Uganda to make LLWS debut
The pings of metal bats striking baseballs reverberated from the covered hitting cages at dawn.
The early-risers from Uganda are the first team from Africa to make it to the Little League World Series, and they aren't wasting a minute on the pristine grounds of South Williamsport.
''I had never seen such a beautiful field,'' third baseman Ronald Olaa, 11, said about Lamade Stadium, up a hill from the cages. ''I got mesmerized.''
The other 15 teams are captivated, too, by Olaa and his teammates. They're one of the most popular squads on the Little League campus half a world away from their home in Lugazi, Uganda.
''Who gets to meet people from Uganda in our neck of the woods,'' Brad Wegner, manager of a Kearney, Neb., team, said in recounting how he told his players to meet other teams and enjoy time off the diamond.
Wegner's boys are making history, too. It's the first time in the 66 years of the tournament that a team from that state has made the tournament.
Opening day is Thursday with four games on the slate. Nebraska plays the prime-time game against Goodlettsville, Tenn.
They're already ready to party back in Kearney no matter how far the town's mini-mashers make it in the World Series.
But Blake Quintana, 13, is handling all the attention like a seasoned major leaguer.
''They're planning to have a big celebration when we get back,'' the 13-year-old second baseman said during a break at the cage while leaning against his bat. ''I'm excited for it, but we have to focus on this first.''
Caveat: Boys this age can have short attention spans, too.
''I love the game room, dude,'' 13-year-old Jake Gappa exclaimed as he trudged back with teammates to the dorms carrying a bag full of equipment after a round at the cage.
Free gear and a players housing complex with a rec room and pool are part of the perks of being one of the 16 teams left standing at the World Series after a summer-long tournament that began with 7,000 squads worldwide.
In South Williamsport, the field is broken up into eight U.S. teams and eight international teams. The 11-day tournament is double-elimination until the final weekend, when U.S. and international champions are crowned to face off for the World Series title.
Sure, there's pressure, especially in the middle of games broadcast for millions watching on national television with tens of thousands more sitting in the stands. In the Williamsport area - the birthplace of Little League - the World Series is a time-honored tradition during which many residents and volunteers plan their vacations.
''There's a giant time commitment ... But you always keep it in perspective. You know, it's 12-year-old baseball,'' said Fairfield, Conn., manager Bill Meury.
There's also already a sense of accomplishment and relief among teams that have advanced.
''All the teams here have won, and you're playing with house money,'' said Meury, who couldn't stop smiling or laughing. ''If you can put together a couple good games, maybe you can do something that I don't think anyone can set as a goal at the beginning of the year, which is to win a World Series.''
Finding a baseball field without pebbles or ant hills - let alone thinking about getting to the World Series - is tough enough for Olaa team's from Uganda.
While baseball is an emerging sport in Uganda, it's still not as popular as soccer.
Some players may come from families who can't afford shoes. But players in Uganda are also used to playing in bare feet, so much so that a couple Lugazi team members went without shoes for one of their first practices in South Williamsport.
''They got here and they got brand new shoes and brand new bats,'' manager Henry Odong said. ''They're very excited'' they may have a future in baseball.
Odong's team isn't the first team from Africa to qualify for the World Series, though it will be the first one to play in South Williamsport. A separate team from Kampala, Uganda was disqualified last year after the U.S. State Department denied visas because of discrepancies over players' ages and birth dates
But Uganda coach Richard Stanley, of New York, said the problem had to do with a coach last year falsifying documents. Stanley, a retired chemical engineer who owns a small stake of the Trenton Thunder Double-A minor league baseball team, has donated about $2 million to establish a Little League program and build a baseball academy in Uganda.
Stanley hopes the Lugazi team's success will help draw more boys and girls into Little League baseball and softball, which he hopes will eventually will be a stepping stone to help children get scholarships and go to college.
But that's a goal for years down the road. For now, Olaa and his teammates plan to just enjoy the simple pleasure of playing baseball.