How do you teach a kid who’s never seen baseball how to swing a bat?
Newburyport native Evan Petty’s answer: Pretty well, actually.
Eight months after the 23-year-old flew 7,000 miles to teach English and join the baseball staff at Uganda’s Allen VR Stanley Secondary School of Math and Science for the Athletically Talented, he and his dozen charges are in Williamsport, Pa. for the Little League World Series, which begins Thursday.
“It’s always been sort of like a dream to try to get there’’ Petty said, of Little League’s biggest stage. “I never thought I’d have the chance to get there this quickly.’’
Petty graduated from Syracuse University last year with a degree in journalism and a desire for a career in baseball, whether writing or coaching. Soon after, he started a communications internship with The Alaska Goldpanners of the Alaska Baseball League, a collegiate summer program much like the Cape Cod League. It wasn’t long before he wanted to get back into the game.
An OK high school player who didn’t play in college, Petty didn’t think he had the experience to coach American high schoolers or college students and so looked abroad. He remembered hearing Uganda had fielded Africa’s first-ever entrant to the Little League World Series in 2012 and began looking online for opportunities there. He soon discovered the newly-established Stanley School, which its founder hopes will be a pipeline sending the East African nation’s best athletes to American colleges and maybe, some day, the pros.
Baseball was first brought to Uganda by missionaries in the early 90s, but it’s only had a formal structure there since the early 2000s, when an American named Richard Stanley helped establish a league at the request of a government official. Stanley, a former chemical engineer from New York and part owner of the minor-league Trenton Thunder, had for decades traveled the third world doing infrastructure projects when he was asked in 2002 to start the league.
Stanley secured enough “starter kits,’’ which include bats, baseballs and softballs, gloves, and helmets donated by Major League and Little League Baseball, to supply four teams. Two years of shipping and bureacratic issues later, the country held its first-ever official baseball tournament. A curious thing happened there: After pairing the teams for a semifinal round and then holding a championship between the winners, the kids asked to play each of the teams they hadn’t yet played, one after the other. The marathon tournament finally ended six hours after it started.
“This is what impressed me,’’ Stanley said. “They just want to play. ‘Give me a chance, let us play,’ and again, you don’t see that in America.’’
Realizing the kids’ enthusiasm gave Uganda potential as the continent’s first baseball hotbed, Stanley turned his focus into getting them into – and ready for – international competition. He has continuously improved the baseball infrastructure through annual supply donations by Major League and Little League Baseball and piecemeal upgrades to its baseball facilities, most of them out of his own pocket. In 2007, he built an athletic complex with five baseball fields near the Ugandan capital of Kampala.
After State Department issues kept the continent’s first-ever Little League World Series qualifier from traveling to the U.S. in 2011, the 2012 team finally made it to Williamsport. There, the athletically gifted but raw team found itself outclassed by the competition. None of the Ugandan kids had seen a curveball or fastball above the mid-50s before. Stanley recalls more than one player falling down in the batters’ box.
The game was now widespread, but Uganda still didn’t have a strong enough baseball infrastructure to produce legitimate contenders on the international stage. Schools played amongst themselves but rarely against each other, and most coaches – all of them native Ugandans – had little expertise beyond Stanley’s own instruction.
In 2013, he built the Stanley School adjacent to the athletic complex. There, some of the country’s best athletes follow a rigorous curriculum designed to prepare them to study science, technology, engineering and math – vital to improving infrastructure in the third world as well as their own fortunes – at American colleges. They also spend hours each day on the practice field, with the aim of their getting half-athletic, half-academic scholarships.
That year the school accepted its first class of 25 male and 25 female “s1’’ students – the equivalent of sixth-graders here. Two more classes of roughly the same size have followed in the two years since, with the plan being to expand to a full seven-class school as the years go on.
The baseball team is managed by 25-year-old Benard Adei, a native Ugandan trained in Europe, and Petty is his right-hand man. Together, they’re as knowledgeable a coaching tandem as the country has.
Because the sport is in its infancy there, few students have even thrown a baseball before arriving at school, let alone watched the game be played. But with manual labor a way of life even for them and little entertainment available aside from sports, the Ugandan kids are as strong, fast and limber as any in the tournament’s 16-team field.
“We won the (qualifying) tournament in Poland and our kids are doing backflips and stuff in the outfield,’’ Petty said. “I’m walking around campus and I see people do gymnastic moves. Naturally they’re very athletic, and they just want to play and play.’’
If their success in qualifying is any indication, their relative inexperience has hardly been a hindrance: In the span of a week, Uganda outscored its five opponents by an eye-popping 67-2 margin, capped off by a 16-0 shutout win over Spain on July 23rd to clinch the bid.
The competition in the Europe-African division is not on par with that in the Asian regions and the Americas – Brno, Czech Republic was swept in last year’s tournament after outscoring opponents 64-10 in Poland – but Petty said his boys aren’t a group to sleep on.
“I think we’re going to surprise people,’’ Petty said. “People aren’t accustomed to a team from Europe or Africa really competing. I think we’re going to compete.’’
While its fielding and batting are potent, the Stanley School team is built on a coaching philosophy that emphasizes pitching and a recruiting strategy that prizes speed and height. Of the twelve players, Petty said the two to watch are team captain Joshua Olara, one of its starting pitchers and likely leadoff batter, and Francis Alemo, who struck out a dozen batters over four innings during a qualifying game in Poland.
In Uganda, Petty wakes early and teaches his lone English class at 7:20 before heading to the field to prepare for and run practices. There’s some nightlife in nearby Kampala, and a few tourist-y spots, but Petty keeps mostly to himself.
Because Uganda is close to the equator, it has 12-hour days all year. Temperatures rarely dip below 60 or above 80, and with its proximity to the African Great Lakes, it’s eminently fertile: Plants grow year-round and the landscape, at least near Kampala, is dominated by forests. Paved roads are few and far between, other Americans even moreso. But native Ugandans generally speak English well, Petty says.
After the tournament concludes, Petty will head back to Uganda for the start of the school year’s third term in September. Whether he returns for another year, he says, depends partly on whether he leaves Willamsport with unfinished business.
The Stanley School takes on Santiago de los Caballero, Dominican Republic in the tournament’s opening game Thursday at 1 p.m. It will be broadcast on ESPN.
It’s as favorable a draw as the Ugandans could have hoped for, as international powerhouses Chinese Taipei and Japan are on the other side of the bracket, each at least two games away. The 2012 team won one game, but in the consolation bracket. This year, the goal is to win one that matters. Anything else is gravy.
To date no African-born athlete has played in Major League Baseball. This year, the Milwaukee Brewers selected Nigeria-born, Canada-raised outfielder Demi Orimoloye in the fourth round of the draft, a spot that has him well-positioned to make history. If not Orimoloye, it could be a member of the 2015 LLWS team team or one of many the fledgling Uganda baseball machine hopes to send in the coming years.
Fulfilling that promise will not be an easy task, but these boys are in as good a place to do it as anyone their age, anywhere.
“They’re only 12, it’s tough to see,’’ Petty said. “But I’m telling them that they’re going to come here, and ‘no 12-year-old in the whole world is playing at a higher level than where you are right now.’
“’Right now you’re at the top.’’’