Diamond mining in Africa
Along with a promising lode of talent on a new frontier, MLB-sponsored camps are unearthing lots of unexpected passion for the game
When he was chosen for Africa's top baseball camp this year, 14-year-old Ugandan prospect Dicken Okwenje had little more than enthusiasm and raw talent. He had no baseball gear, no glove, no bat, no cleats. He borrowed a friend's glove and made his first journey outside his East African homeland.
In his village in Uganda's war-ravaged north, his father supports a dozen orphans and other children. They don't always get three meals a day. In the rainy season, Dicken works in his father's maize and cassava fields all morning, until his first meal at noon.
But he is a natural athlete. Just two years after his first taste of organized baseball, he is at Major League Baseball's African Elite camp as a centre fielder, shortstop and pitcher. Even with borrowed equipment, he was good enough to crack the lineup of the Ugandan Little League team that dominated the regional Europe-Africa finals last year – although a passport problem prevented him from travelling to the tournament.
"I'm from a poor family and my father is paying for very many people, so he cannot buy equipment for me," he explains as he works out at the MLB camp near Johannesburg. "We have nothing. He's already paying for 12 children."
Poverty is just one of the obstacles facing Africa's top baseball prospects as MLB seeks to develop its first African major-leaguer. But there is growing evidence that this continent could be the next frontier for baseball, and a future hotbed of young prospects.
Uganda, where baseball is now the fastest-growing sport, became the first African country to send a team to the Little League World Series, in 2012.
Last year, Uganda was so dominant at the Europe-Africa regional finals that it won its five games by a combined score of 67-2. Major-league teams have signed a bevy of top prospects from South Africa, and a South African team qualified for the 18-and-under baseball World Cup last year.
Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop prospect Gift Ngoepe, from Johannesburg, recently became the first African to be chosen for the 40-man roster of a major-league team. Dylan (Sharkie) Unsworth, a pitcher from the Indian Ocean city of Durban, has produced elite numbers at the Double-A level in the Seattle Mariners organization.
"You're going to have Africans playing in the big leagues at some point," says former Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Garth Iorg, who is among the coaches at the 12-day MLB African Elite training camp this month.
"How soon, I don't know. If Gift or Dylan makes it quickly, they could be the first. If not, within the next 10 years you're going to have someone from Africa playing in the big leagues."
The African training camp now routinely attracts scouts from major-league teams. This year, the radar guns behind home plate are wielded by scouts from the Pirates, Twins, Dodgers and Rays. At least five prospects from this camp have been signed by major-league organizations since the African program began in 2011.
Most of the 40 teenagers at this year's camp are from Uganda and South Africa, but there are also players from Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Iorg, a top hitter for the Blue Jays when they first reached the playoffs in 1985, is making his second visit to the African camp as a coach. "It's just thrilling," he says as he prepares for a training session. "This is like back to the basics of baseball, and we absolutely love it. All the professional coaches here have either played in the big leagues or coached forever, and they think this is the greatest thing they've ever been to. You will not find better people in the world than these kids. They are fun, they are eager."
Iorg was stunned by the enthusiasm of young players in impoverished Ugandan villages, where American philanthropist Richard Stanley has been helping to build baseball diamonds for more than a decade. "They're playing with no shoes, in cow pastures," Iorg says. "They're grateful for everything you teach them. It's the craziest thing in the world – the great love of the game. They're like, 'I'm an empty vessel, fill me up with what you know.' I just feel so fortunate to be a part of it."
Even basic nutrition is new for the teenagers from poorer backgrounds. "For some of these kids, this is their first time eating three meals a day," Iorg says. "They come in here and they're working out all day and they're actually putting on weight, because they're getting three meals a day."
There are plenty of Canadian connections at the annual African camp. Blue Jays first-base coach Tim Leiper has been a coach here in the past. Former Jays pitcher Dave Bush is a coach this year. Jeff Krushell, a former conditioning coach for the Jays and the Edmonton Eskimos, is a strength and conditioning adviser at the camp.
On the field and in the classroom, the coaches tell stories from their big-league days, pass on tips from some of baseball's greatest players, and teach mental-skills techniques on how to visualize success.
"You're dealing with young kids, a lot of whom have never been away from home," Bush says. "So one of the things we deal with is helping the kids get used to it. If they're going to play baseball, they're going to have to travel a lot, especially being from Africa. You deal with homesickness, kids being uncomfortable, language barriers."
Dicken, who speaks halting English, has overcome barriers that would stymie a less determined player. He learned baseball at his school in Uganda, where he found a biography of home-run slugger Mark McGwire in the library. He studied it over and over. "It's the only one we have," he says.
He's struggling with the heavier wooden bats of the MLB camp, instead of the aluminum bats of his school. "We have only one wooden bat at home, and it's for the coach. You cannot use it, because he might be afraid that you break it. And if you break it, there's no way you can get another one."
Passports and visas are another huge problem for the Ugandans. To improve, they need to travel abroad to international competitions, but they are often denied visas because of flaws in their documents. Even reaching an embassy to submit a basic visa application can require a full-day bus trip.
But Dicken loves baseball, and the travel and camaraderie that goes with it. "I enjoy everything about it."
Everything at the MLB training camp is a new experience for him, and he is eagerly soaking up the lessons from the coaches. "The way they stretch – we have never seen. Running around cones – we have never seen. In the field, when you are playing your position, you have to discover the batter. When you see his first swing, when it's a big swing, you have to move back. When you are batting, you have to discover the pitcher. When he's releasing his ball, when his leg is still up, you also make your step."
In just a few short years, he has seen Uganda's standing in the baseball world soar. "I think Uganda is now the best team in Africa and Europe," he says.
"Every team there is fearing Uganda now. If they see a team is going to play Uganda, they start saying, 'Be careful.' Uganda is going to become a strong team in the world."