It may be our National Pastime, but baseball has become a global sport. Last season, Major League Baseball featured players from five continents and 20 countries, but this global gathering still has plenty of room to expand. Just ask Chicago White Sox scout John Tumminia.
Tumminia, a resident of Newburgh, N.Y., has spent decades watching the game's top talent on amateur and professional ballfields located all over the United States. He currently scouts at both the Minor and Major League levels, having recently returned from a jaunt through the Class A Advanced Carolina League. But though he can converse at length about the premier prospects to be found at locales such as Winston-Salem or Myrtle Beach, these days his focus is on a country that has never produced a professional baseball player and isn't likely to any time soon: Kenya.
And that's the point. Motivated by a desire to give back to the game that has provided them their livelihoods, Tumminia and a loose cohort of fellow scouts, executives, coaches and former and current professional players are teaming up to teach baseball and donate equipment to youth in underserved areas who otherwise wouldn't get the opportunity. They've previously traveled to the Monte Plata province of the Dominican Republic and South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and this October a seven-person contingent is planning to bring their operation to Kenya. The trip, organized in conjunction with the charitable Bread and Water Foundation, will bring equipment (largely donated by Major League organizations) and baseball and softball instruction to approximately 500 children.
"This started out because we wanted to do something a little different than just charging to give [baseball] lessons, we wanted to give freely," said Tumminia, a member of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame. "And we came to the conclusion that baseball is all we really know how to do, so we decided to reach out. There are a very large number of kids, all throughout the world, who have never played baseball or softball."
So why not give them that opportunity? "You have to start somewhere" is Tummina's take on the matter, and he believes that by teaching baseball to Kenyan youth, his group could help plant the seeds for the eventual emergence of professional level talent.
But to accomplish their goals, Tumminia and his collaborators, who include his good friend and "field coordinator" Sean Kober as well as former Major League pitcher (and current Hudson Valley Renegades executive) Rob Bell, fellow scout Daraka Shaheed, softball instructor Ariel Shoen and current Salem Red Sox pitcher Michael McCarthy, need help.
Remarking that "we have a vision beyond our resources," Tumminia is doing all he can to raise money to fund the trip (the White Sox contributed substantially to previous outings but have not yet committed to the Kenya initiative). The amount currently needed -- approximately $12,000 -- seems like chump change within an industry known for luxury box suites and exorbitant player contracts, but nonetheless, it's been slow going thus far.
"I've written to so many foundations and groups, and while I didn't expect big money, I did expect a better response for such a good thing," said Tumminia, the frustration evident in his voice. "But I'm raising awareness in any way I can, because then the sponsorships start to emerge."
Frozen Ropes baseball training centers and the Ethan Allen furniture company have recently made contributions, but for the trip to become reality, more need to follow. The fundraising deadline is Aug. 4, as by that point all of the donated baseball equipment needs to be shipped to Kenya. (One recent bit of good news is that the Kenyan embassy, after some prodding by the Bread and Water Foundation, has agreed to waive the burdensome taxes that are usually levied upon items being imported into the country). Tumminia is asking anyone interested in donating to the cause to email him ([email protected].com), confident that somehow, someway, this trip to Kenya will happen.
"We're talking about 500 kids here! Kids who've never played baseball, who are sending notes and messages through the community at large wondering when we're going to get there," said Tumminia. "Every trip we bring hot dogs and peanuts, and we teach 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.' It sounds kind of corny, but they love it. Seeing them brings back memories from when we were kids, that sense of excitement you'd feel just by picking up a glove. And in that sense, it's a wonderful thing to see, bringing the joy of baseball to remote places in the world."
Thinking long-term, Tumminia envisions partnering with MLB teams, their affiliates and like-minded philanthropic organizations to start academies and leagues worldwide. He is working to facilitate construction of a new baseball field on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and wants to return to Monta Plata as well.
"I've been told that the kids there are still running around with their baseball gloves and White Sox hats," he said. "We need to go back and see these boys and girls, building on what we've already accomplished."
But no matter how big the goals, the operation itself remains simple.
"We don't have a name for ourselves, we're a group of scouts, former players and coaches who just want to go out and get it done," said Tumminia. "And once we do, we'll move on to other parts of the world, fulfilling our mission's objective: to teach, have fun and exchange cultures while bringing the greatest sport in the world to these boys and girls."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.