Two years ago Gary Tonsager and I made an 8 day trip to Benin West Africa to continue our work bringing baseball to that small impoverished nation. This month we have returned to Benin to continue our work and initiate the first Little League sanctioned season and games.
It’s game day, and much of the planning we did the last couple of days comes to a head today as we have two games planned…one for 12 year old players in the morning at 10am and one at 4pm for players aged 13-17. As it turns out we probably should’ve scheduled them just the opposite (for better baseball) as we are expecting several dignitaries including the US Ambassador to Benin Lucy Tamlyn, the Japanese Ambassador and other embassy staff members from both delegations.
We roll out early today so we can get to the field in plenty of time, so we are on the road with Fernando by 8:30am. It’s a gorgeous sunny day with just a few puffy clouds…which means we’re going to boil on the field. However Moum Barack is supposed to have a tent rented and set up so our guests and whoever else, can be in the shade.
We pull up at 9am and Fernando takes around the back side of the field. Gary asks him why…when we get to the field we find out. They are setting up the tent completely kitty-corner to where we’ve practiced and played all week. It doesn’t look like a good plan as only half of the tented area will be in the shade and the infield is loaded with weeds. Of course nobody brings a rake or a shovel. Gary is convinced that there aren’t any anywhere on the African continent. Someone did bring a big machete looking thing that you would use to whack down large weeds in the jungle I guess. On top of that, the kids are in a patch of weeds about 20 feet behind home plate whacking and picking weeds. No need for that when we have a field that needs help, not a weed patch that’s 20-30 feet out of play. Our dignitary guests are going to be here shortly and the roof of the tent is still being constructed…ugh
We still have to divide the teams up as Arnaud’s group only has 8 kids and Fernando has about 15…so we divide the teams in two and finally hand out the jerseys. It will be the Phillies and the Blue Jays in an interleague battle. A few of Arnaud’s players are coming by bus, and just before 10am they finally arrive and we put them on the two teams.
The PA system is some monstrous speakers that you’d see at a rock concert and the minute they get it set up, the African music begins blaring from here to Nigeria and back. Gary scrounges up some cement mix that we use for the baselines, and the field is ready to go… We need to do the national anthems, but nobody has them on their ipods. So I foolishly volunteer, doing my best Rosie Odonnell/Reader’s Digest version of the Star Spangled Banner, (apparently I skipped a verse). Then it’s Moum Barack on vocals for the Beninese anthem. The director of Sports for the Benin federal government is there and he throws out the first pitch. We’re all set to play ball…or so I thought.
It’s already about 10:30am and Ampora from the US Embassy staff tells me how impressed she is that we’re getting through this without a bunch of speeches. It happens all the time she says. Moments later her prediction comes true. As hard as we tried to get things rolling, Moum Barack put an end to it. He grabs the wireless microphone and basically gives the same speech I’ve heard about 15 times this week everywhere from the US Embassy to the new Russian envoy-slash-Calavi mayor’s office. Of course I don’t understand a word he’s saying, but believe me, I’ve heard it before. Then it’s our friend Ralph “Lauren” on behalf of “Real” Baseball in Benin, for at least 10 minutes, although it seemed much longer…Now we’re done. Nope, MAM grabs the microphone and talks for another 4 or 5 minutes. Now we can start…wait a minute. The media is there to broadcast an official presentation by another government official. I’m losing my mind. It just won’t end. We need to play baseball before I get heat stroke. The high today would be 88 degrees, but with the humidity it felt more like 108. It was scorching hot.
Finally we’re underway. The Blue Jays are in the field first…but their starting pitcher Ulrich, doesn’t have his glove. So no pitcher is warming up. This is absolute torture for me. It’s now almost 10:50am and we haven’t even thrown a warm-up pitch yet. I have to keep telling myself (and Gary) it’s Africa, and that’s how things go here. Nothing is easy. So through Arnaud as interpreter, we tell the Blue Jays coach to pitch someone else. So they pick another boy, Assys (pronounced ah-CEASE). Assys throws hard, but he only gets a couple warm-up pitches, so this could be ugly. And it is…he walks the first three batters to load the bases. Meanwhile a man riding a white horse passes by on the road behind left field. Coach then pulls Assys and goes back to Ulrich who has since found his glove. Ulrich struggles too, but only gives up one run…and the Phillies led 1-0.
In the bottom of the first the Jays answer with three runs, mostly on walks and a nice hit by Ulrich. Arnaud is umping and he has a very tight zone…but these kids struggle with it. Eventually both teams settle in and the Phillies, coached by Fernando, go on to win 8-5. It was hard to do much scouting because everything seemed like a walk or a strikout. Oh well…Cest la vi.
