The Best Story About Baseball That’s Not Just About Baseball (Part 1): Africa On Deck

In the South African winter of 2010, almost exactly seven years ago, I made a phone call that changed my outlook on life.

We had moved from the U.S. to Johannesburg earlier that year. After the initial frenzy of buying a car, securing the elusive Traffic Register Number for foreigners, and getting the Internet connected, I was ready to tackle the American mother’s oh so important task: finding new sports teams for my kids.

This is how I stumbled upon Alexandra Baseball. The rest, as they say, is history.

Alexandra Baseball players warming up on a frigid winter’s day with the township as backdrop

Throughout our family’s stay in South Africa, Alexandra Baseball gave me a glimpse into a world entirely different from my own. I ventured into places I was warned never to set foot in. I became a fundraiser, a first for me. I became an importer of shoes and clothing – sometimes legit, and more often clandestine. I gave tours in places I myself regularly got lost in. I became a hustler of sorts, connecting goods with people in ever more elaborate schemes.

More often than not I had no idea what I was doing. Miraculously, the Alexandra Baseball Club hung on through all of my bumbling efforts, continuing to turn out talented African baseball players in the footsteps of Gift Ngoepe of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

When it was time to leave Africa, I was lucky to find competent successors to carry the torch. The Irwin Family of Atlanta and the van Zyl Family of Johannesburg, with the support of Tyler Barnes of the Milwaukee Brewers and Rich Campbell of the Dilworth Little League in Charlotte, have worked and continue to work tirelessly on behalf of the players and coaches in Alexandra.

Today, the five of us – Natalie Irwin, Louis van Zyl, Tyler, Rich, and myself – are happy to announce the founding of Africa on Deck, a newly formed 501(c)(3) organization that will allow us to continue to support baseball in South Africa from the United States. We will raise funds, collect equipment, and continue to share the story of America’s pastime in the most unlikely of places… the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg, South Africa. Click here to like our Facebook page for Africa On Deck.

Logo for Africa On Deck, a non-profit organization to help youth baseball in Alexandra, South Africa

For Natalie and myself in particular, saying goodbye to Alexandra Baseball when our families moved back to the United States was hard. We felt like we were dropping the (base-)ball. To help you understand why, let me share a few facts about Alexandra:

Life is hard in a township.

In 2017, it is difficult to wrap your head around the fact that people can live without electricity and running water. Only one player’s family in the entire Alexandra Baseball Club has a car. Most of our players sleep in the same bed with a brother, sister, nephew… or on a mat on the floor. Right now it is winter in South Africa and it is cold. Most of our players only have paraffin to heat at night, and that is very dangerous. The average household income in Alexandra is ZAR (South African Rand) 3,000 or $230 a month. Half of it goes to transportation, the rest towards rent, school fees, and food. No family has extra money for their child to play baseball. Also, many of our players’ families do not make close to the average.

Alexandra Baseball is always just holding on by the bootstraps.

This is not like your normal Little League in the United States. The players struggle with having enough to eat. It is hard to play a baseball game when you are hungry. Through donations from the U.S. over the years we have been able to give players one pair of baseball pants, one pair of cleats, and one pair of socks. But no one has their own helmet or bat or monogrammed baseball bag or glove. And what happens when your players grow?

To help Alexandra Baseball, you have to help ALL of baseball in Johannesburg.

As Alexandra Baseball got better at baseball, it helped the competition in Gauteng (the province where Johannesburg is located). It was amazing to see the relationships that developed over the years and how we were able to help new clubs like Palm Ridge enter the league. But, all of the clubs have similar needs. They all need baseballs, baseball pants, bats… the basics.

It’s not just about baseball. School is difficult, and so is finding a job. 

Our coaching often had to go beyond baseball. Our players often made uninformed subject choices like taking math(s) literacy instead of regular math(s), which  limited them getting into university. Finding a job can be impossible when you have nothing to wear to the interview, have no money and no transportation to the interview, or have to go to an internet cafe to use a computer. The obstacles are endless. The youth unemployment rate in South Africa is shocking.

Founding Africa On Deck is a huge step forward. It allows us to address these needs from afar and hopefully reach a wider audience of baseball lovers in the United States willing to help.

One of Alexandra’s – and South Africa’s – most promising young baseball players. Read our next blog post to learn more!

About those needs:  As so often with Alexandra Baseball, events have overtaken our work on the ground, and we have immediate fundraising needs. One – perhaps even a second – of our players has an incredible opportunity to play for the U18 South African National team in the World Cup in Canada this September. As you can imagine, neither player has any funds of his own to pay for the trip.

Stay tuned for more about our fundraising challenge in Part 2 of this story.  In the meantime, please like our new Africa On Deck Facebook page to spread the word!

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