Exchange Matters / January 2, 2018

Baseball in South Africa: My Experience Leading a Sports Exchange Program

By Carlton McLellan, Ph.D., Senior Advisor, Global Ties U.S.

Global Ties U.S. recently partnered with the Washington Nationals on a new youth empowerment program, Baseball4Life, lauched in South Africa with local partners at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria and the Sedibeng East District Municipality, and hosted by Global Ties South Africa.

At the end of exchange programs, participants often ask to “stay in touch,” “come visit,” or sometimes, to work on a joint exchange program in the future. This past November, I’m happy to say that I followed through on the invitation to begin an exciting sports exchange program for youth in South Africa called Baseball4Life.

The exchange was organized in collaboration with the Sedibeng East District Municipality and the Washington Nationals baseball team, with support from South African Airways Cargo. Over the course of 10 days, a series of workshops, sports clinics, and activities took place in both rural and urban communities of Gauteng and Western Cape provinces in South Africa.

Charlie Sperduto (center of circle), Manager of Baseball Operations for the Washington Nationals, leads a workshop for students and baseball coaches in Malmesbury, South Africa. Photo credit: Carlton McLellan

The initial seed for the program was planted in 2008 when I was a programmer at the Academy for Educational Development (now part of FHI360, a Global Ties U.S. National Program Agency). At the time, we were a partner of the SportsUnited office at the U.S. Department of State, which allowed us to manage some exciting sports and youth diplomacy programs.

Among the projects I was assigned was a sports diplomacy program for South African baseball and softball coaches. During the program, the participants visited the Cal Ripken Camp in Aberdeen, MD, the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, and met with representatives of Little League Baseball in Williamsport, PA. It was great getting to know those coaches and to see their passion for sports and youth development.

After the program wrapped up, I kept in touch with one of the participants, a coach named Thabo Langa. Over the next few years, Thabo and I shared ideas and talked about how we might one day put together our own exchange to help spread baseball across South African communities, particularly in the township areas. I also collected sports equipment and uniforms from several sources here in the U.S., and worked to get those donations to South Africa where Thabo distributed them to schools and communities in need. We continued to talk about creating an exchange program, and finally, with the encouragement of the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, we said, let’s get this thing done!

Demonstrating fielding a ball to primary school learners in Mamelodi township. Photo credit: Carlton McLellan

So that’s what we did. We connected with the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy and convinced them to join us in the program. They were happy to have an opportunity to spread “The Nats Way,” especially since the community of underprivileged youth they serve in southeast Washington, DC is very similar to the communities in South Africa that Thabo works with. Along with Charlie Sperduto, Manager of Baseball Operations for the Nationals, we traveled to South Africa in November to deliver a series of trainings, workshops, and clinics for and with South African coaches and youth.

We spent 10 days in several parts of South Africa including Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, and the surrounding townships and underserved communities near those major cities. We held clinics in Soweto, Mamelodi, Alexandra, and Palm Ridge, all townships in Gauteng Province, before heading south and doing similar work in Cape Town and the surrounding communities of Athlone, Parkwood and Malmesbury in the Western Cape Province.

During that time, Charlie and I discussed policy with government officials at the Gauteng Sports Council, played catch on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, and shared tips with the local coaches. In total, we trained 56 coaches and 340 young people in seven communities. We shared our mutual love of sport and its power to change lives and positively impact youngsters.

Baseball4Life was our small contribution to growing baseball in South Africa, and it all started with two sports enthusiasts meeting on a U.S. Department of State sponsored exchange program. Next time an exchange participant says “let’s keep in touch” or “let’s do something together,” my advice is to do just that! You’ll be surprised at how much fun you can have, and the impact you can make.