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Published: October 7th 2008
As sort of a culmination of our work teaching the baseball and on our final weekend in South Africa, we traveled to Durban to take part in the school youth baseball league.
The league, supported and organized by Kwazulu-Natal Baseball Association, begins in July and runs for 8 weeks. It is sort of a pre-season to the Club league that starts up after the completion of the school league—the school league gets kids into baseball, it is less competitive, and then those who wish to continue on (and who are selected by the club teams) can play in the club league. Each team represents a different elementary school from different parts of Durban, and in the school league there are 16 teams in all. What is really unique about this baseball community is its diversity; there are teams from the poor townships on the edges of the city, and there are teams from the fancy prep schools as well. The team from the township is all black, while the team from the prep schools are predominantly white and Indian. The prep school has a coach whose full-time job at the school is teaching and coaching baseball; the coach of
Holly, holding the 'T', along with several others, made the signs for the Woodchucks game. (Woodchucks is the name on our jerseys, and the name of the French team who donated the jerseys and gear).
the team from the township is a woman who has never played baseball and is simply enthusiastic about the game and supporting her kids. The prep school has fancy uniforms, decked out from head to toe in a way that would match any school baseball team in the States; on the township team, about half of the players play barefoot.
I say this not to create division and difference between these two teams, but more to point out the wide spectrum of folks who are playing baseball. These two teams are the two extremes, and the rest of the teams fall somewhere inbetween. But the beauty of it all is that they are all playing together. They are all there to learn baseball, and as John Olivier, the director of the program puts it, they are there “to just have fun. That’s all that really matters.” And it is true that they are having fun.
The first time I visited the baseball complex in Durban I was struck by how many players are involved in baseball. At one time there were six games going on spread over two high school-size fields. Each team has a coach, each game
has at least one umpire, there are vendors walking around selling hot dogs and ice cream, and quite a few parents there watching their kids. The second thing I noticed was the positive atmosphere . There is no yelling at kids, kids aren’t yelling at each other, parents and coaches are not yelling at the umpires. There is a positivity that pervades each kid, each coach involved. It was a wonderful two hours just sitting on the hill with Viktorija, watching people enjoy baseball.
On that first visit to Durban baseball, John Olivier invited us to bring our kids from Thanda out to play a game one Saturday. I can’t tell you how excited I was about this possibility. John Olivier is not only the director of KZN Baseball but was also my first contact with South African Baseball; he gave us most of the baseball equipment to start up our Thanda baseball program. In fact, he explained to me that all 16 teams in the school program were using equipment given to them by the Association—that it is their belief that lack of equipment should not be an obstacle for a school wanting to play baseball. Each school
John was the umpire for our game.
receives several bats, helmets, and enough baseballs and gloves to field a team. If a school is not attending regularly or stops their baseball program, then John politely asks for the equipment back and passes it on to another school that will use it. They are also blessed to have relationships/sponsorships with Major League Baseball, Rawlings, and Wilson (two major baseball equipment companies) which make this possible. (If only we could find such sponsors in Lithuania!!!).
But I digress…….if I haven’t emphasized it enough, I was super-impressed by the baseball community in Durban, South Africa. And I was flattered and thrilled by how encouraging John Olivier was of our program at Thanda.
We met the Sacred Heart Children’s Home bus at the gas station in downtown Hibberdene at around 7:30 AM on this particular Saturday. The bus was packed with our 12 players, one of the Sisters from the Home, one caregiver, and three Thanda staff members. ALL had come along to support the kids. You could feel the energetic excitement among the kids sitting on that bus. As we pulled in and I walked up to the bus, one of the kids said ‘hey Will—Mduduzi didn’t come.
The stadium, high-rise apartments, and beyond that North Beach and the Indian Ocean.
He is not well.” This was a joke, of course, because Mduduzi is both our starting pitcher and the strongest player on our team. All of the kids were laughing, I laughed and gave a wry smile, and several seconds later Mdu popped his head out of the window and gave a big grin. We headed for Durban, with a full bus and a full Thanda van—all of the volunteers were coming along as well.
On the ride I pulled out a DVD called ‘This is Baseball’ for the kids to watch—to sort of get them pumped for the game. Sarah taught them ‘Take Me out to The Ballgame’—well, ‘taught’ might be too strong of a term. It may take several more tries until the all get it……
After an hours’ drive, we pulled into the parking lot next to the field. The kids in the van were all awe-struck by the sight—two big baseball fields and over one hundred kids ALL PLAYING BASEBALL. This was craziness. As we got out of the bus, they were all silent. I could feel that they were extremely nervous about the upcoming game, and I could understand the feeling. It is
with myself and John Olivier in the background.
the same feeling I get just before the first game of the season, no matter how many years I’ve played baseball. It is the moment when all those things you’ve been practicing all of a sudden matter. For these kids, the stakes were all of a sudden higher. It's time to play ball.
The game went really well, and I was so proud of all off the kids. We were outmatched—it was our first game and the other team had much more experience than we. This was the first time our kids were playing with an umpire calling balls and strikes and it took us about two innings to grasp the concept that you should not swing at wild pitches—that four wild pitches and you could go to first base “for free.” The other team also took advantage of the fact that we were not familiar with stealing bases—we had only talked about it at our final day of Thanda baseball.
Nane was our starting pitcher. He looked so serious as he took the mound, and so did each player. As we took the field, many of the players ran out with no idea of where they were
From left: Jeremiah, Sister, Simiso, and Mr. Duma, all from Sacred Heart/Thanda.
supposed to stand. We had gone over each players’ position, but it did not stick in their minds. Finally we were in position and ready to play.
Nane pitched well but had some trouble throwing strikes. For me that was fine---I was just thrilled he was getting the experience.
In the second inning we switched pitchers and Mduduzi took the mound. He is a stud—the kid was throwing strikes from the first time I gave him the ball to try, and in this game it was no different. He struck out all three batters in his first inning. In all I think he had about 8 or 9 strikeouts, and countless more where our catcher missed the third strike and the hitter made it safely to first base. Mduduzi, along with several other players, is a really gifted baseball player.
By the final innings, we were making contact with pitches, running the bases, stealing bases, and generally going toe to toe with the other team. In this their first game, the learning curve for these kids was exponential. It was not an easy game—baseball is never an easy game but I think it is difficult especially at the
me, D.J. (our shortstop).
beginning. It is a game where even the best players will make an out more often than they will get a hit. Where even the best pitcher will not strike out every batter--the other team will hit the ball and will score runs on you no matter how good you are.
I hope the kids enjoyed this experience and I hope that it was the first of many great baseball experiences. And I hope that it is an empowering experience to learn a sport that they never knew before, to feel themselves improving, and to hopefully teach others how to play the game. My big regret is that it was not until our final weekend that we went to Durban to play—though it couldn’t have been any other way. Things take time to start up, especially in a new program in South Africa—and it was a miracle that in three months we got this far. I was excited to hear, in the last email I received, that ‘Twin,’ one of the Thanda Staff members (along with Alyssa, Thanda volunteer) is continuing the baseball program. Another volunteer from the US arrived with new baseball caps. Hearing all of this makes
me wish I could just pop in, be a fly on a tree, and see how Friday Baseball at Thanda ASP is going these days……
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