MLB Ambassador Program visits Africa
Hold clinic during trip to build interest in game, scout for talent
Curtis Granderson wants to travel the world, and Major League Baseball's Ambassador Program is giving him a good start. In Africa, he saw a glimpse of players looking to get a start themselves.
When Granderson went on an MLB-sponsored tour of South Africa earlier this offseason, the Tigers center fielder's stops included visits to the African School Games and the African Games Olympic qualifying tournament, featuring teams from across the continent. One squad featured a blistering-fast center fielder whose game showed no shortage of promise. For all that ability from a player in this country, that wasn't the surprise.
"He would only play in that tournament each year," Granderson said. "That's the only amount they play in an entire year. He doesn't practice it. He doesn't play it [in other games], because he doesn't have it around him. I was amazed."
Those are some of the factors that baseball faces in Africa, and one reason why nobody seems able to project where the sport could stand there in 10 or 20 years.
Though no African-born player has reached the Major Leagues, some have played in the Minors over the years. South Africa has sent players into the Minor Leagues, while Zaire-born, Montreal-raised Ntema Ndungidi reached the Double-A level in 2000 and '01. Others have turned the game into a college education, playing at smaller schools in the United States.
Those limited numbers, however, give no indication of the potential of talented athletes who call Africa home.
"They're trying to get it going over there," Reds manager Dusty Baker said recently. "They're playing ball in South Africa, and they're trying to get it started in Ghana. From what I saw, they've got some pretty good ballplayers, but they're kind of on the small side. It seems like they're either real big -- seven-footers -- or small, depending on the tribe, genealogy, lineage.
"You should have seen those guys picking up ground balls on bad hops on those rock fields. It was really something. You could see they really enjoyed playing and were taking to it. It'll be interesting to see how the game develops there."
While South Africa has some development in the game, the push to spread the game to the western part of the continent, notably Ghana, is an effort in flux. Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, was with Baker, Mets general manager Omar Minaya, Bob Watson, Dave Stewart, Reggie Smith and others on a goodwill trip to Ghana last offseason.
Together, the group held a clinic for interested players, but they were also trying to get a first-hand look at the country, what the potential might be for the game there and whether baseball should invest in academies there similar to those found in South Africa.
Solomon likes the idea of getting involved in Ghana.
"It's an English-speaking country, there's a lot of interest there, and the government is very interested," he said.
Anywhere on the continent, getting players to take that step and play baseball is the first challenge, and it's not easy. Much like Europe, Africa is a continent where soccer has been the primary sport for years. More recently, basketball has provided opportunities for many talented players over to America.
Granderson is not a Major League superstar, but Detroit's trip to the World Series in 2006 and his offensive feats in 2007 have helped make him a well-known name in the big leagues. Yet when he talked to kids and young men on his tour, just about none of them had ever heard of him.
However, he made his message based toward them, not toward him.
"The one thing that I mentioned when I had a chance to speak with them," Granderson said, "was that I don't want you to quit playing rugby or soccer or cricket, but I want you to add this to your sports."
The other challenge is to get players participating at an age when they have time to develop their game and tap their own potential. Granderson recalled seeing a couple of players on his tour who showed promise, but who were simply developing too late to have a chance at playing professionally in America. At an Athlon academy in Cape Town, however, he saw many 6- to 8-year-olds on the fields alongside teenagers.
The facilities, he said, were impressive.
"The opportunity to do things and succeed is all there," Granderson said. "You can see the knowledge and interest to learn is definitely there."
Many kids in Africa, in turn, have the athleticism to play the game at a solid level. It's up to instructors and coaches to help them develop their skills.
"We know there are many athletes that could be tapped by many sports," Solomon said.
Granderson's visit included many memories, especially on the safari he was able to take on an off-day on the tour with his father, Curtis Sr., and his best friend, Joe Lacy. But one of the sights he'll remember is that of players from different backgrounds on the same field in South Africa.
"The interesting thing I saw," he said, "was that you saw South Africans that make up a lot of different cultures, colors and races. Even growing up, I had never seen an entire team of black ballplayers. And to see four, five, six teams of all black players [there was amazing]."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.