Benin youth seek their own Field of Dreams

Visiting team takes America’s national pastime to West Africa

Some of the member of “Team Benin”
Some of the member of “Team Benin” (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Benin, a country in West Africa that is slightly smaller than Pennsylvania, is situated east of Togo and west of Nigeria. Originally a French colony until its independence from France in 1960, it was called Dahomey until it was renamed Benin in 1972. Its official language is French, but over half of the Benin people speak Fon.

Gary Tonsager
Gary Tonsager (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Many Benin children don’t finish school past age 10 as they work to help their families in the small impoverished country. Its economy mainly depends on agriculture, cotton and regional trade.

However, last week a dozen Benin youngsters ranging in age from 10 to 12, along with three adults from Benin, were in town to play in a Robbinsdale baseball tournament. The trip of over 6,000 miles was funded by donations to Baseball in Benin, a small nonprofit organization co-founded in 2011 by Gary Tonsager and Wally Langfellow. Their overall goal is “to give these kids hope for a better future by using baseball to help keep them in school,” according to a Baseball in Benin press release.

During their week-long visit, the Benin contingent made their Twin Cities rounds, including a stop at the Mall of America. “I noticed that people are very kind here,” said Annaud Adodo, one of the coaches.

Tonsager pointed out that Blacks in this country don’t know about Benin, especially that it was once a stop in the slave trade. “There’s a special connection between a lot of African Americans and the West African area.

“A gentleman that I met…in America was from Benin, and was one of our interpreters on one of our missions. He mentioned that they don’t play baseball there,” recalled Tonsager, who added that upon his return from Benin, he looked into it further.

“We wanted to start a baseball program” in Benin, Tonsager continued. “We started sending [the man] equipment, and he recruited Fernando [Atannon], and he came to the United States.”

(l-r) Benice Artouzoun and Arnaud Adodo
(l-r) Benice Artouzoun and Arnaud Adodo (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Atannon came to Robbinsdale in 2013 for a five-week crash course in baseball, including one week at a University of Minnesota baseball clinic. He also met former Minnesota Twins star Torii Hunter, then with the Tigers, a longtime proponent of Black youth playing baseball. The Benin native has moved the baseball program forward since his return.

“Fernando really took it to another level,” stated Tonsager on the Benin baseball program that now has 120 kids ages seven to18.

“It’s a big legacy,” said Atannon. “We have to do more to keep the league going, keep on practicing baseball and keep on adding coaches.”

The two former Robbinsdale Little League coaches in May went to Cotonou, Benin to evaluate players, meet with their families, and help organized the trip to Minnesota. “They have been helping a lot,” reported Atannon of Tonsager and Langfellow. “It’s been a whole lot of hard work, but it is really fun.”

“Every year we hold this tournament, get equipment and raise money,” explained Tonsager. “We thought what a great idea if the kids come here and play in their own tournament.”

“We knew we would come up with 12 kids to come to the United States to play in this tournament,” added Atannon. “Team Benin” are “the best of the best.”

The entire trip — from start to finish — was “a life-changing experience” for the young visitors, said Tonsager. “The kids did not know how to get on the escalator. I had to show them how to do it,” said Atannon of the players’ first-time experience at the Paris airport during a layover en route to Minnesota for the two-game tournament in Robbinsdale.

Last week’s visit by Atannon, fellow coaches Benice Artouzoun and Arnaud Adodo, and the dozen Benin youngsters, included several other local events leading up to the two-game tournament in Robbinsdale. Todd Whatley, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Benin, threw out the first ball at last Friday’s game, and the City of Robbinsdale declared August 5 as Baseball in Benin Day.

atannon and player
Charles Hallman/MSR News

“I want the kids [to return] home with the game experience” of playing against American kids, said Atannon. “It’s been a learning experience. I’ve been learning a lot, too, that I will be able to teach. It’s going to be pure learning” between both his kids and the Robbinsdale players, said Atannon before the tournament. “These kids are going to share a lot of knowledge.”

Langfellow added, “I think a lot of times the kids here take [playing baseball] for granted. Maybe the kids from Robbinsdale, Crystal, and all the kids playing in the tournament will see the difference and play with the exuberance and the love of the game” shown by the Benin players. “I think that’s the one thing these kids can pass on besides the actual game experience.”

“We think these kids will be good disciples to be able to go back to Benin and be able to teach the game of baseball, or have a little more enthusiasm. We want them to really plant the seed to really grow the program for all of West Africa,” said Tonsager. He says along with sending baseball essentials, the next goal is to build a suitable baseball field for the Benin players as soon as next year.

“We don’t play on a grass field in Benin,” said Atannon as he looked at one of the fields at Robbinsdale’s Lakeview Terrance Park. His teams currently play baseball on a “rough” school yard. “We want to have a field.”

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