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Back in the spring of 2014, Evan Petty was a senior at Syracuse University. And he was feeling a little anxious.
"Um ... the pressure's starting to kick in at that point," Evan says. "I didn't really know what it is that I was really going to do. I had always really liked sports. I got a journalism degree, but I didn't work hard enough to turn it into anything. I was never really such a go-getter. I feel like if I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I'd be able to do it, like, I don't feel incapable. But I didn't have a whole lot of — call it conviction. Not a lot of strong conviction."
After graduation, Evan flew to Fairbanks to write game reports for the Goldpanners — a collegiate summer team. And I’d like to say that Evan found his calling up there in Alaska, but he didn’t. Not quite yet.
"I guess it bought me time. That's pretty much all it did," he says.
A Long Journey
Evan spent that summer thinking about baseball — he’d always loved the game. He thought he’d like to be a coach. But he didn’t have any training or experience. He figured he’d never find a paid job in this country, so he started looking elsewhere.
"So I think that I looked in places like Japan, even, and places in Europe. Spain, they play some baseball. I took some Spanish in high school, maybe I could make something work with that," Evan says. "But then Uganda came up."
Yep. Uganda. A school was looking for an English teacher/assistant baseball coach.
The Allen VR Stanley International School of Math and Science for the Athletically Talented was founded by an American businessman who wants to bring baseball to Uganda. Besides teaching kids math and science and English, the school had another well-publicized goal: to send a team to Williamsport.
Evan had been watching the Little League World Series on TV since he was 13. He loves it.
"The quality of the play is so high, and everything about it is so emotional and real. It's raw. Like, it's so raw. It's just the best," he says.
As Allen VR Stanley's assistant coach, Evan would have the chance to go to Williamsport and be a part of it all. Not only that, but Evan found that it wasn't very difficult to actually get the job.
"Not a lot of people want to go to Uganda," he says.
So, Evan hopped on an airplane and flew to Kampala.
"It was two in the morning when I got there," he says. "My boss picked me up and he just said, 'Welcome to Africa.' And he's telling me about how everything's green, but of course, I can't see anything in the pitch dark. And I was so delirious that I just kind of went into bed. And then, the next morning I woke up, and there are birds chirping and the sun is out, and I step out onto this little compound, and I look down and two beautiful Little League baseball fields. I was excited for what was going to happen."
When Evan saw the baseball team he’d be coaching, he was even more excited. It’s not that the players had a lot of experience. In fact, many of them had none at all. But...
"Put it this way: Balls were being thrown very fast, and bats were being swung very hard, and players were running very fast," Evan says. "There was a lot of raw talent everywhere."
It’s probably a good idea to pause here and consider some of the reasons why Evan Petty should not have been so optimistic.
Uganda has a short and not-very-successful relationship with the Little League World Series. Each year, teams from Europe, Africa and the Middle East meet in Poland for their qualifying tournament.
Uganda lost in their first trip to Poland in 2008. In 2009, they skipped the tournament and spent the money building dormitories instead. In 2010...
"They got to Poland, and they lost by nature of one of the more bizarre tiebreakers you're ever going to hear about," Evan says.
It was a quirky run differential rule that even the coaches didn’t understand. Basically, by scoring four runs in the last inning of their last game, Uganda inadvertently allowed another team to advance.
In 2011, the team won the qualifying tournament in Poland, but the players were denied visas to come to the United States. Many of the players don’t have birth certificates. "Paperwork is hard in Uganda," Evan told me.
In 2012, the Ugandan team finally made it to Williamsport, but lost all three of their official games. The following two years they couldn’t even get the visas to go to the qualifier in Poland.
Headed To Williamsport
And that brings us to 2015, when Evan Petty moved to Uganda and the team finally got their paperwork sorted out.
"We had to do a whole lot of stuff and satisfy a whole lot of people and pay a whole lot of money," Evan says. "And then we had to win the games, and that was the easy part."
And it really was easy. Uganda won their five games in Poland by a combined score of 64-2. But you wouldn’t have known how lopsided their victories had been by the way the team celebrated after their final game.
"Just dancing, cartwheels, backflips. We were pumped up," Evan says.
Uganda was headed back to Williamsport, and they had one simple goal.
"Shock the world," Evan says. "I mean they had heard about that the games were going to be on TV and that there would be thousands of people in the stands and, they wanted to show up and play well in front of those people. They — they’re fearless. They don’t fear making mistakes. They just wanted to go and play."
No African team had ever won anything other than a consolation game in the Little League World Series, and the odds were stacked against the Uganda this time, too. The team played in the very first game of tournament against the Dominican Republic — the country that has produced David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa.
Uganda won that game, 4-1.
"ESPN came calling and we were on SportsCenter the next morning and Baseball Tonight and all of this," Evan says. "We were like the story of the first day. They were soaking it all in right away. They knew that it was a big deal."
There were a lot of firsts for the team in Williamsport. But in their second game against Venezuela, they were reminded that not all firsts are fun.
"The team, they hadn't lost yet," Evan says. "Those guys hadn't lost. No one in Uganda could beat them, no one in Europe could beat them. No one in the rest of Africa could have beat them had they shown up to Europe. And the Dominican Republic couldn't beat them. So now, here we go, we're playing Venezuela. That's like the first game in their lives that they lost. They were subdued, to say the least.
"We lost to Venezuela and then we played Chinese Taipei two days later and if you lose to Chinese Taipei, at least you’re losing to Chinese Taipei. It's an honor, in a way. They're really, really good, those kids."
"I mean they had heard about that the games were going to be on TV and that there would be thousands of people in the stands and, they wanted to show up and play well in front of those people. They — they’re fearless. They don’t fear making mistakes."Evan Petty
I asked Evan if his players saw losing to Chinese Taipei as an honor. He said not really, but...
"They don't get too down. They're kids. It's just a game. That's the beauty of the Little League World Series and how raw it is. They loved playing those game and they played really well, but they didn't hang their heads for too long."
Uganda's Uncertain Baseball Future
Evan and his players returned to Uganda. Triumphant, but with plenty of what Evan calls “unfinished business.” Uganda wants to win the whole tournament someday. “Why not?” Evan says.
But as the 2016 tournament approached...
"We didn't even try to get the visas because Little League — they said no," Evan says.
Schools that specialize in sports are banned from the Little League World Series, and tournament organizers decided that the Allen VR Stanley International School of Math and Science for the Athletically Talented shouldn’t be allowed to compete.
Rules are rules, Evan says, but in Uganda there really isn’t anywhere else for kids to play baseball.
"You can only — you can only play against the same 150 kids in school so often," he says. "It's sad for all of us who are involved in developing baseball there because that's how you fall in love with the game. That's how you fall in love with the game of baseball, so as far as someone who's concerned about just developing the game in Uganda, it's tough because these are the events that would help us get there."
With the country’s Little League dreams on hold, Uganda is focusing on getting the national team ready to qualify for the 2020 World Baseball Classic and the Tokyo Olympics.
If I had told Evan Petty that it sounds like he’s found his calling, he’d probably have turned a shade of pink and squirmed in his chair. He doesn’t see it as a calling. So instead I asked him if he was planning on staying in Uganda to see things through.
"I'm invested in what we do," he says. "I don't want to give up on it. You know, but it's tough, too. Every time I come home everyone's asking me that question. And it's like I feel bad if I say yes. But I'd like to continue to see growth and be there for it and help it along."
This segment aired on January 21, 2017.
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