As the baseball playoffs begin, let’s update the inspiring tale of Dennis Kasumba, an 18-year-old catcher from Uganda who dreams of playing in the major leagues.
He was a 14-year-old orphan working in a slaughterhouse when he met Paul Wafula, a coach and former member of Uganda’s national baseball team. Wafula, who believes in the redemptive power of sports, made him an offer: If you leave the slaughterhouse and come to baseball practice, you’ll get fed. Go to school and you’ll get paid too.
Times reporter Kevin Baxter and I chronicled Kasumba’s intense workouts using improvised equipment — car tires for weights — and how he earned about $1 a day mucking out cow pens, while barefoot, of mud, manure and urine. The story reported that he had been invited to play in the amateur MLB Draft League in the United States, but lacked a visa.
U.S officials had denied three visa requests, but after the story appeared, they relented, and Kasumba spent a month this summer with the Frederick Keys, a team in Frederick, Md. Kasumba, now back home, still dreams of becoming Uganda’s first major leaguer and has been invited to return to the Draft League next summer.
While Kasumba was in the United States, I reconnected with him to capture workouts in Maryland and his team’s first game in Trenton, N.J. Here, from Africa and the East Coast, are images from his extraordinary journey.
Frederick Keys manager Rene Rivera, a former major league catcher, took Dennis Kasumba under his wing, offering guidance and encouragement. In Uganda, Paul Wafula does the same. Both coaches praise his work ethic. “Dennis never says no,” Rivera says.
Kasumba, who had never been on a plane before, feels jet lag as the team bus heads to New Jersey. He arrived in Maryland a day earlier. Training in Uganda, after hours spent shoveling out manure-filled stalls, also left him exhausted.
Draft League executive director Sean Campbell uses an app to measure how high Kasumba can jump. The app measures an athlete’s progress and other benchmarks of health. It’s a high-tech echo of his improvised training in Uganda.
Kasumba experiences the abundance of Walmart. He was brought there by Joshua Williams, an attorney who’d championed his cause and helped secure the Draft League invite. In Uganda, Kasumba tended a cow to earn a few cents to buy sugar for his grandmother’s tea.
Kasumba practices a drill requiring him to slide from one ball to another. The drill was a challenge. His coach in Uganda, a former pitcher and outfielder, was unaware of this drill for catchers and tossed the ball straight at him.
Kasumba found that some elements of baseball, like stretching, were universal, whether in New Jersey or Uganda.
In New Jersey, Kasumba joins his teammates for the first time before a game, unaware of the custom of removing hats during the national anthem. In Uganda, he and other players joked around after a practice. Many, like him, are orphans.
Batting practice in Maryland and Uganda pays off. During his first game, Kasumba fouled off a 90-mph pitch. Still, to him, this was a good sign. The fastest pitch he’d ever seen in Uganda was 78 mph. He now knew he could do better.
The red soil of Uganda is 7,000 miles away from New Jersey, where Kasumba, No. 6, and fellow catcher Indiana Stanley walk through the tunnel at Trenton Thunder Ballpark. Many big leaguers got their start here. Yankees stars Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Aaron Judge walked through this tunnel too.
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