ROBBINSDALE, Minn. - The Robbinsdale Indians youth baseball squad took the field Monday night as the home team. But the man coaching first base couldn't have come from much farther away.
Fernando Atannon - from the African nation of Benin - had never seen a baseball until two-and-a-half years ago. That's when he happened to take an interpreting job with a Minnesota eye clinic owner who was distributing free glasses.
"There was no baseball there, I didn't get it," said Gary Tonsager, who owns a Pearl Vision franchise in Elk River. Tonsager talked baseball with Atannon and another interpreter over the course of several days. Then he came home with a pitch for his coaching buddy Wally Langfellow: the men could help bring baseball to Benin.
"Oh, no, how are we going to do that?" Langfellow remembers thinking at the time.
It didn't take him long to get on board. Soon the pair was collecting baseball equipment from Robbinsdale's youth teams, and shipping it to Atannon who was busily recruiting players and coaches as he studied online baseball videos.
"I fell in love with baseball," he smiled.
But Tonsager and Langfellow knew online videos could only take Atannon so far. He needed real baseball experience. So they raised the money to fly him to the Twin Cities for five weeks to learn the nuances of playing and coaching baseball.
From a youth clinic at the U of M, to a meeting with Tori Hunter at a Twins game, Atannon has been preparing to take his new coaching skills back to Benin.
He's recruited enough players and coaches for two teams, but he hopes his program will continue to grow. He smiled as he talked about children who pull out of soccer games to get to baseball practice.
Atannon's Minnesota friends are raising money to build him a baseball field next year. Currently his teams play on a soccer field or on a nearby beach. Within two years they hope to bring a select team of Atannon's players to Robbinsdale for a baseball tournament.
"This is just the beginning and it's going to be amazing," says Atannon.
Langfellow and Tonsager have created 'Baseball in Benin" to help bring America's pastime to the African nation. More information is available at the organization's website or its Facebook page.
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