The first time I shook Jim’s hand was at a train station in Southeast Pennsylvania. His mystique was as palpable in person as it was online. His LinkedIn profile displayed a man about the world, framed in a cowboy hat, his mile-wide southern grin nuzzled against a thick white beard. He was an accomplished wildlife conservationist with footprints in many corners of the globe.
Now, as I push my well-loaded luggage cart through this parking garage-cum-arrival terminal at JKIA, we meet for the second time. After three weeks of food, friends, and fun in Ethiopia, I’d made my way from Addis to Nairobi, not entirely certain how the next few months would play out.
“Welcome to Kiniia,” Jim boasts, hand extended. Rosy cheeks pronounce his grin.
He introduces me to son Dai Mar and family friend Jack. I make a failed attempt to secure a SIM, the boys take my bags, and we’re off into the dusty Nairobi night. A unique olfactory bouquet pairs well with my disoriented exhilaration.
I’m actually here. I really did it.
“I’ve gotten emails from several guys over the years,” Jim confesses. “You’re the first to set foot on Kenyan soil.”
On the train home that day, I was overwhelmed with the sense of that I was being given a chance to fully pursue my dream – that it was staring me sternly in the face.
Now, as we walk through late morning glow, past herds of zebra and families of giraffe, it’s hard to resist the sense that I actually have stumbled into some kind of dream world.
It is a dream world, indeed. It’s Jim’s dream world, and he’s sharing it with me.
Back at camp, we settle down at the main canteen, a sleepy veranda overlooking our little patch of acacia and sunlight. The most interesting man in the world doesn’t drink Dos Equis, he drinks Coca Cola.
I’m obliged to join.
“The way I see it, we got twelve days here, including the tournament. After that, it’s up to you. I figure we can maybe set you up with George. You can work your way around and see how you feel about it all.”
He takes a sip.
I rub my chin gently, nodding, switching between Jim and the prairie.
“But if it’s something you wanna take on, it’s yours to run with.”
Jim wound up teaching baseball in Kenya a decade prior.
After studying crocodiles and leading safaris all over Africa, and, in fact, the world, Jim set out on his own unique adventure. A lifelong ballplayer, he wanted to share his love of the game with anyone willing to learn. With Cheryl along for the ride, Jim tossed a bag of bats, balls, and gloves into the Land Cruiser and set out into the African expanse.
63 days after setting out from South Africa, on what was planned as a 100-day journey, Jim pulled into a school yard in Kiongwani, Kenya. His arrival was highly-anticipated at the school, having been invited there all because of a Kenyan in New York City by the name of Jude Ndambuki. The locals could not wait to see what this grinning muzungu had up his sleeve.
To make a long and incredible story shorter than it should be, Jim planted seeds of baseball that quickly sprouted and took root. He would continue to return to Kenya every year thereafter, hosting an annual tournament and hauling maximum quantities of baseball gear, most of it used and donated through Pitch In for Baseball. Jim gathered up as much as airline weight limits would allow and distributed it among his network of school headmasters and other emerging baseball groups around the country.
I was looking for some way to keep my guys in Ethiopia playing ball, after returning to the States in 2014. I’d promised them at my going away party that I would do whatever I could to help support their newfound love for baseball and hopefully, eventually, turn it into a full-fledged program. All they had to do was demonstrate their genuine interest and I would never give up.
I caught a link to Jim’s story and website through a Pitch In for Baseball newsletter. I tracked Jim down and made my case for connecting his program to Ethiopia.
“You are welcome at our Fire anytime,” Jim wrote in salutation.
It was an open invitation to join him in Kenya for baseball development.
Months passed. Before I knew it, a year had gone by since I first emailed Jim. The time, however, did not diminish my desire to make it happen.
I checked-in with Jim, just to make sure he was again going at the same time of year, and expressed my intent to join. He had plans to stop by the PifB headquarters, just outside of Philadelphia, and suggested we head there together to chat over plans.
After stopping by the warehouse, where I also passed along some gifts from Ethiopia as thanks for their donation to the Bekoji club, we settled into lunch at Chick-fil-A – a pronounced favorite of Jim’s. He opened before me various articles and bits of information about the work he’d done, as if to quell any doubt that this was some sort of joke or scam.
When he dropped me back off at the train, Jim laid down the last word.
“I suggest you come with an open mind and an open schedule and see what happens.”
He looked me straight in the eyes and extended his hand.
“See ya in Kenya.”
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