A curriculum developed by Baseball Canada is being used to help teach the game to Egypt's first youth baseball league.
American-based Because Baseball, a non-profit organization, is running the league and is making use of Baseball Canada's Winterball program.
It’s the first time the curriculum has been used by another country.
"The first time you’ve been exposed to baseball, kids could be afraid of getting hit by the baseball. When you receive a ground ball or a fly ball, you may have the fear of being injured," said Andre Lachance, business, sport development and women’s national team director at Baseball Canada.
"But the Winterball program makes it … almost free of risk. When you do something and you are safe, it is easier to continue playing the sport and have success."
Because Baseball’s league of eight-to-12-year-olds learns the skills featured in Winterball, which is part of the physical education curriculum for schools across Canada. Winterball aims to introduce the basic skills of baseball.
"We put a high premium and a high value on skill development," said Lachance. "The link is more towards having fun; we call that stage of development FUN-dementals. We see through research that if you make that first experience a positive one, kids will stick with the sport."
Because Baseball’s youth league plays on soccer fields, on pavement and anywhere else a baseball diamond can be created.
"The Winterball curriculum gives students from all backgrounds the opportunity to develop baseball skills, increase hand-eye co-ordination and learn tenets of good sportsmanship, all the while promoting an active and healthy lifestyle," said Kemp Gouldin, founder and president of Because Baseball.
Gouldin, who was introduced to Lachance through mutual connections, said Lachance was supportive of Because Baseball's mission and they found alignment in their work through the Winterball curriculum.
"One of the cool things is watching the kids cheer each other on," Gouldin said. "Yes, there is competition. But there is also a real spirit of lifting each other up, and the idea is everyone can succeed if we are supportive of one another."
The organization has held baseball games in Egypt on the Giza Plateau, the first game in more than a century to be played amid the Great Pyramids. Baseball has not been played there since Albert Spalding's Chicago White Stockings played the All-Americas against the backdrop of the Pyramids in 1889.
Because Baseball runs six week-long baseball seasons throughout Cairo, reaching hundreds of youth players by partnering with local schools in similar method to how Baseball Canada partners with Canadian physical education programs. The Winterball program delivers equipment kits to schools that include foam bats, balls and bases.
Gouldin received donated equipment from several athletic companies for the Egyptian youth league.
Kids from all backgrounds are in the league. Boys and girls play together, and kids from private schools and orphanages play on the same teams.
“Baseball has been so instrumental in tearing down barriers that divided us," Gouldin said. "As a kid, I learned that baseball could bring together families, communities and cultures, and this is a lesson I never forgot."
Inspired by a carving in the Temple of Philae that depicts a pharaoh holding a bat and a ball, Gouldin became interested in the history of baseball in Egypt. Depictions of pharaohs holding a bat also appear in the temple of Deir et-Bahari.
“We think that the joy induced by playing or watching sports was considered conducive to worship,” said Peter Piccione, an Egyptologist and associate professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
His lecture “Batting the Ball'' details the game of Seker-Hemat, an ancient precursor to baseball. Piccione said it probably derived from an ancient boys' bat-and-ball game played for fun and recreation.
"Batting the ball was a kind of stickball, in which the king batted the balls out to his priests, who caught them on the fly," said Piccione.
Now, with baseball, there is a coaching fellowship and exchange in which American coaches partner with Egyptian coaches to help kids learn the sport's skills in Arabic and English.
"I want to see an official school league, and the game will spread like fire," said Waleed Abo El-Nour, a Because Baseball coach who is a physical education teacher at Cairo’s New Generation International School. "When you reach the schools, you reach the majority of the kids."
Through the coaching exchange, Abo El-Nour spent one month at a high school in Richmond, Va., to learn about varsity baseball coaching and advance his training. Now he teaches baseball at the elementary and high-school levels and has implemented baseball as part of the physical education program at his school.
The Because Baseball youth league is the first to be designated a youth Major League Baseball affiliate in the Middle East.
Bobby Evans, a former San Francisco Giants general manager who served as an adviser to Gouldin as he started building the organization, travelled to Egypt to support the league and was the first Major League Baseball representative to visit Egypt in an official capacity since 1914.
"There is a way to coach kids that reinforces positive messages and encourages kids to give their best effort, and not get too distracted by results," said Evans. "Baseball is a sport where failure is part of the game, and you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going."
Gouldin wants to use the Winterball curriculum to customize the youth baseball league model in other countries throughout the Middle East.
The pandemic has upended the spring season, and Gouldin hopes that in-person clinics and games can start again next fall.
For now, players can train at home, using baseball clinic videos translated into Arabic, which feature drills, tips and innovative advice about how to make baseball equipment at home using scrunched-up aluminum foil wound with masking tape or two pairs of balled-up socks wound with masking tape to make balls.
Terry Johnson, a coaching fellow, seconds using socks to make a ball, especially for very young kids, to avoid the fear of being hit by the ball while learning to catch. And he encourages using a broom or mop to help with batting stance.
Johnson, who travelled to Egypt to coach in the youth league, said that despite the players different backgrounds, the game fostered genuine moments of joy and laughter.
"If we take the lead from how kids interact with each other, the world would be a better place," he said.
— Natalie Jesionka is a global journalism fellow at the University of Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2021.
Natalie Jesionka, The Canadian Press