uganda’s hardball heroes

photography and words: joseph swide

On a gray, oppressively muggy Saturday afternoon in a far corner of FDR Park in South Philadelphia, fourteen teenagers from the Allen V.R. Stanley School, a boarding school in Kampala, Uganda, stand in the right field grass of a pristine baseball field. A coach in the infield hits a mix of fly balls and bouncing line drives for each player to field in quick succession. Behind a chain link fence along the right field line that separates the field from the elevated Delaware Expressway, a scout for another Major League team, dressed like an undercover cop in baseball turf shoes, records the drills on his iPhone.

 

Various photographers and an independent filmmaker document the moment, and a small Phillies TV crew waits to conduct interviews after the drills conclude. The occasion is the first ever visit to America by a Ugandan high school baseball team comprised mostly of 15-16 year olds, a team that essentially doubles as the Ugandan national baseball team. They’re also very possibly the best baseball team in Africa.

 

This afternoon, they’re taking on one of the Phillies U16 RBI Baseball teams. Uganda puts up six runs in the top of the first, batting all the way through their lineup and back again. After quickly retiring the Phillies’ side in the bottom half, they add two more runs in the top of the second. The game has clearly become a rout.

 

Pitcher Joshua Muwanguzi enters at the bottom of the second. He’s a baby-faced fourteen-year-old who can’t be much taller than 5’5”. Muwanguzi is both the smallest and youngest player on the Ugandan roster. He spends most of the games sitting quietly in the corner of the dugout, carefully managing the scorebook. He works his inning at the mound efficiently, relying more on guile than velocity, and returns to the dugout with another scoreless frame on the scoreboard. As he reclaims his seat and scorebook, his analysis is cold and plain.

 

“I think those guys are just scared,” says Muwanguzi. “Just because of the confidence we have. I think they heard about us.”

 

Uganda would go on to win by a score of 16-2. 

Ugandan baseball is the brainchild of Richard Stanley, a former Proctor & Gamble executive in New Jersey and co-owner of the minor league Trenton Thunder. In 2002, Stanley was in Uganda on a USAID trip when a government official approached him about developing organized programs for baseball. He decided to focus on building Little League programs to develop young players,.using his connections to garner funding and equipment. In 2012, a Little League team from the central Ugandan city of Lugazi won the Europe-Africa regional qualifier tournament and became the first Ugandan team to compete at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

 

The following year, Stanley opened the Allen V. R. Stanley School in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Drawing a student body from around the country, the school operates as a free boarding school with rigorous academics as well as athletics. It places a particular emphasis on baseball and softball. In 2015, the AVRS School’s Little League team became Uganda’s second team to reach the Little League World Series. In their first game in Williamsport, they gained a new level respect in defeating the Dominican Republic by a score of 4-1.

 

A talented Dominican 12-year-old typically does not play in Little League programs nor aspire to reach Williamsport. His focus is instead on being a top player when he turns sixteen, the minimum signing age for the MLB. As the first class of students at the AVRS school now moves beyond Little League age and into high school, Stanley has begun to shift away from Little League and towards the Dominican model, with the ambitious goal of providing young Ugandan players a springboard to the a professional career.

 

Twenty four-year-old Tony Opio is the assistant coach for the AVRS team on their trip through America. Quiet but astute, he spends most of the games sitting on a bucket at the end of the dugout, barking out pointed instruction in Luganda, a Bantu language known by everyone on the team. Opio comes from a region in Uganda’s north that was a center of fighting between the Ugandan government and Joseph Kony’s resistance movement before his forces were pushed into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

Opio first encountered baseball through a Japanese ex-pat at a university when he was about 13 years old, in the nascent stages of Stanley’s programs in the country.

 

“I started being a DH,” says Opio. “I didn’t know how to use a glove.”

When he finally began playing the field, he was put at pitcher after his fastball was clocked at 86 miles per hour. After learning to play infield as well, he received an opportunity to go to Japan for six months to train through a program affiliated with Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants. He was still only fifteen years old when he came back to Uganda and was soon given another opportunity, this time by the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks to play with their U18 team. If Opio showed improvement over the next couple of years, he could come back to Japan again and play on the Hawks’ senior team. But due to what Opio describes as a misunderstanding between Opio and Barnabas Mwesiga, the president of Ugandan baseball at the time, it never happened.

 

“Every time they send him an invitation for me to go and play,” says Opio. “He doesn’t want to show me.”

 

Opio next traveled to South Africa to train with a program run by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Over the course of four separate trips there, Opio would meet Gift Ngoepe, whose debut with the Pirates this past April made him the first African-born player in Major League history. Opio remembers frequently being pitted head-to-head with Ngoepe’s younger brother Victor, who is currently playing with the Pirates’ Gulf Coast League team.

 

But again, Mwesiga eventually halted Opio’s trips to South Africa and like many of his former teammates, he gave up on pursuing a playing career.

 

“We had a bunch of good players, really really good players. People used to throw 90,” says Opio. “But they didn’t get that opportunity … That’s what I can say about these kids,” he adds. “They just need an opportunity.”

 

Those opportunities are starting to open up for baseball players in Uganda. Last year, two scouts from the Cincinnati Reds became the first ever Major League scouts to visit the country when they came to the AVRS school to evaluate high school age players. They took an interest in Lawrence Zingi, an infielder and pitcher whose fastball has been clocked in the high 80s.

While Major League teams may have the budgets and resources to send scouts all the way to Uganda, Stanley organized this trip to the United States to help open up the smaller and more attainable opportunities, like those at small American colleges that could get players to places outside of Uganda while also helping sustain interest in the program.

 

“Getting a couple scholarships for these kids will go a long way in developing the athletes in Uganda today and into the future,” said Stanley, via email before the team’s arrival in the United States. “By forcing the government into support [sic] athletics in the secondary schools and eventually the primary schools.”

 

In the two weeks they spent in the United States, the kids from the AVRS School played nearly every day. They began in Cincinnati at the RBI Baseball World Series, at which they finished with a dominant 6-0 record. They then spent a week with host families in Tom’s River, New Jersey, playing games with wood bats against top high school-aged club teams from around the Tri-State area. In the last competitive game of their stay in Toms River, the AVRS school played against the top team of the Staten Island Orioles, an elite organization of travel teams that boasts over 120 alumni who have gone on to play collegiate baseball.

 

AVRS got off to a sluggish start. They had spent the day at the beach, their first experience of any ocean. But they rallied behind aggressive base running, strong pitching from Zingi and others, and a towering grand slam from star catcher Denis Achidri that gave the AVRS team a late lead. Staten Island eventually pulled out a narrow victory in the 10th inning—only the second loss in the two weeks for the AVRS team.

 

After the game, Stanley gathered the dejected Ugandan team in the dugout to try to put the game in context.

 

“Is it a funeral?” He asked, lightening the mood. “You’re here to learn. You’re learning about the Atlantic Ocean. You’re learning about America. You’re learning about how good you are.”

 

The world is also learning about how good Uganda is. And the next goal on the horizon for Ugandan baseball is to send a team built around these players from the AVRS School to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. A lot of work remains to attain Olympic qualification but for a group of Ugandan teenagers who have now competed in the Little League World Series, the RBI Baseball World Series, excelled at every level and are now grabbing the attention of Major League scouts, the Olympic Games in many ways just feels like the next logical step.