How Baseball at Heart is bringing the game and hope to young women in Uganda

March 30th, 2024
Photos by Jean Fruth. Design by Tom Forget.

The girls arrived to the field in whatever they had. Some came in dresses and others in bare feet. The equipment was shared, gloves dropped and left in the outfield for players on the other team to grab as they swapped places.

Whatever the circumstances, though, the desire was the same: These young women were here to play baseball -- something that is quickly spreading across Uganda.

"So often here in America, it's like, 'I don't have the right batting gloves. I need the latest Wilson A2000 or the latest Mike Trout cleats,'" U.S. Women's National Team closer Meggie Meidlinger said to after her most recent trip to help lead girls coaching clinics. "These girls are showing up, some in dresses, literally whatever they're wearing -- barefoot, you know, ball to the shin -- and they're like, 'Oh, OK, I'm out here. Let me keep going."

This is the story of Baseball at Heart and how it's finding hundreds of young women eager to learn and play baseball.

Photo by Jean Fruth.

It all started with one well-timed phone call nearly a decade ago. Though she's known for her fiery approach on the mound, stalking the infield grass following strikeouts like a lion on the prowl, at this time Meidlinger was at a crossroads in her life. After graduating from college with her architecture degree, she was looking for what was next in her life -- unsure if baseball still had a place in it. So, she decided to join with a Christian ministry, eMI, that offers design services around the world. She was stationed in East Africa, and though she didn't know if there was a future for her in the sport, she still couldn't get the routine out of her system.

"That time also correlated, honestly, with a time where I thought my baseball career was done if I'm being honest," Meidlinger said recently in a phone interview. "I was fine with it, but obviously missed playing catch and playing baseball."

Though the Pirates now have David Matoma in their Minor League system -- he recently was featured in Spring Breakout -- and the Dodgers have started an academy in the country, baseball was far from popular. To get her baseball fix at the time, she would go out and play catch with the teenage boys she met through her work, teaching them the basics of the game while also stretching out her arm.

Photo by Jean Fruth

When her time in the country was done, she returned to America and to the National Team, but she had fallen in love with Uganda and was eager to return. This time, when she did, she was told to call Jimmy Jaban, who had made history as one of the coaches for the Ugandan Little League team that reached Williamsport in 2012 and who was now working with the Uganda Baseball and Softball Association. If there was a place for Meidlinger to find some throwing partners or find some game action, he was the person to speak to.

After Jaban told her that she could find the players on the field in Kampala on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Jaban was in for two surprises:

1. Meidlinger showed up the very next day.

2. She was there to play baseball.

"I didn't know that ladies were playing baseball. I thought it was more softball," Jaban said over the phone from his home in Kampala. "That was my first experience to see that, 'Oh, no, women do play baseball.'"

(Though women playing baseball was new to Jaban, the inspiration and name of the organization is in homage to his mother, who always made sure that Jaban was ready and on time for practice while he was growing up.)

A friendship developed between Jaban and Meidlinger and after she returned to the states to continue playing for the USWNT, Jaban followed along. He saw how much the women in America loved playing baseball in the states and knew that the girls in Uganda would feel the same.

"It's the same story in any country," Meidlinger said: "Girls are playing softball and boys are playing baseball, but girls are interested in playing baseball."

So, when Meidlinger planned another return trip to Uganda in 2019 -- bringing along some teammates for their first experience in the country, too -- Jaban had an offer:

"Hey, if you're coming to Uganda, do not just come and do a safari or just take a tour," Jaban told her. "I'm like, come through and let's introduce women's baseball in Uganda."

Quickly assembled and with little in the way of formal preparations, Meidlinger and her USWNT teammates Stacy Piagno, Anna Kimbrell and AJ Hamilton made their way to the country. Traveling across three districts, they played games and gave instruction to close to 200 girls.

As is almost always the case when you put a bat and a ball into someone's hands, the game quickly sold itself.

"What was impressive is that some of the girls who were playing softball, the moment they went to hit a baseball, you know, like when you hit a baseball and it really flies, the girls got really interested," Jaban said. "The girls were like, 'I really want to play that fast pitch and hit home runs! That's what we want to do!'"

