A pair of genuine smiles

I spent a semester studying abroad at The University of Cape Town, and while I was there I wanted to explore the existence of baseball in South Africa. With a quick Google search, I found that there was a youth baseball club nearby. By coincidence, my local friend Asanda Mankayi, a student at The University of Cape Town, happened to grow up in that town and I asked him to bring me there so I could look into it. I would like to give a very special thank you to Asanda for taking the time to bring me there in May and for making this story possible.

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It had been two years since Cape Town had hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but it was impossible to turn in any direction without seeing the stickers, the signs, the clothing . . . the merchandising. 

Stadiums had been built, and existing structures had been renovated and otherwise spruced up in anticipation of the international spotlight to be glaring down on South Africa.

Just over a decade removed from hosting the Rugby World Cup, it was the second time in recent history that one of the country’s most popular sports was bringing the world’s attention to South Africa. First it was rugby, then soccer – two of the three main sports in South Africa along with cricket. American sports are rarely featured in South Africa, and basketball stands as the only American sport that has a significant presence.

But on the outskirts of the beautiful city of Cape Town is a township called Philippi located in the Cape Flats region. The kids in Philippi, surprisingly, love baseball.

Who would have thought that baseball would ever make its way to South Africa? Of course, when we think of Americans in South Africa we think of the obnoxious exploitation of the country in the form of McDonald’s, KFC, and especially Coca-Cola. Baseball may be the one of the last American things that we would expect to arrive in South Africa.

But in 1895, the gold rush in South Africa attracted a group of Americans who decided to bring with them some baseball equipment and ultimately became “missionaries for the sport”.[1] The first official South African baseball league was formed in 1899 and the sport continued to grow and spread around the country. However, the sport followed the path of apartheid and was not played by black South Africans, leading to isolation from other countries that refused to associate with the racist policies.

Today, much has changed in South Africa politically but baseball is still a sport that is played mostly by the upper class elite. Part of the reason why I wanted to look at baseball in South Africa is to see how race and class may have been a factor in who plays which sports.

The residents of Philippi live in cramped shacks held together by pieces of tin and wood, and the ground is made up of polluted dirt and layers of trash. The Township is just miles from the city of Cape Town, and a cloud of smog over the Cape Flats is often visible from the steps on upper campus at The University of Cape Town. The residents in the many townships surrounding Cape Town have lived in destitute conditions for decades after they were forced out of their homes during apartheid by the white-dominated government.

The word apartheid is derived from the word “apart,” as the government had a dream of creating a system in which all races were completely separate from one another. Officials from the South African government traveled to the United States after World War II to study the history of American segregation policies, some of which were folded into their own plans for an apartheid government.

As the government’s dream came true, everyone was classified by law into four broad categories: Black, Coloured, Indian, or White. The government had ridiculous ways of classifying people, such as placing a pencil in a person’s hair and using that to tell them which race they were. If an interracial couple was married before apartheid, they were no longer married when it went into effect. The government would even raid homes in the middle of the night and check bedrooms to make sure nobody was breaking the law.

Townships were designated as areas for black and coloured people, off-limits to white people like myself. And black people were not allowed into white areas, which included the city of Cape Town. Beaches were segregated, as were schools, benches, and most public facilities. The racist Bantu Education Act of 1953 limited education for black students and only taught them material that would prepare them for a career in cheap labor.

When apartheid ended in 1994, it was difficult for communities to form a melting pot after so many years of segregation. Apartheid left such a deep gap between rich and poor that the structures of communities remain relatively the same and townships are still fairly inaccessible to anyone who does not live there. As such, my journey to explore baseball in Philippi didn’t start and end with one simple cab ride as might have had I traveled to somewhere in the city, but rather a series of transfers and different modes of transportation spanning over a period of almost two hours.

The trip started at my home in Rosebank, a suburb of Cape Town. Accompanied by my friend Asanda, who grew up in Philippi, we took the train to the Cape Town station located in the city center. Once there, we walked to a minibus taxi station. Amid a loud and crowded atmosphere, we navigated our way through the crowd and found the outbound van heading for Philippi. These vans, which are often packed with more than 15 people and, as such, serve as a cheap way to transport people around Cape Town and the surrounding area. We squeezed ourselves in one of these crowded vans, passed up the cheap R13 (less than two dollars per person) cab fare, and rode to Philippi. Upon our arrival in Philippi, I stepped out of the van and into another world — a world reeking of apartheid’s suffocating aftermath but shockingly still within viewing distance of Table Mountain, a chilling reflection of the deep gap between upper and lower class within such close proximity.

