This RHP is just the 3rd Ugandan-born int'l signing

January 19th, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- In November 2021, Uganda’s aspiring baseball talent convened in Kampala, the country’s capital, for a tournament, an opportunity to gain exposure. Pirates scout Tom Gillespie was in attendance, searching for talent in a country whose baseball footprint was steadily growing. As for David Matoma, an up-and-coming pitcher who wanted to showcase his stuff?

He was stuck at school.

Gillespie and Matoma’s paths may not have crossed that afternoon, but they would in due time. Now, Matoma is set to join the Pirates organization, one of 22 players the club signed to open the 2023 international signing period. He is the first player the Pirates have signed out of Uganda.

“My family is happy for me because I’ve been playing baseball for so long,” Matoma said.

Prior to this year, only two Ugandan-born players, Ben Serunkuma and Umar Male, had played MLB-affiliate baseball; both signed with the Dodgers during the last international signing period. Matoma is plenty familiar with Serunkuma and Male. Not only are all three from the same town (Luwero), but they all attended the same boarding school and played on the same club team from 2016-22.

Gillespie learned of Matoma through various conversations. In turn, Bernard Okello, Matoma’s coach, informed the right-hander that a scout had interest.

Matoma used Okello’s phone to find Gillespie’s WhatsApp number, and the two began regularly communicating. Matoma estimates that he sent Gillespie about 30 videos of his bullpen sessions.

The two formally met last spring, and Gillespie had an opportunity to see Matoma pitch. Gillespie regularly shared Matoma’s video clips with Junior Vizcaino, director of international scouting for the Pirates. Matoma’s bullpen sessions continued to improve. At one point, Vizcaino challenged Gillespie.

“I said, ‘OK, we’ve got enough background. What do we want to do?’” Vizcaino recalled. “He said, ‘I want to sign this kid,’ and I totally trusted him with it.”

Matoma grew up playing a variety of sports, namely cricket and soccer, but he was introduced to baseball in 2010. In 2016, Matoma began playing in a more organized setting. He started out as a position player, primarily playing shortstop and second base, but he transitioned to pitching in recent years.

Matoma is listed at 6-foot, 154 pounds and turns 17 years old in February. He features a fastball in the 89 to 92 mph range, a low-80s slider -- “[he has] a feel for spin,” Gillespie said -- and a developing changeup at 81 mph. In about two weeks, Matoma will report to the Dominican Republic for camp along with Okello, who will serve as a guest coach for three weeks. The Pirates listed Matoma as a pitcher, but he might be trying to lobby Gillespie for two-way status.

“I saw videos of David hitting last week, so I don’t know if he plays a position otherwise, but he keeps trying to tell me he can hit, too,” Gillespie said.

Matoma expressed hope that teams will continue signing players from Uganda, but he also acknowledged that challenges remain. In particular, opportunities are limited due to a lack of league play. Gillespie says that he relies on making connections and networking to compensate for the absence of a structured schedule or regular competition.

“It’s really a lot of fun because it’s kind of more old school scouting in the sense that there’s not a big elite camp where everybody comes to one spot,” Gillespie said.

While there is room for growth, Gillespie -- who first visited Uganda about 15 years ago to attend a coaching clinic -- believes that the state of baseball in the country has improved. He noted that former players such as Okello, who played a year of independent ball in Japan, are transitioning into coaching, and that will, in turn, help elevate baseball in Uganda.

“The more people that are coaching that have that background as a player and have a little more feel for the game -- or a different feel for the game because of that playing background -- I think that just takes it to the next level,” Gillespie said.