Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — The first thing you notice about the baseball field at Weltevreden Park Primary School is that there is no pitcher's mound. There's no infield either. No backstop. No dugouts.
When one team arrives early for its scheduled Sunday morning game, the players have to borrow a baseball from two kids playing nearby just to warm up.
"Welcome to Fenway Park," Ashley Petersen says with a shrug and a smile.
Petersen, a youth baseball coach, might be the most avid Boston Red Sox fan in South Africa. He is also among his country's most energetic advocates for a sport battling long odds to flourish in a landscape crowded by rugby, cricket, soccer, and track and field.
"The minute you say, 'Hey baseball,' they say, 'But there's no baseball being played here in South Africa,'" says Petersen, a stout, tireless man. "It's very difficult."
It's getting better though. A decade ago, nearly 100 amateur clubs with about 30,000 players were active, says Edwin Bennett, executive director of South African Baseball, which oversees the sport in this country. Now, participation in adult and youth leagues is estimated at more than 250,000 players.
That's about a third of what rugby claims. But it's a start.
"It's a process," Bennett says. "It has to be a process because there's no quick change."
That much was obvious on a recent chilly morning at Weltevreden Park when the Welties Bombers and the Cobras, ranging in age from 14 to 42 and wearing mismatched uniforms, met in a Major B league game, the second-highest level of play in South Africa.
The field was just that — a field, with no pitcher's mound, no dirt infield and no backstop to intercept the wild pitches that constantly eluded both teams' catchers. A rugby goalpost towered above the half-dozen plastic lawn chairs that made up the third base dugout. Another goalpost loomed as an obstacle in deep right-center field. There was no seating for the two dozen or so spectators, some of whom brought their own chairs.
Because the bases were not tethered to the ground, they shot into the outfield every time a runner slid into one. And the Bombers' middle infielders — a left-handed second baseman with no cap and a stocky shortstop — looked more like a tag-team wrestling duo than one of the lithe, agile, double-play combinations familiar to American baseball fans.
Even the incessant dugout chatter was decidedly South African in its gentility.
"That was a nice point of contact, eh?" a coach shouted, more as a question than a statement, after a Bombers batter surprised everyone by hitting a line drive.
When a runner strayed too far from the base, a coach cautioned him to be wary of a pickoff attempt by the hard-throwing — relatively speaking — pitcher.
"That boy can whip the ball in there quite rapidly," she said.
Not surprisingly, the game turned sloppy. The teams combined for 11 errors, seven walks, six wild pitches and eight stolen bases. Afterward, Bombers third baseman Imraan Jacobs shook his head in disappointment.
"When I was a teenager, baseball was actually quite high, the level of baseball," he said. "It's gone down. But it's picking up again. We'll have to wait and see from here."
Like most South African baseball players, Jacobs came to the sport from cricket, which he found too slow and lacking the strategic dimension of baseball with its hit-and-run plays, sacrifice bunts and pinch-hitters.
"I thought at the time that cricket was kind of boring," says Jacobs, who began playing baseball in primary school. "My sister played softball, so that's where I acquired the taste for it. From the moment I picked the ball up, I knew then I had to play."
Keenan Petersen, the Bombers' 15-year-old catcher and Ashley Petersen's son, says his love of baseball isn't something he brags about to friends.
"They say, 'Baseball in South Africa?' and they laugh," Petersen says. "And I say, 'Come down on a Sunday and see.'"
Few have taken him up on the offer, although Petersen has been scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who discovered Gift Ngoepe in a neighboring park league two years ago. Ngoepe, now an infielder for the Pirates' affiliate in the Florida State League, is one of a record six South Africans in the U.S. minor leagues and perhaps the best player in his country's history.
Still, Kansas City Royals scout Mike Randall, one of two full-time professional scouts working South Africa, says the country is "a long, long way" from producing a major league player.
"It's going to take a while," says Randall, whose most recent find, pitcher Dylan Kevin Lindsay, has a 1-0 won-lost record and an impressive 1.42 earned-run average in his first eight games in the rookie-level Arizona Summer League. "But we've got good athletes. In cricket and rugby, South Africa is among the top teams in the world. With baseball being a smaller sport in my country, it hasn't gotten the focus and attention that the others have. But it's growing."