FREDERICK, MARYLAND - In the heart of Maryland, the Frederick Keys baseball team introduced its newest player last week, one unlike any other the team has seen in its 35-year history.
Dennis Kasumba, 18-year-old catcher. From Uganda.
Kasuma recently turned what seemed like an impossible dream into a reality, making the leap from the rough fields of his home country to the manicured grass of American professional baseball stadiums. For those following his journey, he stands as a symbol of resilience.
Just three days after flying to the U.S., Kasumba took his first official steps onto an American baseball diamond on June 1 with the Keys. Batting in the ninth inning, he struck out on three pitches, but was able to make contact on the first pitch, fouling it off.
The young player who once honed his skills on muddy streets using old tires and oil drums in Uganda, now finds himself playing high-quality amateur league baseball, one step below the professional minor leagues.
"My first game was very, very good because I faced a pitcher who threw 95 [miles per hour - about 153 kph], yeah. And I hit it," Kasumba told VOA. "I need to hit because I am here to hit, to show my skill, I am ready to hit. I want to show I can hit. I want to show them I can throw."
Kasumba's story extends beyond his on-field skills. His journey from Uganda to the U.S. has captured the imagination of thousands on social media who have marveled at his intense workouts. In one, he practices his catching drills with a tire strapped to his back.
One of these admirers was Joshua Williams, an American attorney and baseball enthusiast who helped make Kasumba's dream a reality.
"It all just started because I saw a video of him hitting off of a tire, hitting a baseball off of the tire with a Coke bottle," Williams said. "So, I reached out to him on Facebook, started talking to him. We talked about his dreams and aspirations."
It took Kasumba almost two years to get a contract with an American team and several attempts at the U.S. Embassy in Uganda to secure a travel visa.
Williams and some friends intensified their efforts after his third visa request was denied.
Dennis Kasumba practices catching during his second game with the Frederick Keys Baseball team at Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick, Maryland on June 3, 2023. (Arzouma Kompaore/VOA)
"We started making our application a lot stronger. Several immigration attorneys at my firm jumped in and they were like, 'Let's figure this out,'" Williams told VOA. "And so, we just kind of put our heads together. So, he was denied on Friday. And on Tuesday we got a call from the embassy, and they said, 'Be there Thursday at 2 o'clock.'"
Kasumba is not the first Ugandan to try his hand at baseball. Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed two Ugandans, Umar Male and Ben Serunkuma, to contracts. Both have played some games in the low minor leagues.
In his debut, Kasumba showed that he too may have a future in baseball, and also underscored his desire to learn.
"When I saw my pitchers throwing in 88, 95, 98. I thought, 'Can I hit these guys? They are faster.' But when I got to my first batting, in my heart I said, 'I can hit, because I believe in myself,'" he said.
For Frederick Keys Manager Rene Rivera, Kasumba is already giving the team a jolt.
"This guy has so much energy, he brings so much to the other guys, you know, he's hardworking," Rivera said. "We all saw some of his videos on Instagram, the passion he puts behind him so he can be good. And I think that the players already see that, they come and work."
Kasumba, who grew up an orphan in Wakiso, Uganda, is determined to make the most of the opportunity.
"There are a lot of kids, uh, people calling my name, my jersey number: Kasumba! Kasumba! Kasumba! This is my first time, to have someone asking me for a signature, photos," he said. "I was so surprised. It makes me feel very, very good. I think I am blessed."
Dennis Kasumba gets ready to get on the field during his second game with the Frederick Keys Baseball team at Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick, Maryland on June 3, 2023. (Arzouma Kompaore/VOA)
The months ahead will bring challenges and opportunities alike for Kasumba. And to face these head-on, the young man has a few people he can count on, starting with his manager.
"We helped him come over here. And now he's here," Rivera told VOA. "So, I think that my job is to be his role model, to show him what I know and what I know from many years playing baseball, help him get to the next. I think that's my main goal right now."
Catching is baseball's most complicated and physically arduous position, but Rivera can teach Kasumba a lot - he spent 13 years as a catcher in the major leagues.
As Kasumba steps onto the field, bat in hand, he believes he's not just playing for the Frederick Keys - he's playing for his country, his thousands of online supporters around the world and every dreamer who's ever dared to dream big.