Uganda kicks off LLWS play

WILLIAMSPORT, PENN. - Man. The afternoon temperature is in the mid-90s, and there's no shade on Field 4 at the Little League complex in Williamsport.

But then along comes this breeze of joy in the form of a line of players in green-and-blue jerseys. They slip off their new Easton backpacks and take the field for a short, situational practice. Center fielder Francis Alemo fires a bullet to the plate to nail a runner. The third baseman, Pius Echoni, snatches a sharp ground ball over the bag, checks the runner on third and unleashes a perfect throw to first. Two days before the start of the 2015 Little League World Series, Uganda looks ready.

The best part, though, comes when each of the players runs from home around the horn to third, sliding into the bag with reckless abandon. When a cameraman for Easton asks for one more volunteer, Wasswa Hassan takes off again, cutting each corner sharply, rocketing into third and kicking up a sandstorm.

"That was great," the cameraman says as Hassan hustles back to join his teammates.

Man. These kids can play.

Who knows what will happen when the dust settles in Williamsport next week. But the return of Uganda has already added excitement to the tournament. Back in 2012, a team from Lugazi, Uganda, became the first African representative in the LLWS, winning not only one of its three games but also the Sportsmanship Award. The players taught other teams "the Ugandan Finish," a mass slide into the outfield grass at the end of a game.

Unfortunately, the feel-good story turned sour when it was discovered that some of the players' documentation was forged -- birth certificates are not common in Uganda -- there were fears the Ugandan Finish was just that.

But here they are again, representing the AVRS Secondary School in Nakirebe, 25 miles southwest of Kampala. This team is clearly much better than the last one -- they won their five games in the Europe-Africa regional in Kutno, Poland, by a combined score of 64-2 -- and their papers have been thoroughly vetted by the U.S. Embassy in Uganda. They'll play in their first game of the LLWS against the Dominican Republic, which is returning for the first time since 1996.

"I can't wait to see how we do," says Evan Petty, an assistant coach for Uganda and a Syracuse grad who also teaches English at the school.

The short history of baseball in Uganda is complicated. Take the name of the school, which also sent a team to the Softball World Series in Portland, Oregon. Its full name is the Allen VR Stanley Secondary School of Math and Science for the Athletically Talented, and it is the creation of Richard Stanley, a headstrong businessman (and part owner of the Double-A Trenton Thunder), but also a heartstrong advocate who helped bring baseball to Uganda.

It began as what many thought was folly, but it became something else entirely, a story of friendship and faith that has shrunk the world and expanded the sport. Perhaps nobody embodies that story better than the tall, lanky man who manages the AVRS team in Williamsport, Benard Adei.

Adei grew up in the eastern part of Uganda, amid the horrendous violence wrought by Joseph Kony's rebel army. Rather than become one of the region's infamous child soldiers, Adei fled to Jinja and found sanctuary at the St. Noa School, where he learned baseball from a Japanese Peace Corps worker.

Filmmaker Jay Shapiro first met Adei back in 2009, when he started work on a documentary about baseball in Uganda. (Released in 2014, "Opposite Field" -- opposite-field.com -- is now available on Netflix.) At a tournament Stanley organized in Nakirebe, Shapiro spotted Adei, a talented pitcher from the St. Noa School Fighters, and traced his story.

Shapiro showed a video of Adei pitching to a friend at Major League Baseball, and that led to an invitation to the MLB European Academy in Tirrenia, Italy. It was there that Adei got pitching instruction from ex-major leaguers Bruce Hurst and Lee Smith. His 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball fed his dream that he could one day pitch in America. "I'm so sure I can make it," he told Shapiro at age 19.

But while some of the friends Adei had made in Italy were signed by major league teams, Adei never did get the call. In a blog entry from May of 2010, Shapiro wrote that he saw Adei at the crossroads: "One evening he came to me and was a little distraught. He told me, 'Should I be a player or a coach?' I told him, try your hardest to do both. ... It wasn't a satisfying answer for him, but it's all I could offer."

