As the baseball playoffs begin, let’s update the inspiring story of Dennis Kasumba, an 18-year-old catcher from Uganda who dreams of playing in the major leagues.
He was a 14-year-old orphan working in a slaughterhouse when he met Paul Wafula, a coach and former member of the Ugandan national baseball team. Wafula, who believes in the redemptive power of sport, made him an offer: If you leave the slaughterhouse and come to baseball practice, they will feed you. Go to school and they will pay you too.
Times reporter Kevin Baxter and I chronicled Kasumba’s intense workouts using makeshift equipment (car tires as weights) and how he earned about $1 a day cleaning cow pens, while barefoot, of mud, manure. and urine. The story reported that he had been invited to play in the MLB Amateur Draft League in the United States, but lacked a visa.
U.S. officials had denied three visa applications, but after the story broke, they relented and Kasumba spent a month this summer with the Frederick Keys, a team in Frederick, Maryland. Kasumba, now back home, still dreams of becoming Uganda’s first major league player. and he has been invited to return to the Draft League next summer.
While Kasumba was in the United States, I reconnected with him to capture training in Maryland and his team’s first game in Trenton, New Jersey. Here, from Africa and the east coast, are images of his extraordinary journey.
Frederick Keys’ manager, René Rivera, a former major league catcher, took Dennis Kasumba under his wing and offered him guidance and encouragement. In Uganda, Paul Wafula does the same. Both coaches praise his work ethic. “Dennis never says no,” Rivera says.
Kasumba, who has never been on a plane before, feels jet lag as the team bus heads to New Jersey. He arrived in Maryland a day early. Training in Uganda, after spending hours cleaning manure-filled stalls, also left him exhausted.
Draft League CEO Sean Campbell uses an app to measure how high Kasumba can jump. The app measures an athlete’s progress and other health benchmarks. It’s a high-tech echo of his improvised training in Uganda.
Kasumba experiences the abundance of Walmart. He was brought there by Joshua Williams, a lawyer who championed his cause and helped secure an invitation to the Draft League. In Uganda, Kasumba tended a cow to earn a few cents to buy sugar for his grandmother’s tea.
Kasumba practices an exercise that requires him to slide from one ball to another. The drill was a challenge. His coach in Uganda, a former pitcher and outfielder, was unaware of this drill for catchers and threw the ball directly to him.
Kasumba found that some elements of baseball, such as stretching, were universal, whether in New Jersey or Uganda.
In New Jersey, Kasumba meets his teammates for the first time before a game, unaware of the custom of removing his hat during the national anthem. In Uganda, he and other players joked after practice. Many, like him, are orphans.
Batting practice in Maryland and Uganda pays off. During his first game, Kasumba fouled off a 90 mph pitch. Still, for him, this was a good sign. The fastest pitch he had seen in Uganda was 78 mph. He now knew that he could do better.
The red dirt of Uganda is 7,000 miles from New Jersey, where No. 6 Kasumba and fellow catcher Indiana Stanley walk through the tunnel at Trenton Thunder Ballpark. Many major league players started here. Yankees stars Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Aaron Judge also walked through this tunnel.