all about benard
So, I write these entries assuming that anyone who reads them knows/remembers little to no backstory of the characters and story lines I touch on. Often times, I like the reminder and clarification as well. As this blog gets longer and denser in its entirety I feel that is the best way to go. So after spending the last 3 days shooting with him, I will “re”introduce Benard Adai.
I first met Benard a year ago on our first fact/story-finding trip. He was pitching at Richard’s complex with a team called the Saint Noa Fighters. He was tall, very lean, with nice three quarter arm angle Japanese influenced mechanics that resulted in decent natural movement on the fastball and a nice bite on a slider.
We were interviewing just about every player on every team at every age group that came through in that month. We were filming with editing a teaser and sort of “proof of concept” video as a result, really only able to scratch the surface on the stories, but hopefully enough to excite people to want to be involved in the full length feature.
In the interviews I would try to find out what the player’s life was all about. In the end we knew we would only have time to briefly dive into about 3 characters for this piece. Benard jumped out at us right away. He spoke well and deeply about his experiences growing up in the North surrounded by violence and the constant threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army, losing friends to abductions, losing family members to clashes in the war, running away from gun shots to safety in nearby towns… etc… all too familiar stories to Africa, and unfortunately not the only player who has this type of past. But Benard seemed to contain an awareness and motivation that I wanted to explore.
We filmed with him at his school to get the shots we were looking for in the piece. One such shot was of course his baseball rituals of warming up with his friend and catcher Aron. Benard’s skill was impressive as I’ve mentioned, but that wasn’t really the reason we choose to pursue his story.
After my return to America from that first trip the video of him warming up made its way to a former semi-co-worker of mine at MLB International named Mike McClellan. He has always been a good friend of the project and was impressed enough with the video of him pitching to invite him to Tirrenia Italy for the annual MLB European Academy which is a sort of scouting showcase and learning hub for the top 60 or so 16-21 year old players from Europe. That was a complete surprise outcome of our meeting and one that has and will continue to alter the landscape of baseball in Africa for the better. When Benard got the news of the invite he was obviously shocked and overjoyed, he nor I had never even known it was a possibility. After a very “African” process of getting a visa, I wont bore you with it, but just imagine way too many letters, way too many bribes, way too many headaches, and way too many trips to the embassy, he got on the plane.
He spent 3 weeks surrounded by the best young baseball talent in Europe receiving coaching from Bruce Hurst, Lee Smith, Barry Larkin, Wally Joyner, Brent Mayne, and John McClaren (a pretty good group of names). It was obviously a life altering experience in many ways. He pitched well (5 2/3 inning 2 hits, 0 earned runs 5K 3BB) during his time on the mound. He made close friends who he still keeps in contact with from around Europe. And he saw a bit of a country as developed and well functioning as Italy. I’m not sure the friends he made and coaches he played under had any idea just how unlikely it was for his life story to go through that camp. And that is how it should be. His story, all of the players stories we are following are never supposed to be sympathy cases. I, as a filmmaker, always try to have the utmost respect for the game I and they love, and in baseball, you have to earn it. He pitched well and learned a lot, that’s what mattered in Italy.
Coming back to Uganda he was met with what I expected, a mixture of respect and resentment. Sometimes we like to imagine a peaceful village mentality of developing countries in the west, but the reality is a much more competitive step on your neighbors throat for your next meal situation… mostly. To the young baseball players who look up to Benard, he enjoyed a bit of celebrity and was answering questions from how good the baseball was to what the pasta tasted like. This was something new to Benard who was a stoic young man who often prefers to keep to himself. Benard was focused on his dream of making it in baseball, he had seen a high level of competition and felt like he belonged there.
I filmed with him and his family several times and the running theme had always been the tug that his Mother would put on him to find a job and try to help the family. I followed a saga of him filling out work papers begrudgingly. It involved running around his hometown and school filling out information and gathering transcripts for I’m still not sure what, but some sort of scholarship application. I’m 99% sure it is still sitting in the guidance counselors office at his secondary school. I filmed him meeting his Dad for the first time in 6 years and asking for a letter of recommendation to help find a job. Benard was really only doing this so he could appease his Mom and he guessed he would never receive the letter from his Dad. He didn’t. In any case, it provided the backdrop for him to explain the pressure to satisfy his family and get a job or follow this impossible dream of baseball.
