Week 7 or whatever: MLB Envoy Program Part 1
I’ve decided that a day by day recap of the Envoy program isn’t the way to go here. As I thought it might be, it is a bit repetitive. So, lots of pretty pictures and some written highlights is how I’m going to handle this. Full disclosure, I’m getting a bit stir crazy out here in the middle of nowhere during the clinic and am eager to get back into the city and around the country. That being said, the filming has been fruitful and I’m sure there have been many useful moments with our future storylines.
The two coaches here from MLB are Pat Doyle and Tom Gillespe. Meet Pat Doyle: He pitched in the Boston Red Sox minor league system once upon a time and has been a coach at different levels for many years. He now heads up the Envoy program for MLB and this trip marks his 4th to Africa and first to Uganda. His recommendations to Little League International will carry significant weight to the decision to host the Regional Tournament here this summer. So, much of my focus and interest in filming Pat is his impressions of the facility, talent, and overall structure.
Tom Gillespe has a scouting title with the Oakland A’s for their European prospects and certainly knows talent when he sees it. He saw Benard pitch in Italy and my focus for him is to gauge his impressions of some of the more skilled players here.
The way these 2 weeks are working is something like this. There are about 25 coaches with very little or no knowledge of baseball attending the first week and about 30 in the second week. The coaches in the first week come mostly from Kenya and the northern parts of Uganda. We also have about 25 of the older (16-21 year old) players here to play games every day and get a bit of advanced instruction from Pat and Tom. Although, MLB’s primary reason for being here is the planting of the baseball seed with the 25 newcomers.
Every morning starts with a meeting at the guesthouse, a video session, and some short instruction before the coaches go out and try to throw, or hit, or learn the basics.
Since I’m not giving a day to day I’ll just say that Tom and Pat are doing a tremendous job and show far more patience than most could. They take the first group of coaches from men and women who had never seen a baseball to a point where they could reasonably
explain and teach the basics to children in just a week. Out of the 25 coaches who come I think MLB is reasonably satisfied if 8 of them go back to their countries or cities and form teams and of those 8 if 2 or 3 of them are playing in a year, it would have to be considered a success. I’d say they probably hit those numbers with the first group.
The complex has been running smoothly thus far. The players and coaches are staying comfortably in the dormitory which got running water and electricity just in time for the opening.
The food situation is solid as well. Most days they serve some combination of chapati, rice, beans, matoke, posho, fish, meat, or what they call cow peas which I think are just small chick peas. This aspect of a good living situation may be just as important (if not more) for Little League to see than the playing surfaces, which are also holding up quite well.
In the evenings the coaches and players meet back at the guesthouse for some questions and wrap up before watching a movie (they went through the “Police Academy” series in the first week I think). One evening near the end of the first group just before Pat was set to hit play on the DVD a man from Lira (northern Uganda) stood up to ask a question. The question lasted about 30 minutes and wasn’t really a question. It turns out the guy was a local politician and basically asked for a bunch of money and support. It was lame. He wasn’t here for the right reasons and he definitely wont be one of the 8 or 2 or 3 that ends up helping the game. Oh well.
A few highlights from the week: Tom and Pat spent an afternoon leading a hitting clinic for the older players which was their first real opportunity to see their skill level. The word that both of them were left with was “potential”. They both see tremendous athletic ability and various degrees of mechanical success. Watero impresses Tom with his build and age. His swing is pretty solid as well. No one is perfect here but they all want to be, which is great.
Another day Tom and Pat lead a popup drill designed to teach players to get used to calling each other off on fly balls between fielders. Murphy’s law rears its ugly head and in the game they play after the drill we have a really bad collision between Okello playing shortstop and Sola playing centerfield. Okello gets the worst of it and is knocked out cold for a moment. It was pretty scary and I was admittedly shaken by it. There was blood when he bit through his lip. The fear was a broken jaw. The concussion was certain. It wasn’t pretty. George drove his car down and rushed him off to a local health clinic. We finished the game and all the players were sure that he would be fine. He came back that night, no broken jaw, a few stiches on the inside and outside of the chin and a little headache. During international tournaments, Richard gets a few local doctors to come on site. This is why. Anyway, Okello is a tough kid and insisted that he play in the league game on Saturday here.
Speaking of the league game, it was very cool that they wanted to have it. The 25 players we brought to play were made up of the best players I had seen during league play, meaning we took 5 or 6 from each team and not entire teams. But instead of postponing the weekly league play during these clinics, the remaining players traveled here to join their teammates and play the games. I find it to be a very good sign that these guys care who wins these games. Kyambogo won both of them as usual, but they were close. And the swings were much better after their instruction with Tom and Pat.
The players wake up at 5 in the morning most days to run and warm up before the sun comes up. I join them… sometimes.
The younger players arrive after the first week. These players in many ways are far more advanced than our older players. They play cleaner baseball and make fewer mistakes. In 4 or 5 years they will be 4 or 5 times better than our older teams are now.
Tom and Pat are more impressed with them from a fundamentals standpoint. These are the boys that really carry the hopes and baseball dreams of Uganda if the LLWS is to be a sort of coming out party for the country. They can really put a very strong under 12 team together out of these players… that is if they can prove they are under 12. That is a matter for Little League to tackle.
I interview Pat and we discuss the idea of “Baseball in Africa as an idea whose time has come.” The general takeaway is that it will be “very hard for Little League to not put the regional here.” We shall see what happens, but I tend to agree. The facility is good, the logistics are good, but the players are ready. That seems to be the strongest point and hardest thing to ignore. They are ready to play, and compete, impress, and do make an impact.
One day, a bunch of players and myself climb a small mountain that provides a decent view of the complex and the nearby village. It gives you an idea just how wild this place is here in the middle of a swamp and some hills. The fields are tucked in there on the left side of the valley.
A few of the more experienced coaches sit together for an African style meeting to get advice from Pat about how to move forward. I say “African style”, because Africans like meetings where they say a lot of good things but don’t really make a practical plan to enact. This meeting however has an emphasis on changing the Federation. I’ll have to explain a bit about the Federations and their power. Every country has a Sports Federation which basically has domain over International competitions. They have a sort of copyright on anything called a “National Team” and are supposed to help distribute resources that may come to advance games in their own countries. In Africa, Uganda included, most of them are completely corrupt. The man who runs the Ugandan baseball Federation is named Barnabus. I’ve heard nothing but terrible things about him but haven’t met him yet. He hates Little League and MLB since they don’t go through him or give him any money or support. In April there are elections where they hope to remove Barnabus. Many people want George to run. He is reluctant because of his humble nature, but I believe he will.
For the immediate goals (LLWS or MLB prospects) they don’t really need control or cooperation of the Federation, but if they hope to compete in the World Baseball Classic, Africa Games, World Cups, or the Olympics (if baseball comes back) they’ll need Federation support. I’ll be very interested to film those elections come April. Stay tuned.
The second group of coaches has replaced the first, most are from Tanzania. I’m ready for the next phase of filming in February when the kids start school (many start new schools). But for the rest of the week I’ll keep an eye on the under 12’s who are playing good baseball every day and line up an interview with Tom.
And here is a slug… enjoy it.