Baseball in the Heart of a Vibrant Township

Update 2013: I wrote this story three years ago and Alexandra Baseball has come a long way since then. To keep updated about what’s happening, make sure you LIKE the ALEXANDRA BASEBALL Facebook page, so that you can find out all about game schedules, awards, and other cool stuff like American MLB players running a practice for the Alexandra kids! 

Is there baseball in South Africa? This was one of the first questions posed by our boys as we broached the subject of moving to Johannesburg late in 2009. Ever so gently we prepared them for the fact that most probably no, there wouldn’t be. We were all resigned to the fact that it would have to be cricket (cricket!) from now on. Let me just say that we are still struggling to understand why it is  necessary to have matches last 5 days, and that maybe if you wouldn’t give batters the option (option!) of whether to run or not, games might proceed at a slightly faster pace. But no one here seems to be disturbed by the fact that it can easily take 280 runs by one team before the inning changes.

Or maybe that is why baseball has gotten a foothold in South Africa. We actually did end up finding it, but not entirely where expected. I happened to see a blurb on a local website about the Alexandra Baseball Association and was intrigued to find out how baseball had come to such a notorious and historically crime-ridden neighborhood. Alexandra, you see, is a township. A place where, under Apartheid, the black population  of South Africa was confined to live. I can once again highly recommend reading Kaffir Boy – a great book to understand how life in Alexandra used to be, not so long ago, and in many ways not that much has changed. “Don’t drive into Alexandra” is very likely the first advice you’ll get after stepping off the plane in Johannesburg.

I was curious, so I contacted Lucky, the founder of Alexandra Baseball. We met over coffee, away from Alexandra (he admitted later that he had walked for two hours to get there because he had no bus money) and he told me all about his league of about 180 kids. He started it several years ago and runs it pretty much by the grace of God and the help of a couple of friends, stringing themselves along with a lot of passion and a few strokes of luck, such as meeting me, as Lucky was quick to inform me (I now feel the heavy burden of responsibility on me!). He doesn’t just see baseball as a pastime. To him, it is a tool for social change, something that might help these underprivileged kids make something out of their lives. They have passion and work hard. Going to practice every day after school keeps them out of trouble and stirs dreams in some to perhaps one day make it to the American Major Leagues. Lucky – who himself grew to love baseball as a kid when his mother worked in the household of Japanese expats – has the vision of growing and perhaps exporting the league he built into other, bigger townships, such as Soweto.

But the challenges are daunting, as I soon got to see for myself. After we had finished that first breakfast meeting, I drove Lucky back to Alexandra. After all, he needed a ride, and I had a car. Noooooo, a tiny voice was saying, but I’m glad I overcame it. Alexandra is a place you have to have seen. And the perfect way to see it is with your own personal guide! Sure, it is intimidating. The further you go in, the smaller the streets become, and the more people (and goats and chickens) are milling on them. If you don’t drive boldly, you never move. Of course everyone around you is black, and you’ll attract many stares (giving you pause to think how it must feel the other way around for most minorities). The many signs of decay – unfinished buildings, rubble lining the streets, red dust everywhere – are depressing to the suburban eye spoiled by perfectly manicured lawns. But there is also a certain vibrancy in Alexandra, something I’ve last experienced in Bangkok or Hong Kong. The streets are so lively. There is so much socializing going on, so much chatter, makeshift stalls of produce on every street corner. A place with so much hustle and bustle must be going somewhere in the world.

After my tour of innermost Alexandra, I was actually surprised when we arrived at the “Sports Complex.” The field the Alexandra boys (and girls) practice on is actually quite pretty with a wonderful view, surrounded by trees and grass-covered. But it lacks everything else you’d expect from the most menial baseball park in the U.S. No fence, no backstop, no bases and no pitcher’s mound. This forces the team to travel across the Gauteng Baseball Federation all season, because no team will come and play on such a field. However, coming up with transport is another problem, since no one owns a car. Come game time, some taxi money is scraped together and everyone piles into a “bakkie.” It is a sight to behold when an entire team including coaches scrambles out of a single car!

Despite these hurdles, the boys from Alexandra have had success against larger and better-funded clubs. Some of their top talent is already being wooed away by wealthier clubs with scholarship funds. The biggest need for them to continue operating, however, is more equipment. I’ve gone back to Alexandra a few more times and have met a number of players. Between them they share a few mitts and bats, and nothing quite fits as it should. After all, this league goes from age 7 all the way to 18. I’ve already donated what little equipment our boys had outgrown over the years, as well as an unused laptop computer to help the league with their communications, but there are 180 boys! With baseball still relatively unknown here in South Africa, it’s hard to find even new gear, let alone used. Luckily, Pitch in for Baseball, a non-profit organization in the USA, has agreed to donate a 250-kg pallet of helmets, gloves, bats, balls, and uniforms. This is wonderful news, except that there is a shipping cost of about US$2000 which they cannot cover. We are now reaching out in any way we can to raise that money.

I’m hoping that after reading this article you’ll spread the word by forwarding it to others. Please email the link to this page to your friends or post it on Facebook. If you work in a South African company that might consider a sponsorship (for instance in return for a placement of their logo on the uniforms), please contact me using the menu above.