Field of Dreams: An aspiring MLB catcher’s journey from Africa to American stadiums

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.

Coach Paul Wafula instructs Dennis Kasumba on his swing in Gayaza, Uganda.

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.

Jet-lagged Dennis Kasumba tries to sleep on a bus in Frederick, Maryland, headed to Trenton, New Jersey.
After just one meal of the day, an exhausted Dennis Kazumba exercises late into the night on old tires outside his house.

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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba is filmed by MLB Draft League CEO Sean Campbell in a hotel gym.
Dennis Kasumba jumps into a drum full of water to strengthen his legs outside his home in Uganda.

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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba shops at Walmart in Frederick, Maryland.
Dennis Kasumba lights a fire to make tea for his grandmother at their home 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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba practices his slide as a receiver during practice.
Dennis Kasumba connects a weight to his catcher's glove while receiving pitches from his brother.

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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba stretches before a game with the Trenton Thunder.
Dennis Kasumba stretches before training at the national camp in Gayaza, Uganda.

Kasumba found that some elements of baseball, such as stretching, were universal, whether in New Jersey or Uganda.

Not understanding national anthem etiquette, Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba looks to his teammates for guidance.
Dennis Kazumba, third from right, laughs with other players after practice.

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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba practices batting during practice.
Dennis Kasumba practices his swing during his daily morning workout outside his home.

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.

Frederick Keys player Dennis Kasumba, left, walks with fellow wide receiver and roommate Indiana Stanley after a workout.
After a long day of practice, Dennis Kazumba returns home to take a break and then practice another night.

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.

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