WASHINGTON — The Chilundu Leopards didn’t own a bat six months ago, much less know how to swing one. To that point in their young lives, they had never so much as seen a baseball growing up in Lusaka, Zambia.
You may have read about Lusaka before. It’s where Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw opened an orphanage in 2013. The Zambian capital has a striking wealth gap — much of the population is either well-off or living on less than a $1.50 a day.
It’s probably safe to say most of the Chilundu Leopards fall in the latter category.
Once a week they find respite from poverty on a local polo field, where they etch a makeshift baseball diamond out of thin rubber bases, stretched out along the chewed up grass they share with grazing horses. Where they get sprayed by a sprinkler system set on no specific timer.
While they may not know much about him, they know Ryan Zimmerman plays for the Washington Nationals and they are his biggest fans.
Originally from Southern Maryland, Chris McCurdy began attending Nationals games at RFK Stadium after graduating from high school in 2005, and continued his patronage through college at University of Maryland. His first post-grad job was only blocks away from Nationals Park.
He always knew he wanted to coach Little League but never quite knew how to go about it. While serving a stretch for the Peace Corps in Uganda in 2011, he offered to help out their burgeoning club, but from another part of the country he was never able to work out the transportation logistically. They went on to become the first ever African team to play in the Little League World Series.
Chris was determined, after speaking with the filmmaker behind “Opposite Field” — a documentary about that Ugandan team — if he ever got back to the continent, he would find a way to spread the game in whichever town he was placed.
Within a year of getting married, an opportunity sprung for Chris and his bride, Erin. They jumped at the opportunity to move to Zambia, taking jobs about eight months ago with HOPE International, a Christian-faithed organization charged with breaking the chain of poverty in underserved communities.
The newlyweds were to help locals start and grow their own small businesses — a daunting task as most do not possess the requisite documentation to navigate the local bureaucracy — in order for them to better provide for themselves and their families.
After getting settled in their first few months, Chris and Erin linked up with a fellow baseball enthusiast from Holland through an expatriate Facebook group. They met up at a local polo field — the polo field — to play catch.
It was only after throwing the ball around for 10 minutes or so when they noticed a small boy — “he couldn’t have been older than 12,” they say — eyeing them from the fence line, gazing as he tracked the ball from glove to glove. Chris waved this boy over. His name was ‘Given,’ they learned.
“I only had my glove so I gave it to him to teach him how to catch the ball,” Chris recalls. “Afterwards, I noticed another kid watching us from the fence (whose name I would come to know as ‘Gift’) so I invited him over to play.”
“As I went through the same drills with Gift as I went through with Given, my wife called to my attention another 10 young boys observing us from the same fence,” he says. “Needless to say, we invited them over to play, too. After about an hour of throwing back and forth we asked the kids if they wanted to come back next week and they all agreed to return the next Saturday.”
Baseball was alive in Zambia.
There was no forced proselytizing here; these children oversaw a game that looked fun and wanted to play. Chris has been coaching them ever since and word has quickly spread.
Now, more than six months in, up to 30 children — ranging from 8 to 17 years old — show up any given Saturday to learn the game. Most of them speak English well, which has made the transition easier, but Chris and Erin both say the older boys have helped translate into Nyanja, their native language, when the occasional language barrier presents itself.
Teaching 30 youths a sophisticated game doesn’t come without its difficulties. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to see newer kids carrying habits from their inherited pastime into their new sport.
“They would run back and forth from first and third because it is similar to what they do in cricket,” Chris says. “We also had challenges with their swing as they would swing at a sharp vertical, as if they were hitting with a cricket bat.”
The intricacies are even harder to instill, like teaching them to point their lead foot in the direction they want to throw, holding onto the ball after it’s been caught, what a foul ball is and when it counts for a strike and when it doesn’t, or how to get three outs (“what an ‘out’ even means!”).
Instructing them where to stand in the field is a discipline in need of constant reminder (they’ve been known to line up with eight infielders and one outfielder at times — a defensive shift that would make Joe Maddon’s head spin).
“Overall, though, they are quick learners and it takes about three practices for the kids to pick up the basics of the game,” Chris says.
“The ones who have been here awhile now challenge my officiating,” he jokes.
They are receptive to the game, openly curious about what they don’t yet know. Just last week, as one of the kids walked to the plate, he asked, “If the catcher catches the ball that I hit, am I out?”
Chris is awestruck by the natural ability some of the kids exude: “We have a young man who can’t be any bigger than 4 foot and he can throw the ball further than most kids I have ever seen his age throw it. I’m talking 50, 60 yards with ease and accuracy, maybe even further.”
“The talent is here,” he insists. “Some of the best players are right here and we could be missing them due to lack of investment.”
