*No sad moment in baseball
*Happy for Gift Ngoepe’s success in America
From Kehinde Laniyan
Popularly known as Walex by friends and colleagues, Jimi Kolawole, is one of few Nigerian baseball players who made it to the professional level outside Nigeria through dint of hard work, determination and the help of God. The reason is that many of his playmates, if not all, never had the opportunity of playing professional baseball outside Nigeria.
His playmates are many, running into hundreds, even almost close to a thousand in number. They were active young men then in various cities of Nigeria where the ball game had stepped to make a mark. Unfortunately, even when his mates had opportunities of going professional outside Nigeria, they didn’t have the staying capacity of Jimi. Jimi had stayed too long for many to believe back home.
Jimi got to Italy eight years ago, played amateur baseball for very short period and switched to professional baseball. He plays in Serie A Baseball League, which can compare to Triple A Minor League in USA. According to him, this is the best league in Europe that also pays good money. Many come from all over the world to play in the League.
Jimi has not made it to Major League Baseball, MLB, yet. He would have been happy to be the first black African to make it because the ultimate for an average baseball player is to get to play in Major League Baseball. Recently, a
black South African, Gift Ngoepe achieved the feat by becoming the first African representative in Major League Baseball. His story is trending all over the world. Jimi remembered with some interest that he was in the MLB European Camp with Gift about 12 years ago and he is happy that Gift finally made it.
Jimi is now 32 years old, recalled that he got hooked to baseball at an impressionable age of 7 years. “The first time I set my eyes on baseball was at a nearby Cherubim & Seraphim Secondary School, Ilorin where I used to live with my parents.” He remarked that on the very day he saw the pitch packed full of people, both old and young, playing baseball and he said to himself, “… this is worth giving a trial”. Cherubim & Seraphim Secondary School played a pivotal role in the introduction of baseball to schools in Nigeria. It was among the first set of schools to introduce baseball, while the Principal, Pa David Akintola, was also among the founding fathers of baseball Federation in Nigeria. “Ever since that time, baseball has been part of my life”, Jimi he emphasised. Incidentally, Jimi’s coach, Olajide Abidoye, was a product of the same college and principal.
While in Nigeria, Jimi played all divisions of baseball with Kwara Sliders of Ilorin, representing his club in various state and national competitions and under supervision of Coach Jide Abidoye. He calls Abidoye a great man. “He made me into a player I am today. I will forever be grateful to him”, One could see a feeling of emotional attachment to his first baseball coach – a feeling that seems undying despite distance and age separating the two. This is understandable: Abidoye took Jimi through all the fundamentals of baseball when he was in primary school.
Baseball had a high trajectory in the initial period of its introduction into Nigeria, which falls between 1995 and 2005. Regular competitions were held and the national baseball teams took part in many international competitions. It was like a horse passing through the eye of a needle for a player to enter the national baseball team. Jimi was among few young players called to the national camp to represent Nigeria. He was among the second generation of players in a team dominated by first generation of players. Actually, he ended up winning the Most Valuable Player’s award during the All Africa Games in 2003 and that provided a platform for him to exit Nigeria and play baseball in Europe.
As far as Jimi is concerned there is no sad moment in baseball, “No sad moment. Once you are on the field you forget about your burden and just want to play”. I am curious to know if this could be a general experience of those who play baseball or something peculiar to Jimi.
Jimi Kolawole too recalled that he had a very burning desire to play at the level of MLB when growing up. He said he would have been able to make it if not for dearth of activities in Nigeria. He observed that low baseball activities in Nigeria were a big disadvantage, particularly when he had to compete in Tryouts with players from all over the world who play year round and without seasons. Still, he did not consider the disadvantage of Nigerian environment as something to regret. “There was nothing to regret in it,” he reiterated.
Many new baseball players are coming into the game in Nigeria, nursing brilliant dreams to play professional baseball in Europe, Asia and America. They have so much to learn from never dying of dreams and aspirations of a player like Jimi Kolawole who largely has distinguished himself in Nigeria and outside. It is the wish of Jimi that the new generation of Nigerian baseball players, if they wish to play in big leagues, “… should keep their heads up, focus on school and baseball, and play hard and work hard”. He concluded, “Golden fish has no hidden place, if you are good, you will be noticed”.
I heard of the great impact Coach Abdioye and Influence Gwede are putting together under the Nigeria Sports Development Fund Inc (NSDFI) in Offa in Kwara State. I with the kids on the programme can realise that they can be far better than me if they keep their focus firmly in place. I heard of how many children trooped out and the hardwork the coaches are investing.
Jimi has a word for the Federation in Nigeria, which he called the bitter truth. He charged the Federation to give opportunities to new generation of players, get the job done and put politics aside. He was of the view that competitions must run regularly and the best person must be kept at doing the best job. He said this is the truth that must be told the custodians of the legacy of the Nigerian Baseball and Softball Association.
(Kehinde Laniyan works at Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, Nigeria. He is the Secretary General of the Nigerian Baseball and Softball Association (NBSA) and Administrator of Little League International, District 01, Nigeria)