Next, we had to get out of the van and transfer to a special unmarked car, which transfers people around Philippi. Confused, I asked Asanda whose car it was.

“These cars are the ones which bring you around the township, don’t worry,” he assured me.

This was our final ride of the trip, but all the transfers and the total time it took us to arrive to a place only miles from Cape Town gave me a glimpse of how detached these areas are from the city itself.

The isolation of these townships during apartheid meant that residents were largely shut out from the outside world. Throughout the darkest years of oppression, South Africans looked for an escape route from the harsh reality of life that existed in their hometowns. Many turned to drugs and alcohol, and gang violence escalated as South African youths realized then and even now that gangs were simply a way of life in townships. However, some found other ways to cope – and one of these ways was through sports.

Like everything else in South Africa, sports were also segregated: rugby emerged as a sport for white people while soccer became the sport for black people. In townships throughout South Africa, a game of soccer can be seen on any day of the week. I stood in awe as I watched teenagers casually kick up a ball and start doing incredible tricks, reminiscent of what American basketball fans might see from the Harlem Globetrotters. Soccer has been a significant part of South African culture for years.

But baseball, of all sports, was introduced to Philippi in 2007, and has grown in popularity.

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Standing with members of the Philippi team

Nyameko Gabada, the coach of the Philippi Angels baseball club, grew up in South Africa with some baseball in his background. He says he decided to bring the sport to the township as a way for kids to work together and stay out of trouble. Introducing baseball to an area as poor and isolated as Philippi was no simple task, especially when the teams they would be facing had all of the necessary equipment and facilities for their players. South Africa does not have a Little League baseball system, and many sport facilities are catered around the more popular sports of rugby, cricket, and soccer.

“Other baseball teams have diamond fields and we do not have nice fields,” Gabada explained to me during an interview at his home in Philippi. “With supplies it is a problem as well, and sometimes we get checks from other teams to support us.”

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Philippi’s home baseball field

Their field — mostly mud, and without any grass — is in such poor condition that opposing teams refuse to play games there. I found piles of trash scattered around the field, polluting the ground so badly that the puddles from the early afternoon rain had nowhere to drain. Unable to afford the costs of improving the field, the Angels have had to play all their recent games on the road. The coach has had to use his own car and pay for the “petrol” out of his own pocket.

“We have had some donations from the lottery and from overseas, but it is still not enough,” said Gabada.

Despite their financial situation, the Angels have continued to build their program while having success on the field, which has translated into international exposure. A trophy shelf perched on the wall in Gabada’s home displays the awards that have been racking up in recent years.

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National and intl. trophies awarded to the Angels

Among the people who helped in the founding of the Angels was Ian Edelstein, an American from New Hampshire who now works for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Pretoria. Before he moved away from Cape Town, he decided to become more involved with youth baseball after his son, a South African-American, was playing for a white team. When Edelstein saw the need for help in Philippi, he dedicated 15 hours or more hours a week to the development of the team. Despite the poor condition of their home playing field, he would try and help maintain it so they could at least try to host some games back then.

“It helped show the kids that they could take pride in where they were from and play host to teams from white communities,” he said.

He took the younger kids to watch games played by the older kids so that they could learn from them, and since many of the kids did not have access to television, he also showed them video of professional baseball games from America.

“We would show Yankees/Red Sox games and I would tell them the story of Jackie Robinson because they were blazing a similar trail as the first black baseball club in South Africa,” he said.

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In addition to interviewing Edelstein and Gabada, I also spoke with some members of the Philippi Angels. The moment I arrived at Gabada’s home, I saw two players named Masizole Jack and Sihle Mkhele dressed in baseball jackets and wearing baseball caps. They are former players for the Angels but remain involved as volunteers. I knew I was going to cover a baseball team but it was not until I saw the baseball attire that I realized, as a baseball fan, how intriguing it was to see baseball from the South African perspective.

Sihle is a 20-year-old woman from Philippi who first heard about baseball a few years ago but was not interested in it because she wasn’t familiar with the sport. She was with her friends one day when they invited her to watch the team. Why just watch, she thought, when she could go out there and play ball. Before she knew it, she was a ballplayer.

