I grew up watching baseball, as I described in a recent post. I also grew up playing softball, which is baseball’s alternative for girls in the United States. I played softball competitively from when I was about 8 until I turned 30, when I was forced to retire after one too many knee surgeries.

Me playing softball in the summer of 1990. I’ve used this photo before but like to take every opportunity to show it off. (Photo: Tenney Mason)

There is no better feeling in life than hitting a softball (or baseball) on the sweet spot of your bat, and watching the ball sail ten feet over the outfielder’s head and roll to the fence. You take off running, picking up speed as you round each base, and explode across home plate, engulfed into a flurry of high-fives from riotous teammates. It feels even better than…well, you know what I mean.

But I digress. Last week, Joburg Expat put out a call for bloggers and photographers to come check out a kids’ baseball tournament in Alexandra township. Sine, the author of Joburg Expat, is a die-hard baseball fan and major supporter of Alexandra Baseball, which she writes about frequently in her blog. I’d been looking for an excuse to go to Alexandra. What better excuse than baseball?

Alexandra (called Alex for short) is the oldest township in Joburg. Alex is much smaller than Soweto, its massive township neighbor to the south, and doesn’t feature as prominently in the history books. But Alex — not Soweto — was the first Joburg township where Nelson Mandela lived. Alex has a history all its own, made more interesting by the fact that Alex, one of the poorest areas in Joburg, is located directly adjacent to glitzy Sandton.

Downtown Alex. 

Baseball isn’t a major sport in South Africa — cricket reigns supreme in this country. But there actually are quite a few baseball leagues in South Africa, from youth leagues all the way up to semi-pro. Alexandra Baseball is a new program, but the hope is that as the league strengthens and grows, players from Alex will develop and eventually move on to play at national and international levels. The tournament we attended was a ‘funfest’ to celebrate the beginning of the season and increase community interest in the league.

Joe and I had a hard time finding Alex’s Altrek Sports Complex. We got a nice tour of pretty much the entire township — which we really enjoyed — before finally reaching our destination. But we arrived just in time for the final game of the high school competition, and had a great time watching and taking photos. (Both Joe and I discovered that our baseball photography needs a lot of work. Hopefully we’ll be able to attend another game soon and get some better pictures.)

Baseball in Alex.

The first thing I noticed were the fields. The kids play on grass fields with no baseball diamonds on them. The backstops are old soccer goals with fraying nets. The foul lines are ropes that refuse to stay straight. But thanks to Sine and other supporters of Alexandra Baseball, there are enough gloves, bats, and baseballs to go around. Almost all the kids have uniforms, although all the teams have the same T-shirts, sponsored by a local cell phone company. The players wear black and green jerseys over their shirts so they can tell each other apart.

A south-paw (lefty) takes the mound. 

The game we watched was quite different from a high school baseball game back home. Unlike in the U.S., where most high school baseball players have 8 or 10 years of experience under their belts, many of the players in Alex are brand-new to the sport. Most of them have never owned a baseball glove or a pair of spikes before, and I doubt there’s a local batting cage where they can go and practice their swing. Coaches who know the sport are scarce.

But along with the fielding errors and strike-outs, I also saw lots of talent, especially in the pitching department. There were a few kids there who could really throw.

This guy was the star of the Kwabhekilanga High School team. Kwabhekilanga High played Minerva High in the tournament finals.

And of course, what the kids lacked in experience, they made up for in enthusiasm.

Minerva high poses for a group photo, just before the finals. I was impressed to see a couple of girls competing in the tournament — there are two of them in the bottom row.

Due to score-keeping confusion, it was unclear who won the finals. It was either a 3-3 tie, or Kwabhekilanga beat Minerva 4-3. The confusion stirred quite a debate among the coaches, players, and umpires. But in the end, the day really wasn’t about winning and losing, anyway — it was about playing the game.

Play ball.

Thanks to Sine for inviting us to this fun event. We’re looking forward to seeing more baseball and spending more time in Alex in the near future.

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