It was Benin, West Africa, vs. Robbinsdale, USA, as the sun set on the baseball diamond and the towering lights flickered on.
The Robbinsdale Little League’s 10-year-old All-Star team took the field with the confidence of a squad that’s bested all others their age in the northwest suburb.
In the opposite dugout, 12 boys from Benin in forest green jerseys huddled nervously. They wrapped their arms around each other and murmured quietly in prayer.
They were the underdogs, but they’ve already come so far. Until a few years ago, the boys and their three coaches had never seen a baseball game or even heard of the sport.
But this weekend, they’re playing in the very tournament that for three years has raised money, equipment and now the chance for Team Benin to be here, playing against American boys who likely have played baseball their whole lives and are managed by coaches who themselves have played for decades.
It’s all because of a visit made by former Robbinsdale Little League coach Gary Tonsager to Benin in 2010 for a two-week mission that’s turned into an ongoing journey to spread the sport across the small, poor West African nation.
“Sometimes you go on one [mission trip] that lasts your whole life,” said Tonsager, an optician.
While giving out glasses in the French-speaking country, he met an interpreter who had lived in the United States and loved baseball. He said he wanted to start a team.
“Let’s do it,” Tonsager said.
He recruited fellow Little League coach Wally Langfellow, and together they launched Baseball in Benin, a nonprofit that’s raised money and collected worn gloves, baseballs, used cleats and discarded jerseys to ship to Cotonou, the country’s largest city. But they wanted to do more.
“If it’s just us sending equipment, nothing’s going to happen,” Tonsager said.
Three years ago, they flew Benin’s novice baseball coach, Fernando Atannon, to Minnesota to teach him about the game. This spring, Langfellow and Tonsager went to Benin for the first-ever ballgame there and to meet the teams.
More than 100 boys — and one girl — ages 7 to 16 now play baseball with coaches who learned the sport from YouTube videos and each other.
“It was sad to not have baseball in Benin,” Atannon said. “We want to have baseball in every city.”
Wearing donated shirts bearing names like Golden Valley and Hopkins, the boys, some of them barefoot, practice three days a week on a matted dirt field riddled with potholes. They dodge trash, puddles and flying balls from adjacent soccer players.
“They can no longer live without baseball,” Atannon said.
More than baseball
Last week, 12 of the best, youngest players from Benin traveled to Minnesota for two weeks of practice, playing and seeing sites in a major American metro area thanks to more than $30,000 raised to bring them here.
This week, they’ve been practicing in Robbinsdale and playing in the tournament. Atannon, Arnaud Adodo and Benice Amouzoun coach the team and translate for the Minnesotans.
Despite the language barrier, the coaches have gotten to know their players’ distinctive personalities. And the kids have gotten to know the Americans’ different approaches: Tonsager quietly pulls a player aside for a lesson, while Langfellow yells out instructions.
“How do you say ‘go’?” Tonsager asked Atannon as he coached at first base.
“Va,” he answered.
“Va!” Tonsager said as the runner sprinted to second.
“Très bien!” Tonsager shouted, clapping.
Tonsager and Langfellow dream of building a proper baseball field in Benin. But their mission is about more than just baseball. They hope the sport links kids together, teaches lessons about success and failure and leads to new possibilities.
“It’s baseball that’s the glue,” Tonsager said.
The wide-eyed 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds are the first in their families to see the U.S., let alone leave their city. They’ve experienced their first train ride (to a St. Paul Saints game) and their first time riding escalators and roller coasters (Mall of America). They strained their necks to gaze up at Minneapolis’ skyscrapers and marveled at Target Field, where former Twins player Justin Morneau signed hats for them.
“They’ve seen stuff they never knew was out there,” Tonsager said. “[Now] they’ll aspire to do things they never thought they could do.”
Robbinsdale vs. Benin
Like playing baseball at night.
For the first time, the players on Tuesday scrimmaged under the lights. Families filled the bleachers of Lakeview Terrace Park as dusk fell. Kids swatted mosquitoes as the chirp of crickets echoed across the field.
Hospice Acakpo, the smallest player, was up to bat first. His teammates clutched the chain-link fence in anticipation and chanted: “Hospice! Hospice! Hospice!”
One strike, then two.
Atannon shouted encouragement at the 11-year-old in French, their English-speaking rivals none the wiser, as Langfellow coached Atannon. “Good eye, Hospice!” Tonsager yelled.
Hospice trudged to the dugout, disappointed. He and the team have played baseball for only three or four years. But what they lack in experience, they make up in speed and fearlessness. They fly around the bases and don’t flinch at line drives.
“They’re not scared of anything,” Tonsager said.
In the second inning, the boys’ confidence rebounded as pitcher Bill Sagbo got three quick outs, holding the score at 3-1. But by the fifth inning, the Robbinsdale team was benefiting from Benin’s inexperience, taking out runners who hesitated between bases.
The final score: 10-2, Robbinsdale. In the dugout, the Benin boys bowed their heads. Some had tears. Atannon translated Langfellow’s instructions: “When you go, don’t stop.”
The boys gathered their gear. Silently, they left the field.
Benin lost the game. But they’ve already won so many hearts.