“Now my favorite sport is baseball,” she said. “Before it was soccer, but now I really like baseball. I played outfield and third base”IMG_1435

Masizole Jack, or “Jack” as he prefers, is 19 years old and he played a variety of positions – a utility player of sorts — and he was originally looking to find a cricket team. Clearly, he wound up playing baseball instead and now he loves it.

“I realized there wasn’t a cricket team here and I heard people were playing [baseball], so I came and joined. From there, I liked it because I got to do something different. You throw and hit the ball, which is what I originally wanted to do,” he said.

After the interviews, the players and coach brought me to the side of the house and showed me their baseball shed. Once the door opened, Jack and Sihle dug into the bat IMG_1436bags and pulled out baseball equipment to show me. I glanced around the room and saw helmets, gloves, bats, and even uniforms. Imagine the emotional impact these uniforms must have on these kids. While they are short on equipment and funds, they still have that priceless sense of identity when they slide on that uniform. And as they showed me their equipment, even as it was barely enough to keep the team going, the players displayed a special sense of optimism for the game of baseball.

During my conversations with Jack and Sihle, I noticed their faces were lighting up with distinctive smiles as soon as the topic of baseball entered the discussion. Their smiles and the way they talked about baseball reflected a special passion for the sport. These were genuine smiles that might not be seen from some South African soccer, rugby, or cricket players who spend their lives going through the motions of trying to live up to their family’s or society’s expectations. These smiles reflected their individual decision to play baseball.

As I wrapped up my conversations with them, I thought about the differences in the process of becoming a baseball player in America compared to South Africa. As Americans growing up in a society that pushes us into mainstream sports such as baseball, we not only take things for granted but we don’t always take the time to consciously realize whether we really make the individual decision to play.

When Asanda and I walked out of the house to leave on that rainy day in May, I thanked everybody and looked back at the two ballplayers as they smiled at me and said goodbye.

Thinking back, I can only hope that my smile back was as genuine as theirs.

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Edited by Boston Herald Senior Columnist Steve Buckley

[1] Josh Chetwynd. “A History of South African Baseball.” Nine: A Journal Of Baseball History & Culture. 16. no. 2 (2008): 73-79. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 10, 2012).

 

 

 

Link: Published on new LGBT Issues in Sport blog

Earlier this year, a group of professors and researchers were talking at a conference about how there was a need for an online port for researchers and people alike to increase awareness and coverage of LGBT Issues in Sports. Somebody brought up the idea of creating a blog, and the idea became a reality. After careful planning, a new site called The LGBT Issues in Sport: Theory to Practice blog was launched to the world. The blog is now updated almost every day and sometimes twice a day, featuring research and other related articles published by a number of experts from different universities and institutions around the country.

My former professor at Ithaca College, Dr. Staurowsky, is one of the founders and had contacted me during the summer to ask if I would be interested in contributing to the blog. When I was asked, I immediately accepted and quickly started thinking about what I should write about. I soon had learned about a new fiction novel about a gay Mets player who is outed by a reporter during the season, and I decided to complete a book review. Feel free to read my review here.

Hypocritical players should not blame the replacement referees

To the countless fans or players who are blaming the referees for last night’s end result in Seattle: Don’t. Blame the people who put them there. The commissioner and the owners would be a good place to start distributing the blame.

The referees are replacements who were hurried into the spotlight by the NFL, and as difficult as it may be for many to believe, they are actually doing the best they possibly can. Since the preseason they have been the target of all criticism — regardless of their performance on the field — while the previous referees have been made out to be a group of flawless robots who would never missed a call on the field. Every single time there is an alleged blown call, fans are quick to point out that the regular referees would not have made that call. How do they know that? The regular referees never had these many eyes on them, and the difference is that these fans are not just watching the replacement referees but they are looking for any possible reason to call them out.

Humans are not perfect. As a certified baseball umpire myself, I know what it feels like to be on the officiating side of the game, to have ignorant fans in my face when they have no idea what the rule book actually says. Regardless of the sport, officials are invisible when everything is going smoothly. When something goes wrong, everyone says it is their fault.

If humans are not perfect, neither are referees. It’s not like referees have never been involved in a controversy before. Jerome Bettis and the coin flip on Thanksgiving. Tom Brady’s fumble/incomplete pass/whatever you want to call it, now known as the Tuck Rule, on that snowy, whiteout playoff game against Oakland. Even Ed Hochuli, who has a great reputation as a well-respected, veteran referee, admitted to blowing a call during a game between the Chargers and Broncos in 2008. People were in such complete shock that he would actually blow a call. He’s human. Not a robot.

