They traveled around the grounds at Lakeview Terrace Park like a posse of celebrities – their green jerseys and stunner shades standing out in the crowd. They smiled and took photos with admirers. They posed for more cameras in the dugout and chatted with their teammates. Then they all jogged out to the field together as spectators watched.
The Benin baseball team was the main attraction last Friday night in Robbinsdale. The 11 and 12-year-old boys traveled to Minnesota to play in the Wood Bat Tournament, courtesy of donations to Baseball in Benin, a small nonprofit organization founded in 2011 by two former Robbinsdale Little League coaches. One of them is Gary Tonsager, an Elk River businessman. He had a vision of bringing baseball to the small French-speaking country of Benin and it has blossomed beyond his imagination.
The visitors from 6,034 miles away didn’t win against the Robbinsdale All-Stars, but they lost by a respectable score of 12-7. They proved that baseball in Benin – which didn’t exist six years ago – is growing, and the players are capable of contending against some of the United States’ best.
“These kids have lost the game, but baseball means a lot them,” Benin head coach Fernando said. “It means they’re not going to live without baseball.”
In the top of the second inning, it became quite clear Benin had a shot to not only hang around, but to potentially win the game. Fidele – an intense, ultra-competitive pitcher – walked and stole second and third to start the inning. Benin used its speed, which was arguably its best asset, to make the Robbinsdale fielders work.
Joel, Josue and Abdoul all walked, and Fidele came around to score. Then a single scored two more runs, and Benin captured a 3-0 lead. It was interesting how the Benin players didn’t get too excited when they scored. You could tell they didn’t just come here for the experience. They came here to win.
Robbinsdale scored two in the bottom of the frame, but the Lean Green Fighting Machine from Benin responded with two in the third, highlighted by a hit to center field by Joel. The All-Stars scored five in the third to claim a 7-5 lead. They bumped their lead to 8-5, 9-5 and eventually 12-5. The Benin players sulked on the bench, but they still battled on the field.
Second baseman Hospice made playing second base look remarkably easy. Fidele continued to throw strikes and cover home when the ball got past the catcher like it was the most important thing in the world. Isaac and Hospice teamed up on a force play that was far from a guarantee.
“There was nobody playing baseball, and now they have a team,” Tonsager said. “They did a really good job. It’s been a slow process. It didn’t happen overnight. We want to really plant the seed that’s going to make everything strong and sturdy and have it grow.”
Their growth showed in the nuances of the game. The way they stole bases. The way they showed patience at the plate. The way they pitched and fielded. They made mistakes, but most kids their age do. They showed that baseball is on the rise in Benin.
After scoring two more run in the sixth, the team that traveled all the way from Africa had the bases loaded, but it couldn’t score any more runs. But that wasn’t what mattered. Sure, it mattered to them, which it should have, but those in attendance were just happy to see something so unique and captivating.
As the opening ceremonies of the Olympics took place in Brazil that same night, Robbinsdale had its own super-small-scale version of what the Olympics is all about. Kids from Benin and kids from Minnesota played a baseball game together. That’s pretty amazing.
Tonsager’s relationship with the Benin kids extends off the field. When they went to McDonald’s after one game, the adults sat separately from the kids because they knew the kids would behave, like always.
“They’re really cute,” Tonsager said. “They’re really nice. They all have different personalities, but they’re all very well behaved. We went to the (St. Paul) Saints game and they sat during a rain delay for two or three hours without complaining.”
They don’t need Pokemon Go or Snapchat to distract them. They have one another. That’s not a negative perspective on U.S. culture. That’s just who we are. It’s more of a positive remark on the way the kids from Benin were raised. Baseball, like being on their best behavior, is becoming part of their identities.
The tournament was a stepping stone, and Fernando and Tonsager understand that as they keep trying to build the program and expand the vision of one Elk River businessman who’s had a lot of help along the way.
“We have learned a lot, and we’re going to go back home and impress the knowledge on the other kids and try to motivate them to play baseball,” Fernando said.