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Sending glove and support to South Africa
O.C. teens lead a charitable program, Going to Bat, that donates used baseball gear to a team in an impoverished black township.
Standing in a line of bodies collectively staring out at a field of giant puddles, broken glass, sheep droppings and forlorn mattresses, Ian Edelstein has never seen anything so beautiful.
In front of him, dressed in the fire-truck red splendor of baseball jerseys fresh out of the box, the all-black Philippi Angels youth baseball team that he coaches is taking the field - its field. The players swing metal bats, toss sparkling white baseballs and pound still-creaky baseball gloves from a stock replenished with the help of three Orange County teenagers.
An outside observer would not be able to tell the difference from a game at the home field of any of the other 121 teams in the Baseball Association of the Western Province of South Africa.
But this game, in late 2007, is no ordinary occasion. It is the first time in the nearly two-year history of the Angels — the only team from a black township in the Western Province league — that the team has managed to coax an opponent to travel to its patch of grass, some 20 kilometers east of Cape Town and a few hundred yards from the crime-infested streets of the north side of Philippi, still struggling from the effects of apartheid.
"But for the kids who were playing, it was an important moment," Edelstein said. "They were seen as the equals in some senses because someone was willing to do them the honor of coming to their field."
Getting the Angels a home game was only a small part of Edelstein's overall mission in Philippi, one that began in early 2006 when he was coaching a Little League team from the Cape Town suburb of Somerset West. The team was scheduled to play at Philippi but had to cancel when the Somerset West parents protested the venture and moved the game to Somerset.
After the game, Edelstein drove some of the Angels back to Philippi and saw hundreds of listless children roaming freely and rows of houses with tin roofs and piles of broken glass out front.
"Those kids had been forgotten and mistreated and looked down on just for being who they are — for not being the lucky ones in South Africa," Edelstein said. "That sort of resonated with me."
It conjured up images of Edelstein's youth in Concord, N.H., where he was tormented for being one of the few Jewish boys in town. He carried that badge with him in subsequent years, at Colorado College and forays into the film industry before moving to Cape Town as a college photography professor with dreams of educating young South Africans in a fledgling democracy.
But in 2006, after witnessing the scene in Philippi, Edelstein left his post at the Cape Town university and began commuting to Philippi four or five days a week. Working with Angels coach Nyameko Gabada, Edelstein began working on a dream of turning the Philippi Angels into the Township Baseball Academy.
"It quickly became something bigger than just baseball," Edelstein said. "We wanted to improve the grades of the children, give them an activity to remain off the streets, and I suppose do something to begin to rectify some of the problems in the community."
But to do it, Edelstein needed supplies. So he created a YouTube video of the Angels players playing catch and hitting lazy fly balls on their field, occasionally stopping to peer into Edelstein's camera and detail their leisure options: play with the Angels or become a "crook."
The video received a few thousand hits, including one from Keith Lovegrove, a South African emigrant living in Orange County. Lovegrove shared the video with his son, Kieran, a 15-year-old who draws on his roots as a cricket player in South Africa to pitch on the Mission Viejo High baseball team.
Kieran and friends Kyle Candalla and Adam Salcido began their own foundation, Going to Bat, to collect equipment from local Little Leagues, high schools, travel teams and individuals, and sent it to Philippi in 2009.
"Seeing the video of the kids, and what they had to work with, it made me feel aware of what I had and how I took it for granted," Kieran said. "We looked around and found excess gear, stuff that could bring a smile to those kids' faces."
The dozens of boxes of donations were great, but Edelstein needed cash to recruit mentors to the program, expand the scholarship incentives and offer homework assistance. To satisfy the need, Edelstein turned himself into a marketer and businessman, getting a Masters degree from Syracuse to be able to run a growing nonprofit.
For all the work, Edelstein finds some payoffs, like when the Township Baseball Academy was selected as a finalist for a $10,000 donation and promise of business support from international nonprofit organization Beyond Sport.
And even in his daily routine, Edelstein sees the gratification in the faces of the Angels players.
"In Philippi there was no baseball teams or netball — (only) soccer," 16-year-old Sindiswa Jantjie, one of the girls in the program, wrote in 2009. "The project is helping a lot of youngsters around Philippi because not a lot of them use drugs and sit around in corners. It has changed a lot of lives."
It is these children, the ones whose mothers have died of AIDS, or fathers have taken ill with tuberculosis, that Edelstein has in mind when he reaches out to Beyond Sport and other organizations to ask for donations. He often has plenty of help, with the Angels themselves undertaking letter-writing campaigns and mobilizations to appeal for money to fund a trip to nearby Grassy Park or Bellville.
The experiences are something new for the Angels, accomplishing feats that would have been unthinkable in South Africa more than two decades ago.
"Baseball change(d) my life a lot (and allowed me to interact) with anyone in South Africa," Lazola Ndlangalavu, a 15-year-old team captain, wrote.
As social culture walls continue to fall around the Rainbow Nation, Edelstein continues his work to knock down the barriers facing the children of Philippi. It is has been a long four-year struggle. But there are moments of triumph and — on a sunny afternoon when puddles are quickly drying — beauty.