What I found to be most surprising in the aftermath of last night’s debacle in Seattle was how some players were still placing the blame on the referees. T.J. Lang, a member of the Packers offensive line which gave up eight sacks in the first half alone, said via Twitter that his team was (expletive) by the refs” and that the NFL can ” Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs”

Another Packers offensive lineman, Josh Sitton, said after the game, “That was (expletive). This is getting ridiculous!”

Lang was already out of line to be putting the blame on the referees, and both of them obviously should not have used such foul language. Maybe their offensive line shouldn’t have given up eight sacks in the first half. Maybe that wouldn’t have put themselves in a position to lose on a last second play. And surely, these players shouldn’t have opened their mouth after the game. If the NFL players think the replacement referees are ruining the integrity of the game, their use of foul language on a public website demonstrates poor sportspersonship and makes it hypocritical to even open their mouths. Failing to set an example for all of their young followers is what really ruins the integrity of the game.

I agree that the replacement referees have probably made more mistakes than we hoped for, and I agree that the new referees need to come back. But let us put the blame on the people who are responsible for putting them there, not the replacements. If the players are going to be so immature that they cannot set an example for others, I don’t see how they have a right to complain.

Out of all the tweets emerging from last night’s disaster, I think we should all agree that Deion Sanders said it best:

“I feel sorry for these refs I really do. They’re doing the best they (can) but that ain’t good enough please bring back the real thing. #truth”

With Nicks ruled out, it could be Barden’s time to shine

Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz both combined to have a monstrous game last week in Big Blue’s come from behind win over the Buccaneers, but if you didn’t watch the game you probably had no idea that Nicks played through what appeared to be a painful injury that occurred during the game. Nicks had just finished recovering from off-season surgery on his foot when the FOX Sports video crew caught him getting stepped on during a play, but he shrugged it off and continued to torch the Tampa defense.

Now, with the Giants in the middle of a short week of rest as they prepare to face the Panthers tonight, it seems Nicks’ foot is still bothering him. The Giants have downgraded him from questionable to out, and with Domenik Hixon also banged up, the door has opened for former Cal Poly All American Ramses Barden.

 Barden has one catch in the two games so far this season, and my gut feeling is that the team REALLY wants him to succeed. Remember, the Giants moved up several spots in the 2009 draft in order to take Barden in the third round. With such limited action in his regular season career so far, the timing for this opportunity could not be better for the 6’6.5″ wideout. He was the tallest receiver in his draft class, and with the shorter but speedy Victor Cruz lined up alongside him, it could make for an interesting tandem in tonight’s showdown in Charlotte.

While Barden will have his chance, this game may also provide an opportunity for other receivers buried in the depth chart. The recently drafted Reuben Randle left LSU after his junior season to join in the NFL draft, and we should keep our eye out for him on the field. Eli Manning has shown us time and time again that he knows how to spread the ball around, and I think that’s just what he’ll try to do tonight. 

Dissecting the controversial ending of the Giants/Bucs game

As if it wasn’t already a wild, record-breaking fourth quarter comeback for Big Blue in their week two matchup against the Buccaneers, things got even more interesting at the end. With just seconds remaining in the game after the Giants rallied to take a 41-34 lead, their offense simply decided to knee the ball — this is common sense in any football game.

But with it being a one-score game, the Buccaneers coaching staff told their defensive players to play the snap as if it was a regular play. Who cares, they thought, that kneeing the ball always indicates that the team is conceding the play and peacefully running out the clock. Let’s . . . dive at their knees?

While it wasn’t a big deal that the players were told to play to the last second — that is fine, as pointless as it was in this case, though — the thing I have an issue with is how the Buccaneers defense dove at the knees of the offensive lineman across from them. This was clearly a cheap shot, and even the Buccaneers defensive players said after the game that they would not have done this if they weren’t ordered to by the coaches.

What with all of the coverage and bad press this play caused, the question has to be raised of whether this Buccaneers play call was even worth it. This goes without even mentioning the dirty way in which it was carried out, which was definitely not worth it and should be reviewed by the National Football League.

If Schiano was asked whether he would want players on opposing team diving at the knees of his players on pointless, late game plays, I can assume his answer would be no. A bad mistake by a rookie NFL head coach came back to bite him, and boy, talk about a bad time and place. With his hometown New Jersey crowd sitting behind him, this couldn’t be the way he pictured it to turn out.

