“Winning isn’t everything.” When I coached youth baseball, that’s the line I would use to open the first practice. If your goal is to make 12-year-olds yawn and roll their eyes, reciting platitudes is effective 110 percent of the time. But when I repeated the sentiment with an addendum from comedian Stephen Colbert, the bored expressions on 10 freckled faces underwent a collective makeover.
“Winning isn’t everything,” I said. “It’s just as important that we rub it in.”
A few of the kids knew right away that I was being facetious and chuckled appreciatively, if a bit nervously. The rest looked bewildered or disapproving before taking a cue from their teammates and getting in on the joke – but reluctantly.
One of the things I learned from coaching is that as much as kids like to win, most of them have an innate sense of fairness, an internal compass that shows their interest pointing south when they realize a sporting contest is lopsided. So when the young players on the Petaluma (California) National baseball team arrived in Williamsport, Pa., USA, last August to participate in the 2012 Little League Baseball World Series, they eagerly stepped up to the plate to help their counterparts from Uganda. The pitch came from Rotary, and the kids hit it out of the park.
Here’s the story: In 2007, the Rotary Club of Petaluma Valley began supporting a community called Osukuru in Uganda through the Adopt A Village program, started by Frank and Kathie Mayhew, of the Rotary Club of Sebastopol. Jo Thornton is the program’s coordinator for the Petaluma Valley club. Last year, when the local youth baseball team became one of eight in the United States to qualify for the Little League World Series, Thornton got caught up in the jubilation that swept through her town. “The Nationals were huge news,” she says.
Her excitement rose when she learned that a group of boys from Uganda also had qualified for the prestigious tournament – the first team from Africa to play in the Little League World Series. But she also felt some anxiety. “I was worried that the Ugandan team might beat the Nationals,” she says. “The community was so invested in our local team, I was afraid that we might never be able to raise a penny for Uganda projects again.”
She can joke about those concerns now; fortunately, the tournament’s structure made it unlikely that the two teams would play against each other. In the end, only one team was able to beat the Nationals – and it took extra innings in the U.S. championship game to do it. So instead of being viewed as a foe, the group from Uganda became Petaluma’s second favorite rooting interest. The town didn’t just adopt a village; it adopted a team.
Thornton and Pamela Tuft, who heads the Petaluma Valley club’s scholarship program for Uganda, contacted Richard Marzo, a member of the Rotary Club of Petaluma whose son Danny was a pitcher on the team, about the special relationship between Uganda and Petaluma. But the kids were a step ahead. By that time, they had already befriended the players on the Ugandan team.
“Our kids noticed that the Ugandan boys were practicing without baseball cleats and had only one or two bats,” says team manager Eric Smith, whose son Hance went on a home run surge during the tournament. “That got their attention right away.”
“Our boys began to realize that even though their own journey was special, the accomplishments of the Ugandan team were far more extraordinary, given the limited resources and difficult conditions they had to overcome,” Marzo says. “The Ugandan team was an inspiration to all of us – the parents as well as the kids. They reminded us how fortunate we are. They helped open the eyes of the players to what life is like beyond our borders.”
Even as they focused on playing ball, the Petaluma kids told their coaches and parents that they wanted to do something to help the team from Uganda after the tournament. That something turned into a baseball equipment collection drive and a fundraising effort, tied to a homecoming parade for the young baseball heroes. The event attracted more than 15,000 people.
“At the parade, there was probably a 10-foot-high mountain of duffel bags filled with gear,” Smith says. “I went to a party afterward, and there was more stuff piled up.” He credits Rotary with heading up the effort, but Thornton says it was the kids and their parents who made sure it was a winner. The equipment collection will support baseball programs throughout Uganda.
The players’ approach to helping the Ugandan team was much like their attitude toward the Little League World Series, Smith says. “They took it all in stride. We never talked about how big it all was – we just talked about playing baseball. It’s good to be 12 years old. I don’t think they understand it on a global level,” he says. “They just see it as helping kids they met who aren’t well off.
“One of the great parts about what these boys accomplished, while it was all based on baseball, was learning and experiencing things that could not be created for them,” Smith continues. “They helped bring together a community here in Petaluma. The goodwill they spread locally can grow from there; it can ripple throughout the world. When they realize that, that’s what they will bring forward.”
The combination of sports and kids from different regions is a natural recipe for international diplomacy, Thornton and Marzo say.
“Sports can’t solve global issues, but it can chip away at them,” Thornton says. “What happened in Petaluma is a wonderful example. Adults and kids alike had their eyes opened wide. When you come face to face with courageous kids who live in circumstances that are unimaginable to most of our kids, your heart goes out to them. The Ugandan kids did wonderfully well as ambassadors to our country.”
Marzo agrees: “The Little League World Series could serve as a mini United Nations. Kids make excellent diplomats because they just want to enjoy each other, and don’t expect much in return.”