Gary and I hand out candy to the kids afterwards and it’s time for a break. And back into the picture comes Mrs. Abdul’s Mom. She apparently has made lunch for us and all of the coaches…the food is stored in the back of Fernando’s vehicle and along with MAM, we take off. I figured maybe we;re going to a park or something for a coaches picnic, although I have no idea why I would think that. I haven’t seen a neighborhood park anywhere in Benin in the two times I’ve been here. I don’t think they exist.
Just about a half mile down a dirt road we turn in and stop by a nice look building with a beautiful wall around it. Looks nice…as we walk through the gate and are greeted by the door workers, was a beautiful swimming pool, and a nice outdoor eating area. Perfect…this will be great…except it got better. They escort me, Gary and Fernando indoors to a very nice bar area with formal table set up. That’s where we will eat while the enlisted men eat outside. It’s air conditioned, a TV is going and they have somewhere I can plug in and charge my camera. It’s exactly what we needed after bearing the heat for the past 4 hours.
MAM and a couple helpers bring all of the home made food that she cooked and served us…It’s chicken, rice and a vegetable concoction. Let me tell you something, MAM has her act together. She then gets $60 from Gary to walk the players to a nearby street vendor and feed about 60 baseball players. As it turns out it wouldn’t be enough. As we’re driving back to the field from this place with the pool and AC, she stops us and pokes her head in the car window and fills our ear….not angrily, just loud and African (she was speaking Fon again). By the way, how did she get there? Anyway, she needs another $20. Gary hands her the money and we’re off back to the field for Game 2. Personally, I’d like to go back to the lunch-place and go for a swim.
The fun part about Game 2 will be watching the boys who came to Minnesota two years ago play. In all, 9 of them are hear today. Fidele (of course), Thomas, Isaac, CC, Aime, Carlos, Joel, Hospice and Bill. Hospice and Bill play for Arnaud and the rest play for Fernando. In the top of the first inning, Hospice would rip a double down the left field line to bring home what would be the only run of the game for his team (the Athletics). Again Fernando’s team has too much talent. They win 8-1.
A couple of “only in Benin” side notes on this one…After the bottom of the 2nd inning, with the African music blaring, this weird trio of dancers starts dancing down the 3rd baseline. It’s a woman and two men, dressed in some funky African clothes with painted faces. Fernando blows a nut and yells for them to get off the field. I had no idea what was going on. Turns out that Moum Barack hired them to come and entertain…Nobody wants to battle Moum Barack so we let them do their thing during the next half inning break…somewhat inappropriate for a youth baseball game, but whatever…again remember, we are in Africa.. Later on I hand them my mp3 player and have him play a couple Michael Jackson songs between innings…Much better…and no weird dancers…just me.
The media gets paid to show up to things like this. We shelled out $300 for TV, Radio and print coverage. They interview the Ambassadors, Fernando, me and a few others (Gary handed this duty to me. In exchange I let him talk at all the government meetings) Actually the reporter asked me questions in English, although he admittedly didn’t completely understand my answers so he had Arnaud interpret them.
Not only is Arnaud and interpreter, he is also the umpire for this game as well and he occasionally would yell coaching instructions to his players and coaches. Again, Fernando is not happy. “He can’t coach and umpire” Fernando yells to me. I ask him if he wants to ump…I got no answer. I told Fernando that this is probably a good lesson on why you need to recruit and train impartial umps. Actually, Arnaud calls a great game. He is probably honest to a fault.
One final side note…As you know if you’ve been following this blog, one of the players from the 2016 team that came to Minnesota, Josue, died a couple months ago at the age of 14. His father was among the guests/fans today to watch Josue’s older brother Timothy play in this second game. Timothy is 17 years old. It was good to see them at the game, enjoying baseball in Josue’s memory.
After the game ended another slew of pictures before MAM called Gary and I over for a special presentation from the parents. They gave each of us a beautiful hand carved wooden trophy as their sign of appreciation for our help in bringing baseball to Benin. We tell them that it’s been our pleasure. We bid our goodbyes to all the kids and parents and we are off, beeping and waving to the crowd of players who were waiting for their bus to go home. We will see several of them in Minnesota this summer, and probably back in Africa again sometime soon. Now it’s time for Gary, myself, Fernando and Arnaud to decide which 12 kids win the lottery and get to come to America.
More on that in tomorrow’s blog…our final day in Benin.