ROBBINSDALE, Minn. – A few years ago, most of them had never heard of baseball. Now, a dozen boys from Africa are in the Twin Cities getting ready to play in their first tournament.
“They’re pioneers,” said Wally Langfellow, one of the organizers of the boys’ trip. “They are baseball pioneers.”
The boys from the West African nation of Benin will be play in a wood bat tournament August 4-7 in Robbinsdale, the same annual tournament that’s helped raise the money to pay for their trip.
Baseball was nonexistent in Benin until Gary Tonsager, a Twin Cities optician, traveled to Benin on a mission trip delivering eyeglasses to people who couldn’t afford them.
While on the trip, Tonsager began talking baseball to one of his interpreters, Fernando Atannon.
“When the idea of baseball came, I was like this something I can discover, a new thing that I can learn,” said Atannon, who made the trip to the Twin Cities with the boys.
Atannon began studying baseball clips on YouTube and then passing along what he’d learned to some of the boys in his neighborhood. Meantime, Robbinsdale High School classmates Tonsager and Langfellow began gathering up used baseball gear to send to Atannon.
Six years later, 120 boys are playing baseball in Benin on dirt fields that are as much obstacle courses as baseball diamonds.
“There's puddles, there's ruts, there's soccer balls hitting them in the head,” said Langfellow, who traveled to Benin with Tonsager earlier this year.
The friends already have drawings of the baseball field they hope to build for the boys in Benin, as Atannon continues to grow the country’s baseball program.
“Without Fernando and his enthusiasm this would never have happened,” said Tonsager.
Since arriving in Robbinsdale, the Benin boys have practiced daily and attended both St. Paul Saints and Minnesota Twins games.
On Saturday night, they were treated to autographs from former Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, who was in town with the visiting Chicago White Sox.
Prior to their trip, the boys had never seen a baseball game off their own dirt field.
“These kids have just been locked in the whole time,” said Langfellow. “There’s no question this is helping them.”
Langfellow and Tonsager said the boys, who speak French, have been quick studies, both on and off the field.
Among their firsts: eating hotdogs, an experience they had during a rain delay at the Saints game.
“You can tell when they’re eating them they’re trying to figure out what it is, and we don’t even know,” laughed Tonsager.