In the intervening years, Adei has had to deal with issues involving family, religion and Ugandan baseball politics. But he also decided that his future lay in the future of others, so he became a coach.

"When I got to the camp in Europe," he recalls, "I felt like I would be treated differently because I was from Africa. But what impressed me was that everyone was treated like a ballplayer. It changed my perspective and made me want to help others get even further. I wasn't good enough, but it really gave me a passion to want to help the kids back in Uganda to give them that opportunity."

A lot has happened to Uganda baseball since Adei first met Shapiro. The 2011 denial of visas that prevented the team from traveling to Williamsport; the Friendship Series between Canada and Uganda in January 2012 at Stanley's baseball complex in Uganda; the victory in the 2012 Europe-Africa regional that finally got Uganda to the promised land; more problems with visas and rules about school attendance that didn't really apply to life in Uganda; and the release of "Opposite Field," which spread the word about the wellspring of baseball talent in a place 180 degrees different from the United States.

"My biggest regret about the film," says Shapiro, "is that we didn't have more of Adei's story in the final cut."

But it wasn't just the documentary that helped baseball reach a new level in Uganda. Beginning in 2014, Little League International changed its rules to allow children to play in leagues based on where they attended school. That enabled Stanley to establish a four-team league right at the AVRS School, filled with athletes who live in the Kampala region.

Little League President Stephen Keener is especially pleased to have Uganda back in the Series: "We love spreading the Series to different places, whether it's Webb City, Missouri, or Kampala, Uganda. It's nice to have Uganda back -- the town fell in love with the kids back in 2012, and I think they'll get the same kind of reception this time around."

Indeed, as the Uganda float glided through the annual Little League parade last night, the players were showered with candy and drinks, cushy balls and pins. "The kids were ecstatic," Petty said. "It was great to see them bust out their moves."

Happiest of all was Adei. He didn't get to America as a pitcher, but he is finally here as the manager of AVRS. "The people are very welcoming," he said. "I'm just so impressed with the fields and the facilities and the people. This trip is something I will never forget."

And the Ugandans may give the fans something to remember. Keep an eye on Francis Alemo, who is their best pitcher and hitter, as well as their fastest runner. "He had never even seen baseball until he came to the school in 2014," Petty said. Joshua Olara is another good pitcher, and Jovan Edaku can swing the bat. Then there are the identical twins with unidentical names: Wasswa Hassan and Kato Hussein.

"Good luck telling them apart," Petty said.

There will be other people out there with them, believers who have kept the faith in Ugandan baseball. Adei still keeps in touch with Lee Smith and Bruce Hurst. Dodgers shortstop Jimmy Rollins regularly answers emails from the players he met during the 2012 Friendship Series, a tour of Uganda organized by Ruth Hoffman to bring the team from Vancouver that was supposed to have played the Ugandans in the 2011 LLWS. A former shortstop, Roy Smalley III, can take pride as president of the Pitch In For Baseball charity, which supplies most of the equipment used by Ugandan players. There's Richard Stanley, of course, and coaches like George Mughobe, Henry Odong and Yuichi Odajima, the man who taught Adei how to pitch back in Jinja.

Watching the game on ESPN will be two more interested observers: Sister Carole MacKenthum from St. Catherine Church in Spring Lake, New Jersey, and Joy Foley, one of her former pupils. Together they run the Mission of Mercy in Alanyi, near where Adei was born in Soroti. Two years ago, they started a Little League program, the Alanyi Lions. Foley said, "It has impacted immensely the community by bringing people closer together -- there are no TVs, so I will be keeping the players and coaches updated by phone."

MacKenthum, who is 71, says, "I'm not a sports fanatic -- I leave that to Joy -- but I do know what sports can do for children. Just putting on a shirt can make you feel both special and part of something larger. Baseball has worked wonders that way in Uganda.

"It's made the world a little smaller, hasn't it?"