The most powerful talks we had were while visiting the places in his past that held the darkest memories, the school where he and his friends would run to for safety, the place where his friend was abducted, the place where he saw family members cut to death. We talked about his families response to these difficult things being religion, they are all devout Christians. Benard told me simply his answer was Baseball, that is his religion.
On Christmas eve he visited the internet cafe to write a holiday greeting to a friend he made in Italy named Hato who is from the Netherlands. When he opened his email he had 1 in his inbox, it was from Hato and said that he had signed with the New York Mets. Benard’s response was pure joy and happiness for his friend, he wrote back about how proud he was of Hato and that it filled him with hope and courage the he could make it someday soon. We sat overlooking the small patch of grass that the young kids in the ghetto call a baseball field and Benard said to me “I’m so sure I can make it” with a wide grin. I don’t know if doubt was creeping into his thoughts at that point, but clearly just as the guys in Italy didn’t really understand the life that Benard leads, Benard did not understand the tremendous gap in opportunity that he and Hato had. It was for me, beautiful to hear his hope at that moment.
Over the next months he lived with Coach George trying to refine his skill, lead the young ones, and work out, all while feeling bad about imposing on George’s family and resources. I would film him at practices coaching the kids, reading his books from Italy, and trying to build muscle on his thin frame. He would hear of more of his friends from Italy being signed (a friend named David just signed with the Mariners). He was being torn.
One evening he came to me in the evening 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. And he did, and is. It wasn’t a satisfying answer for him, but it’s all I could offer.
Now he has moved back home. He could tell he was a strain on George’s family, especially his wife who cooks for everyone in the house. And on top of that he knew his Mom and family wanted him home to help with taking care of his younger sisters. This is where I just visited him.
He reads his baseball books constantly along with motivational books. Those books must fill him with analogies because he was full of them while talking with me. He talked openly for the first time with me about his dream of playing baseball at the highest level and that is is “falling apart.” The words he used were “it is like holding a bunch of oranges and oranges are falling out.” He continued though to tell me he has to “replace the oranges with something new.” He is finding that with coaching. He may finally be answering his own question from months back.
He is the only baseball player of his age in this town. He doesn’t have anyone to throw with. So, he reads his books and he wakes up at 5 every morning to run and keep his body in shape.
He admits the loneliness and frustration in that. He keeps a journal of thoughts where he writes ideas like “restore hope to the hopeless through baseball.” These are where his thoughts in the game are now.
We talk about the possibility of a return trip to Italy (which is still only a possibility and not a certainty) and what he would hope to get from it. He answers that he would be impressed with the coaches and admire the players. If he is invited back it would hopefully be in that duel capacity of learning just what it means to lead and coach while honing his personal skill as much as he can.
From where he was when I met him a year ago, it is remarkable to think how much his personality has evolved to be comfortable with leading with confidence. If he does return, I bet Bruce and Lee and the gang would hardly recognize his attitude. And I taught him a serviceable circle-change for good measure on the mound, so who knows what happens there.
There was a league game on Saturday in Lugazi and Benard tagged along with us to play where he threw a few good innings, his first inning in months. On a side note, I umpired home plate and had to call my first ever cow delay. We can play through 2 or 3 roaming the outfield, but 8 or 9 decided to stampede across second base, so hey we waited.
So now, Benard is back in Kampala for the week at least, back with George for a short stay. He is coming out to the complex this weekend to coach the Survivors pitchers. His armful of oranges may drop even more this weekend but they’ll be replaced by the dreams of the survivors. I’ll end it here as we continue to follow Benard’s story. He is one of my favorite people on the planet and no matter what happens during the rest of this year, he’ll never understand just how proud I am of him.