This exposes a truth about the Chilundu Leopards that is as real as their socioeconomic surroundings. If they want to branch out beyond their current means, they will need money.
A year ago, Zambia began load-shedding, which is a more polite way of saying cutting power to conserve energy, the result of a poor rainy season in a country highly dependent on hydroelectricity. That created a domino effect onto the job market. Copper mines began scaling back to make due with less power to the copper plants. Wages were scaled back, jobs lost.
“The whole economy took a downturn,” Erin says.
“Last June, the Zambian kwacha was at 7-to-1 versus the dollar. It dropped all the way to 15-to-1 and now is hovering around 10-to-1. So there’s been a lot of economic upheaval lately, and the average Zambian is definitely feeling the effects of that. Families are struggling…. There’s a really big gap between those who are wealthy and those who are low income and the recent economic situation has only made that worse.”
Chris doesn’t go out of his way to speak with the kids about their home lives.
“I want this to be an escape for them, to leave their burdens at home and come into a few hours of peace and fun. That is what we strive for every Saturday morning here,” he says. “We just want to give them a creative outlet to show off their talents and their heart.”
One day, maybe as the group grows, he imagines forming an outreach to those who play “so we can help their families, too.”
He posted to Reddit photos of the Leopards wearing his Zimmerman jersey a few months back. A member of the Nationals’ marketing team spotted them and reached out. When Chris and Erin returned home for a conference in May, they set aside a day to see the Nats take on the Mets at Nats Park. They were met in the team store by that team rep and presented with Nationals hats to outfit the entire Leopards team.
Upon their return to Zambia, the Leopards took a new team photo.
“I basically had to explain that a Major League Baseball team called the Nationals donated the hats,” Chris says. “Some of the kids who had been there for awhile knew the team and started saying ‘Ryan Zimmerman’ out loud because they remembered the jersey I let them wear.”
“I explained that the MLB was like Barclays Premier League of baseball in the states (I might have exaggerated when I compared the Nationals to Manchester United). Needless to say, that connection stuck and they were smiling from ear to ear and wanted to see videos and pictures of the Nationals playing.”
They have yet to watch the Nationals play, as internet is not a common utility in Zambia and the games — which air at odd hours — are hardly accessible by television.
Chris took to Reddit to thank the Nationals organization publicly, which is when his story took off. It got upvoted from the Nats’ subreddit to the broader r/baseball page, which has more than 174,000 subscribers and frequently hosts thousands of active users at any given time of day. Chris seized the opportunity and listed an itemization of equipment the Leopards still need.
Reddit users have since sent over catcher’s gear and left-handed gloves. As it turns out, the Leopards have a logjam of lefties and still need more gloves to fit them. They’re also in need of batting gloves, pants, safety gear (cups), larger bats for the bigger kids, a tee-ball set for the newcomers and more durable bases — some chalk wouldn’t hurt either.
But shipping to Zambia is quite expensive as you could imagine, so he’s been directing donors to ship equipment to HOPE’s stateside office for co-workers to bring with them as they return to Africa. It’s not ideal and the solution only temporary.
“If this starts to grow, we would have to find other means,” Chris admits. “We may not have solutions now for a lot of donations to be sent over, but somebody who reads the story might be able to help.”
After seeing how baseball has transformed the Leopards, Chris isn’t shy about stating their growing aspirations on their behalf.
“We have major challenges to face as we expand this out and it’s obvious we need help,” he says.
“We started this as a hobby for kids to spend some time on Saturday mornings to learn a new sport. Now we are seeing that they want more. They want to play other teams and compete with each other. This can only happen if we find a home for baseball in this country and network with other Americans and expats who have the same passion to grow it.”
If the Leopards are to ever realize the same dream as their distant Ugandan neighbors, of reaching the Little League World Series, they will need officiating equipment, they will need uniforms with a proper logo. And they will need a baseball field.
These are challenges Chris and Erin could not have foreseen six months ago. They came to Zambia with the goal of tutoring families on how to re-channel their lives in the face of crippling financial hardship, knowing they were in need of a push in the right direction and some careful guidance.
What they found was an unexpected glimmer of hope for tomorrow’s generation of Zambians, innocent enough but still in tune with their precarious environment.
Dropped into their backyard onto that gnarled polo field, the Chilundu Leopards found something they can call their own, discovering a game of perfect symmetry in a country where the walls are seemingly closing in.
It almost sounds trite until you strip away all the layers of comfort to which we’re accustomed in America: These are just kids — young, free and learning, against all odds, to play the perfect game.
And they could really use your help.
To donate or contact Chris McCurdy, email: firstname.lastname@example.org