As it so often is, baseball was at the center of something special in Plymouth Meeting on Tuesday.
An All-star catcher for Major League Baseball, born 33 years ago in Panama, stood next to an 11-year-old Ugandan boy, as they clasped their fingers through a dugout fence and watched a homerun sail over the outfield wall. The catcher took a step back and smiled at the boy, extending an arm for a fist bump. Taking a moment to look the gesture over, the boy smiled back and popped his knuckles against those of Carlos Ruiz.
Feet away, Jimmy Rollins, the longest tenured Philadelphia Phillie, walked briskly into the dugout and directly into an embrace with Ugandan manager Henry Odong. Smiling, Odong brought out his wallet and began to dig around.
"All the cameras are watching, you got pressure now," Rollins joked.
But Odong came through, and pulled out a slightly creased Jimmy Rollins baseball card from 2003. Rollins chuckled and shook his head in disbelief, as he pulled out a pen to sign it.
Around them, kids of all ages clamored over each other, peered over walls, and snuck between legs to get a look as Ryan Howard entered the dugout. The luckiest ones got close enough to outstretch their arms and plop a baseball into the slugger's giant hands, their eyes lighting up when it was returned with a fresh, if illegible, autograph.
From Lugazi to Plymouth Meeting
Those were the moments at East Plymouth Valley Park Tuesday, as a Little League baseball team from Lugazi, Uganda in America facing off against the Plymouth U12 tournament team. Just days earlier, the team became the first African squad ever to earn a victory at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
"It's been a great experience, everyone is so friendly-- we're treated like celebrities," said Lugazi coach Paul Kateregga. "We've been having fun, getting to play baseball for so many games."
Kateregga says the team arrived in America on the 10th of August, and is scheduled to return to Uganda on Thursday. After the World Series, the team was able to sneak in a game against a club from Germany, along with trips to Harrisburg and Knoebels amusement park.
They then landed in Plymouth Meeting through a series of connections. Richard Stanley, part owner of the Trenton Thunder AA-baseball team, is a major mover in Ugandan baseball, and has helped to develop little leagues there ever since he fell in love with the country during a business trip.
Stanley has also worked with Norristown-based RxSport, maker of the increasingly popular Chandler bat, whose employees have ties to Plymouth Little League. It was through those connections that the exhibition game came to fruition.
A developing program in a developing nation
Angela Christino Marcantonini, community relations director for RxSport, delivered an emotional welcome before the game.
"In under five years, these kids here came to the Little League World Series, not only as a champion of Africa, but as a symbol of hope for every underserved country out there," Marcantonini said. "The hope that you can start with nothing and build the program of your dreams."
In addition, RxSport donated engraved bats to each player at an . Kateregga says the equipment is extremely valuable to bring back to Uganda, given the lack of financial resources in that country.
"To us, getting the equipment is so important because so many people say 'we need to start a league,' but when they try, they can't get equipment. No gloves, no balls, no bats," Kateregga said.
Let's Play Ball
As culturally important as the day was, the love of the game was not lost on some. As Kateregga spoke, many of the players on his team continued to watch the game attentively, even as the Phillies players entered their dugout. At one point, Rollins quipped, "isn't there a baseball game here?" noticing that only the youngsters seemed to be paying attention.
Kateregga says its part of the growing passion amongst the country's youth.
"This [visit] is going to boost it, because even more kids will now be interested in starting leagues. And that will create competition, and you may see a different team coming back," Kateregga said, laughing. "Because if they don't play competitively, someone else will knock them off."
Rollins understands their desire to play the game. Last year, a little league team from the Ugandan capital of Kampala qualified for the LLWS, but couldn't attend because of issues with their visas. So last winter, Rollins’ foundation donated $10,000 to help fly the Ugandan's would-be first round opponents-- a Canadian team-- to Africa for a game dubbed the "Pearl of Africa Series."
Rollins told reporters Tuesday that he saw a piece of himself in the players during that trip.
"The dream is in the big leagues, but it starts here," Rollins said. "It just makes you smile when you see these kids, and I'm sure they're going to go home and realize how tired they were running around here with all these cameras."
Ultimately, there was no score kept in the three-inning exhibition. Plymouth starting pitcher Kyle Williams hit a bump in the first, walking leadoff batter Justine Makisimu, who crossed the plate when Fred Ojerku smoked a single into right, before loading the bases. However, Williams righted the ship by striking out three Ugandan players and leaving the bases loaded.
Plymouth would even the score in the bottom of the inning with a homerun, but after the ensuing commotion following the arrival of the Phillies, the final score is anyone's guess. Ultimately, the players from both squads combined, playing side-by-side in a second game.
And by the time the sun would set, they would all be sitting in Citizens Bank Park, special guests of Jimmy Rollins as the Phillies welcomed the New York Mets into Philadelphia for a three-game series.
And by the final game of that series on Thursday night, the team from Lugazi will be airborne, carrying their new big league dreams back home.
And why not?
"I was eleven once, and six years later I was drafted," Rollins said. "If one kid can break through, they all could."