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Ugandan Team Is Africa's First In Little League Series


A historic milestone this week at the Little League World Series.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Uganda in Africa wins the Little League World Series.

BLOCK: Now to clarify, Uganda didn't win the series, the country is out of contention. This was a victory in a consolation game against Oregon. But it's a huge deal nonetheless. Uganda became the first African nation to win a game at the Little League World Series. In fact, it's the first African team ever to play in the series.

Filmmaker Jay Shapiro has been following Little League baseball in Uganda for the last three years, working on a documentary, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.

JAY SHAPIRO: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And Jay, you were there in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, when this team from Lugazi, Uganda, won that consolation game. What was the celebration like after that?

SHAPIRO: A lot of joy, a lot of smiles on their faces. You know, as you mentioned, they were out of contention, they had lost their first two games. So I think they were just so happy and overjoyed to show the audience there that, you know, they're not just this awesome feel-good story and sort of this underdog story, they can really play some real baseball. So it was great.

BLOCK: It sounds like this team, this Ugandan team, has won the hearts of a lot of fans there at the Little League World Series.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, yeah, their T-shirts in the gift shop sold out within, like, the first day basically. They were like a collector's item there. So without winning on the field, they certainly won the crowd over. They had a lot of surrogate parents there in the audience.

BLOCK: Tell us about the kids on this team, their backgrounds and the conditions that they live in and play in back home in Uganda.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, all the kids on this team are from a town called Lugazi, which is in southern central Uganda along Lake Victoria. It's an interesting town because it relies on a corporation called the Mehta Corporation, which started the sugar production there in the early 1900s, and the town sort of grew around that.

So it has actually an interesting level of stability that a lot of places in Uganda don't have. It doesn't mean they're well-off by any means, but there is this sort of constant, you know, stability, as I said, with their housing and even some of their schools.

A lot of them live in Mehta housing, which are at various states of disrepair, you know, off-and-on electricity. It leaks terribly when it rains, and unfortunately it rains a lot where they are. But they have a little space there. It's not sort of the cramped urban ghetto of Kampala, the capital city. There's some space.

You walk through that town, and you'll find kids throwing baseballs all over, hitting baseballs, making them out of plastic bags, that kind of stuff.

BLOCK: How do you account for the fact that given those conditions that you're describing, that this team from Uganda made it all the way to the Little League World Series? The first time an African country had done that.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I think it really speaks for the talent that's there. They do play all day. I mean, they throw all day. One thing that people may have seen is the team's having trouble scoring runs, which makes a lot of sense when you see it, how they play over there, because they only have a few baseballs, you know, for maybe 100 kids that are playing in a certain area.

So they can't really do batting practice. They don't have batting cages. The balls and the equipment are precious. So they do a lot of throwing and running and fielding and that kind of stuff, and I think that's been reflected when you see the team play.

But yeah, the talent is remarkable because, frankly, they don't get to play a lot of games there. So the fact that they've gotten so good in such a short amount of time is very cool but also very exciting for the possibilities of what really is possible if we really get some good equipment and coaching and facilities over there. I think the program will just skyrocket.

BLOCK: Well, now that this team from Uganda has made it to the Little League World Series, what does it mean for baseball back home there and actually around Africa?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, well, back there in Uganda, we were filming with the team as they were preparing to come to this tournament. And there were kids just lined up at every practice, watching and asking questions and wanting to join and seeing how they could play. So I think it's really going to spur interest in a lot of the game or is spurring interest in kids that are just, you know, dying to play the game.

And then in the surrounding country, there's some budding programs in Kenya and Tanzania and some other surrounding areas that all want, of course, to get this slot next year. So I think, you know, competition is good, especially in sports, so it's definitely put that carrot on the end of the stick. It's right in front of their faces, and they're running for it.

BLOCK: Well, Jay Shapiro, it's great to talk to you. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

BLOCK: Jay Shapiro is director of the upcoming documentary about Ugandan baseball called "Opposite Field." A short version of the film will air tomorrow on ABC between the international and U.S. championship games. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.