COMMENTARY| "They love the game in a way we've almost forgotten." -- Jimmy Rollins
Gresham, Oregon's first baseman Tyler Linch did what any 12-year old kid would do in a 3-1 count when he didn't hear a strike call from the umpire. He assumed ball four and dropped his bat to take first. His teammate, Greg Mehlhaff, having reached with a single, naturally, began to jog toward second. Meanwhile, the home plate umpire found the wherewithal to jut a bony finger to the side and yell, "Strike two."
At 12 years old, it would take an uncanny baseball sense for a catcher to measure the situation and act. For a Ugandan 12-year old, what transpired was brilliance, a brilliance that explains just how smoothly and quickly the youth of that impoverished African nation have taken to the sport of baseball in such a short time. With Mehlhaff unfairly caught in no man's land between first and second base, Ugandan catcher Justine Makisimu launched from his crouch behind the plate. Little League rules state that no baserunner may leave a base until the pitch has passed the hitter or has been put in play. Mehlhaff left base legally, and without hesitation after the delayed strike call, Makisimu sprinted out past the pitcher's mound, directly at the baserunner. Confused, the runner gestured toward second. Makisimu fired the ball to his second baseman who ran the runner back to first, throwing over his shoulder to his first sacker to apply the tag.
It went into the books as caught stealing, but it personified the baseball strides the Ugandans have taken over the long and successful road they traversed just to be in Williamsport, and it set up Africa's first ever win in the Little League World Series. Two batters later, reliever Job Echon fired a first pitch, tailing fastball to Gresham's Ethan Marshall, who pulled his hands in to smack a line drive directly back at Echon. He snatched it out of the air and calmly jogged toward the dugout as if what had just transpired wasn't historic. In fact, the entire Ugandan team headed toward the dugout, as if they weren't satisfied, as if they wanted to keep playing. They had no idea they had won.
Following the game, Philadelphia Phillies' shortstop Jimmy Rollins (@JimmyRollins11) tweeted, "Congratulations to Uganda for their first ever LLWS victory! Their story is just beginning..." Rollins should know. He played an integral role in bringing the story of these young men to light.
In the summer of 2011, the Ugandans won the Middle East-Africa international regional title to earn a trip to Williamsport. They earned the right to play games on ESPN. They earned the envy of all those American boys who played for teams that fell just short. But they were denied what they had earned.
Upon applying for travel visas at the U.S. Embassy, the Ugandan team was denied because of a lack of proper documentation. These kids rest their heads under rusted out aluminum roofs. Paved roads to them would be yellow brick roads to us. They live, work and play predominantly in bare feet. Many are orphans, refugees, displaced from family for one horrific reason or another. Birth certificates? Most of these kids don't even know how old they are. They estimate. And they don't complain about it because that's their lives, and they feel blessed for that roof, that debris-covered dirt path that leads them to the dilapidated ball field, socks and the orphanage or rundown school. That's not to make anyone feel bad for exercising the opportunities we're afforded in the U.S. It's just fact.
After 9/11, I won't ever question our nation's more stringent regulations concerning the entrance to and exit of American soil. If you think I look like a terrorist, go ahead and pull me aside and violate my rights. I'm ok with it. Sacrifices that we make now don't compare to the ultimate sacrifice so many paid on that day. But come on. Recognize the situation. Give a government employee three days to hammer out the task of ensuring that this travel party is indeed a group of 11 and 12 year old boys and their coaches visiting our nation to play its national pastime.
The MEA (Middle East-Africa) representative was slated to play a team from Langley, British Columbia, the Canadian representative, in the first round of the double elimination tournament. Upon hearing of the hardship of the team from Kampala, Uganda that was denied their visas, an activist from Vancouver named Ruth Hoffman and an organization called Right to Play banded together to take the game to Uganda. This past January, the team from Langley, along with ESPN the Magazine senior writer Steve Wulf and many donors made the trip to Africa to play the game the Ugandans never got to play. It was dubbed "The Pearl of Africa Series." I implore you to read Steve Wulf's piece about the interaction between the children of those two nations and the stark realities that were shown to children of one country, while children of another showed nothing but gratitude. It's a story every sports fan should read in a time when most sports stories want to make us sick.
Upon hearing of the trip, filmmaker Jay Shapiro jumped on board to document it. Shapiro had done a story on ESPN when the Ugandan team was denied and Rollins tweeted him to compliment him on the piece. When Shapiro decided to make the trip to Uganda with the Canadians, he reached out to a number of major leaguers to get them involved. Many expressed interest. Rollins followed through. The Jimmy Rollins Family Foundation donated $10,000 to help with trip expenses, but any big leaguer can cut a check.
Rollins, whose wife Jahari was pregnant with their first child, jumped on board and made the trip. He brought along batting gloves, gum, candy, mitts and shoes. He worked with infielders he was shocked to learn already had a firm, athletic, fledgling grasp of the game. He coordinated. He instructed coaches on better ways to teach the game. He introduced drills. He went to parties, participated in talent shows, visited the homes of players, the schools of orphans and refugees, toured the beleaguered streets.
While there, Rollins met many of the players that would, once again, win the MEA international region in 2012. This time, the town was Lugazi, just down the road from the capital, and this time, the U.S. Embassy corrected a year old wrong, resulting in the first African team to play in the LLWS.
When spring training rolled around this past February, teammates asked Rollins what he remembered most about the trip to Uganda. He told them, "that there are real ballplayers there." Any more than that, Rollins continued, would have to be told over dinner, because it would take hours.
Rollins will host the Ugandan team at Citizens Bank Park this week during the Phillies' homestand and the players will receive big league treatment. After all, they are ballplayers. Just ask Justine Makisimu, who launched from his crouch behind the plate to register the key out in a one-run game to help Africa to its first ever LLWS win.
As for Rollins, I'm sure there's no thanks needed. I'm sure the things he saw, the reminder of what the game should be, the love of people whose only reason to love is love itself, will stay with him forever. I'm sure that's thanks enough. But the Ugandan kids are appreciative of all they've been given, and they made sure Rollins knew it.ESPN Little League World Series analyst Nomar Garciaparra responded to Rollins' tweet of congratulations with one of his own, "@JimmyRollins11 they just dedicated their victory to you. You have made a huge impact my friend."
The first thing the Ugandan kids did in the realization they had won was hug the kids from the Oregon team and pose for a photo. It was perfect. It was what it all should be.
Rollins is not the only one who has made an impact.
Pete Lieber is a freelance writer and a Philadelphia sports enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter at @Lieber14.