo clung to Rollins' leg, the player said, "Keep doing what you're doing, and you're going to get better. One of you is going to make it to the big leagues someday, and that player is going to bring another player up with him, and another. I want to thank you for allowing me this opportunity to meet you all and work with you. And I want to think my assistant, Jacobo."

As Rollins gathered up his stuff, the players assembled about 20 yards away. Coach George informed them Jimmy was providing two buses to take them to the big game between Canada and Uganda, out at the baseball complex 35 kilometers (22 miles) away. Then, with a shout, they ran back to Rollins and lifted him on their shoulders.

At that moment, Jimmy Rollins was the tallest man in Uganda.

Steve Wulf is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow ESPN The Magazine on Twitter: @ESPNmag. Follow ESPN_Reader on Twitter: @ESPN_Reader.