June 20, 2024

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 bumps fists with Dennis Kasumba after his first at-bat during a game in Trenton, N.J.
Coach Paul Wafula instructs Dennis Kasumba on his swing in Gayaza, Uganda.

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.

A jet-lagged Dennis Kasumba tries to sleep on a bus in Frederick, Md., headed to Trenton, N.J.
After having one meal for the day, an exhausted Dennis Kazumba works out late at night with old tires outside his home.

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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba is filmed by MLB Draft League executive director Sean Campbell in a hotel gym.
Dennis Kasumba jumps inside a drum filled with water to strengthen his legs outside his home in Uganda.

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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba shops at Walmart in Frederick, Md.
Dennis Kasumba makes a fire to make tea for his grandmother at their home 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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba practices his sliding as a catcher during a workout.
Dennis Kasumba connects a weight to his catcher's glove while taking pitches from his brother.

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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba stretches before a game with the Trenton Thunder.
Dennis Kasumba stretches before a workout at the national field in Gayaza, Uganda.

Kasumba found that some elements of baseball, like stretching, were universal, whether in New Jersey or Uganda.

Not understanding the etiquette of the national anthem, Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba looks to teammates for guidance.
Dennis Kazumba, third from right, shares a laugh with other players after practice.

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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba takes batting practice during a workout.
Dennis Kasumba practices his swing during his daily morning workout outside his home.

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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba, left, walks with fellow catcher and roommate Indiana Stanley after a workout.
After a long day of practice, Dennis Kazumba heads home for a break and then another evening practice.

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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