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LADELPHIA -- Witnessing baseball at its highest level for the first time, they stood 15 feet behind the cage and watched Jimmy Rollins take his hacks.
"In the stands," yelled one of the excited 11-year-olds as the Phillies' shortstop belted a ball into the right-field seats.
A week removed from becoming the first team from Africa to win a game at the Little League World Series, the Ugandan Little Leaguers got the experience of a lifetime on Tuesday when Rollins hosted them at the Phillies-Mets game. It was quite a thrill for the group of youngsters, who had never before seen a Major League game, let alone been on the field at a big league ballpark.
"It's very exciting to be here, and it's a special opportunity for us," said Henry Odong, the Uganda coach. "We've only seen this kind of [stadium] on ESPN."
After the players watched batting practice with wide eyes and mingled with a few of the Phillies players, Rollins gave the Little Leaguers a tour of the Phillies' clubhouse. Sitting in Section 136 during the game, they received a large cheer when they were showed on the Citizens Bank Park's Phanavision. After the fifth inning of the game, they got to dance on the field with the Phillie Phanatic. Another very special moment came at the end of the top of the third inning, when Rollins caught a ball near foul territory and heaved it 30 rows to a player on the team.
"This is amazing," said Paul Kateregga, an assistant coach. "Overwhelming. This is a great experience for us being here. We've never seen this. We've never had such structures in Africa."
Rollins got involved with the team through filmmaker Jay Shapiro, who began producing a full-length feature film on the Uganda Little League team in 2009. Rollins, like many others, viewed a short piece produced by Shapiro on ESPN that documented, among other things, the documentation problems that kept the kids from playing at Williamsport, Pa., a year ago.
"We got phone calls from kids wanting to send their gloves, and Hollywood people and lots of Major League players," Shapiro said. "But when push came to shove, Jimmy Rollins and [former Major Leaguer] Derrek Lee both got on a plane and came with me to Uganda to go see it for themselves."
That was in January, when Rollins traveled to Uganda to lend a hand. He also donated $10,000 through the Rollins Family Foundation for the Pearl of Africa Series, which pitted the Uganda team against the Little League team from Langley, British Columbia -- the same team it was supposed play in the first round of the 2011 Little League World Series.
"He came at a time when really it was down," Shapiro said. "After last year's visa debacle, the program was in a rough spot and kind of needed a pick-me-up. And Jimmy gave a huge one."
So last Tuesday, when the Uganda team defeated the squad from Gresham, Ore., in the consolation game, Odong dedicated the victory to Rollins.
"Jimmy Rollins is quite very different than all the other ballplayers," Odong said. "When the kids couldn't make it here last year, I was one of the people who was really discouraged. But when Jimmy Rollins came to Uganda and said, 'You know what, let's just keep pushing the game on. You guys don't put the gloves down. Just continue playing the game.' That told me a lot and encouraged me to continue pushing the game."