ASAHIKAWA, HOKKAIDO – A Japanese organization that helps cultivate professional baseball talent from West Africa has launched an online crowdfunding campaign to bring a group of players from Burkina Faso, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire to Japan for a six-week course of training and exhibition games this summer.
The organization, based in Hokkaido, seeks to raise ¥3.5 million by March 31 to sponsor the group of 11 players ranging in age from 14 to 21 and one coach. As of Thursday, it had gathered ¥755,000.
In addition to receiving baseball training, the West African players would take on an alumni team of former players from the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan’s top league as well as university and independent league teams in exhibition games on an itinerary spanning from Hokkaido to western Japan.
“This is a great opportunity for the development of baseball in West Africa,” said Yuta Deai, founder and head of the Japanese organization.
Since its founding in 2008, the group has invited from one to four West African players each year to Japan for baseball instruction, securing funds through the sale of T-shirts and other merchandise.
The decision to use online crowdfunding starting this year is part of its effort to expand from an original focus on Burkina Faso to reach baseball players in six other countries in the region.
One member of the proposed West African squad, 18-year-old Burkina Faso infielder Sanfo Lassina, came to Japan in 2013 with support from the organization and subsequently became a practice squad member for the Kochi Fighting Dogs of the Shikoku Island Plus League. When Lassina was promoted last August, he became the first person from his country to play professional baseball in Japan.
According to Deai, who spent two years in Burkina Faso himself to teach baseball in a Japan International Cooperation Agency volunteer program, the number of baseball players has not yet reached one thousand per country since the sport came to West Africa less than 20 years ago.
Even so, he said, “It was thought impossible that a player from Africa could turn pro in Japan, but now it has happened. The next step is for an African team to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.”
“Our goal is to reverse the low estimation people have for the level of baseball in Africa,” he added.
If the funding effort is successful, the West African players would arrive in Japan on June 27 and depart on Aug. 10. The exhibition game against former Nippon Ham players is scheduled for July 17 in Muroran, Hokkaido.