Why Egypt? Because Baseball.
On first glance, baseball and Egypt seem to go together like peanut butter and motor oil. But first glances are rarely reliable, especially when the subject of said glance is complex, layered and several thousand years old. From the pharaohs to the Arab Spring, no country on earth can lay claim to having more directly impacted the direction of humanity than Egypt, home of many of the world’s firsts, including the sun dial, papyrus, black ink and written language.
Whether the ancient Egyptians invented the written word with baseball in mind is a question for the scientists; however, don’t be too quick to dismiss the idea. There are some who believe that precursors to baseball were invented in Egypt as far back as 1,500 BCE. Whether that’s true and who won the 1489 batting title is up for debate, but what is known is that the modern version of baseball first made its way to Egypt in1889 when the Chicago White Stockings and a group of 20 National League players stopped in Cairo as part of a world tour to share America’s pastime. Aside from a subsequent visit by the Chicago White Sox and New York Giants in 1914, baseball’s presence in Egypt had been virtually non-existent for the past century.
Enter Kemp Gouldin, whose Because Baseball organization has spent the past four years reintroducing baseball to a region that has for the past several generations been aware of it mostly through pop culture references or Internet highlights. But to Gouldin, the mission is much less about finding the next Mike Trout or Justin Verlander (although that’d be cool) than it is about spreading goodwill and establishing real human connections that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
“Really what I’m emphasizing is baseball is building relationships,” said Gouldin. “Building friendships has the ability to really be a blank canvas upon which to paint a new way to relate to one another.”
None of this is to suggest, though, that the kids aren’t eager to learn baseball and that Gouldin and Because Baseball’s volunteer coaching fellows aren’t eager to teach it. “I can tell you that the kids over there, they’ve really taken to the game,” said Gouldin. “There’s a lot of not only love for the game, but a lot of talent and feel. So that’s pretty fun.”
Already, the initiative is gaining momentum. As the first program in the Middle East to receive support from the MLB RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) initiative, Because Baseball hosts two seasons in the spring and fall and reaches 150 kids. Additionally, Because Baseball has worked with three schools and two orphanages to reach over 1,000 kids this year, including one class of special needs students where the program was particularly effective. “The instructors told us that baseball was the first sport that was able to engage all these kids, regardless of their particular abilities,” said Gouldin. “The only other activity with this capability was music.”
With a long eye toward expansion, Gouldin views this kind of school outreach as a critical component. “We’d really like to work with as many schools as we can and see if we can incorporate baseball into the PE curriculum. After that, the next step is to keep them playing.” Right now, the league caters to kids aged 8-12, but as the game begins to establish its roots, Gouldin would like to add options for older players. “One of my visions is to hand out plastic balls and bats all over Cairo…very similar to stickball in the 1920s in New York City. That really could be the way to spread the game and allow kids from all walks of life to just pick up and play.”
Beyond increasing the program’s presence in Egypt, Gouldin explained that he would like to expand to other countries in the region, possibly Jordan and Saudi Arabia. “As I look around at the amount of conflict in divisions throughout the world, I think if baseball can bring us together here, and with family, music, cultures, why couldn’t we do the same thing throughout the Middle East?”
As impactful an experience as this program can be for the kids and families in Egypt, the trip can be equally transformative for volunteers. Before each season, Gouldin accepts applications for coaching fellows, most of whom are recent college graduates, but that’s certainly not a prerequisite. Anyone with a background in baseball and interest in experiencing Egypt’s rich culture is welcome to apply, and those who are accepted will not only get to share their passion for baseball, they will also experience firsthand Egypt’s cultural and historical gifts, such as the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, which have been standing for nearly 5,000 years, the Al-Azhar Mosque, which finished construction in 972, or the Bibliotheca Alexandria, a major culture center built to commemorate the fabled Library of Alexandria that was lost to antiquity
While Because Baseball continues to grow in Egypt, it is already receiving recognition here in the States. The Washington Nationals this season hosted MLB’s first Arab Heritage Night, where the club honored Joe Lahoud, the first MLB player of Arab descent, and featured a brief but very impactful video of Because Baseball.
Clearly, in a world that is becoming increasingly smaller through technological innovation, the news of Because Baseball’s good works is spreading. However, the ease of information has also placed a spotlight on tensions within the region, especially in recent weeks. But it’s important to point out that while it’s easy to paint the region with one brush, it’s also incorrect. The problems of one country are not automatically the problems of another.
“The world itself is unpredictable,” said Gouldin. “Even in our own backyard there are challenges you have to be aware of. But during my experiences in Egypt the volunteers we’ve brought over have felt very safe. The people there are very friendly, very warm, and very excited to share their culture and open their homes and their lives to guests.”
That’s rather the point of Because Baseball, in fact. Baseball, as Gouldin pointed out, is a “common language” that can build “bridges among families, communities, and cultures.”
It’s done it here. It can do it there.
Check out more at becausebaseball.org
Egypt Fast Facts:
Established: 3150 BC (!)
Language: Egyptian Arabic
Borders: Gaza Strip and Israel (northeast), Gulf of Aqaba and Red Sea (east), Sudan (south), Libya (west), Mediterranean Sea (north)