Photo from the December 2023 trip. Photo by Jean Fruth.

With the quick start, Jaban got to work, helping establish teams and making sure the girls taking part played at least six games that first year. The plan was for Jaban to continue working in Uganda, with Meidlinger and her teammates returning every two years to further the work they were doing.

The goal was far beyond just baseball, though. While it was one thing to get the girls on the field, the larger aims of the organization are to give these young players a future and to keep them in school.

"Unfortunately, for young girls, in a country like Uganda, if they're in school in the city, if parents can't afford, they send them back to the village to get married at like 14 or 15 and have kids," Meidlinger said. "The intent of Baseball at Heart is also keeping girls in school."

Then Covid hit. While the pandemic tore through the entire world, it was especially tough on Ugandan children, whose schools remained closed for 22 months -- longer than anywhere else in the world. It splintered the organization as many families moved out of the cities and forced Jaban to focus on the small community teams once the government cleared outdoor sporting activities.

"You give them a chance to go to school and also play ball, and then it gives the parents hope, like, 'OK, if they're playing ball and it's helping them to go to school, that means there's a future for them,'" Jaban said. "So, we think about it that way."

Ashton Lansdell, center, surrounded by young Ugandan children

When the world opened back up, Jaban quickly got back to work expanding the organization's reach to more regions and with more players. Meidlinger and Kimbrell returned this winter, joined by fellow USWNT players Kelsie Whitmore and Ashton Lansdell for a new round of clinics.

The growth they saw was astonishing. Women's baseball had grown from three regions to eight and the participants skyrocketed, going from 200 girls to nearly 320. Kiryandongo even had four different women's teams playing.

"Kiryandongo not only was at a refugee camp, but the girls who showed up for that one, there's four for women's teams just in that region," Meidlinger said. "I was like, 'There's not even four women's teams in Atlanta -- and that's a big city. How do you have four women's competitive teams?' You should have seen these games, like, they were getting into it."

Photo by Jean Fruth

Once again, though, baseball wasn't the only goal during the trip. Beyond using sports as a way to teach skills like leadership and teamwork, this was also an opportunity for the participants to hear from adults about a wide range of topics. Every day during lunch, Jaban and the other male coaches would leave to give time for "Girl Talk," when the young players could ask anything they wanted. Sometimes it was about playing baseball in America, while other times it was about personal or health issues they were facing.

"In a lot of those countries, there is no FLE [Family Life Education] class or anything," Meidlinger said. "There's a lot of tough conversations. You know, some girls don't know how they got pregnant, or about the time of the month or being an athlete. And so I really appreciate and respect Jimmy. He was like, 'I'm a guy, this needs to be a girl's conversation. I'm going to take all the guys aside, so you can have some of those harder conversations with these girls.'"

Meidlinger shows a young player how to pitch. Photo by Jean Fruth.

With Meidlinger and her teammates preparing for this summer's Women's World Cup Finals in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Jaban has his eyes set on the 2027 World Cup Qualifiers. It's his dream for Uganda to be the first African nation to participate in the tournament.

"The first challenge I will say is we have to work to break the stereotype that girls are supposed to play softball," Jaban said. "I was so happy that we did, we showed them that girls can play. And the girls were good."

The next challenge is the ever-present need for more equipment and funding. There's also only one baseball field in the capital, so even finding the space to play is difficult.

"Equipment's a real challenge. Like, catching gear, we don't really get catcher's gloves. Bats are really so needed," Jaban said. "Gloves are so needed. Helmets at least last a little bit longer, so we have some of them. But sometimes, when they're playing, they don't have shoes, but they're still coming out. They want to play."

The passion is there and so is the talent. It's now just about making sure that the women who are interested in playing get a chance to show their skills.

"Baseball's brought me places, it's given me friends," Wiz said. "We play so hard to be like Meggie and Anna. It's teaching, educating and it helps our kids be motivated."

"To be able to give these girls an opportunity just means so much in a country I love so dearly," Meidlinger said. "And to get to do that alongside my USA baseball teammates, my sisters, is just a really fun experience to combine all that and to get to do that with them."