How Twitter makes it tricky to be a reporter

When I asked Pete Rose last year whether the game of baseball has changed since he retired, he told me the only thing that has changed about the game is the press. Whether the rest of the game has changed could be up for debate, I think we can all agree with the Hit King about the press.

“You can find out everything that happened in a game that same night, and now I don’t want to read about it tomorrow morning,” he told me.

But to be more specific, I’d like to talk about one of the ways in which Twitter has affected the everyday job of a sports writer.

As information continues to become more instantaneous, the question of how and when to release it becomes extremely tricky. What complicates it even further is that not everybody in an organization will always agree on a consensus. If a reporter wants to tweet an important quote he or she just recorded in an interview with an athlete, their employer might disagree with that decision to release it so soon because they’d rather the reporter use it in a story. If a quote is tweeted and then later inserted into a story, it becomes redundant. Readers are lazy and they don’t want to read about something twice if they can get the gist of the story from a tweet.

I learned this through experience, as I have had to tip toe my way through this issue myself. As a beat writer covering a baseball team, part of my job was to tweet throughout the games in order to give fans an idea of how their team’s players were doing. But I also had to be careful about how much information I released, because I wanted to save some for articles I would be writing that week. It is much easier said than done.

As I take a look at the Twitter pages for sports writers (beat writers in particular) across sports and then compare them with the articles they are writing, I can’t help but notice how much information is being repeated. These writers tweet from the second they wake up until they go to bed, and plenty of that already-public information ends up in an article later that day or the next day. This makes me wonder what their editors think, especially when it matters much more to them what appears on their publication than what is found on a Twitter account. I know from conversations with at least one editor that they are having issues with this and that organizations are hiring people to monitor the Twitter accounts.

Editors are aware that Twitter accounts are necessary for reporters, and that these accounts can attract readers in the form of followers. But how much the editors want their reporters to tweet is another story.

This brings me to my final question, which is simple but valid. How do editors properly teach reporters how to balance their Twitter accounts with their articles? It takes experience with this issue to really understand how complex it can be. It should be interesting to see how it plays out as time goes on.

Mets’ owners don’t care and Collins has given up

Count me in as one of those people who thought Terry Collins was not one to blame for his team’s second half slide into hell.

But suddenly he is handling the Mets’ free fall all wrong. We all thought Collins was not the problem (and he still isn’t really the problem), but as Mike Francesa so screamingly pointed out to us during his rant on WFAN yesterday, Collins hasn’t helped the problem lately. Rather, he has given up on the season. In fact, Collins just said that he’s already looking ahead to next season and that he has to look at the bigger picture. Of course, the Mets won’t be in the playoffs but it is still important to the fan base to at least pay enough attention to the remainder of the season to avoid a total disaster.

Francesa made note of how Collins seemed complacent with the way the Mets were just swept by the cellar-dwelling Rockies. Collins, who just days ago seemed to put his foot down, has backed down and seems completely OK with the way his team has sunk into oblivion. He has tried to say in his post-game press conferences that the players are at least having some good at-bats, which they definitely are not. He was even supportive of Frank Francisco after the Mets’ closer just went on a tirade in the dugout. The front office, not Collins, is to blame for this season, but Collins needs to understand that he has a responsibility to at least attempt to finish strong.

The players are not to blame. Professional athletes play every game, regardless of whether they are on a first place team or last place team, knowing that their personal success on the field is what will determine their financial future. The harsh reality for a fan of any team is that athletes play for themselves, not the team. I wouldn’t say any individual player on the Mets actually quit on the team. The front office just failed at fielding a successful team this season.

Collins’ job is unique in that he has different goals than the players do. In theory, a manager will do what it takes to win games, and even while the Mets fade into darkness he has an obligation to put an effort into setting a higher standard. If Collins is content with the way the team is playing right now, the fan base will become even more upset than they already were.

The owners have done nothing but make a complete fool of themselves in recent years. They were good friends and did business with the most well known criminal on Wall Street, they made ridiculous comments about their soon-to-be free agent player’s worth, and their team simply stinks. The Wilpons haven’t had a positive newspaper headline in forever, and the fans are getting fed up.

The team’s owners don’t care, and now the team’s manager doesn’t care. Even with a month left in the season, I guess this means the fans shouldn’t care either.