Playing ball for Benin

Fernando Atannon poses with current Detroit Tiger Torii Hunter after meeting the all-star outfielder. (Photo courtesy of Wally Langfellow)
Fernando Atannon poses with current Detroit Tiger Torii Hunter after meeting the all-star outfielder. (Photo courtesy of Wally Langfellow)

By: Connor Nikolic – Sun Newspapers intern

Alban Guidi was born in Benin, a small country along the coast of West Africa.

When he was six years old, his parents sent him to Maryland, an exciting experience for a young boy in Africa. When he came back home a decade later, he would realize some of the privileges he came to take for granted in America, did not even occur to most people living in Benin.

One such foreign concept was Little League Baseball.

In America, parents, grandparents and siblings will religiously follow their young boys across the state every summer to various tournaments, cheering from the bleachers. This culture did not exist in Benin.

“I played some little league (while growing up in America), and enjoyed that experience … it’s exciting to give that same opportunity to these kids,” said Guidi.

When Robbinsdale native Gary Tonsager visited Benin in 2010 on a mission trip, he noticed how little the kids knew about American sports. On his first day there, he wore a Brett Favre jersey, and the few kids who did recognize the purple and gold uniform took Tonsager to be a Lakers fan.

That is, until he met one of the boys who would serve as his translator (Benin is a French speaking nation), a young man named Alban Guidi.

They started to talk about American sports, and Gary, who had been involved in Robbinsdale Little League baseball for well over a decade, starting talking baseball, and its “lacking presence over there.”

Guidi and Tonsager, along with help from friends in Benin and Minnesota, immediately began working the logistics of what has become the Baseball in Benin program. They have made Robbinsdale the “sister baseball city” of Cotonou, Benin. Guidi has continued to help with the program while going to school in Tampa Bay.

This spring, they were able to bring one of their friends, Fernando Atannon, from Benin to learn the game of baseball in America. He was taught by Tonsager, his long time friend and fellow Robbinsdale Little League coach Wally Langfellow and the University of Minnesota coaching staff.

Atannon also had an opportunity to meet ex-Twin Torii Hunter. He spent a total of five weeks learning everything about baseball and has returned to teach volunteer coaches and umpires in Benin the rules of the game.

Since he has been back, Atannon has been certifying coaches to teach the game to kids.

For the past nine years, the metro cities have hosted the annual wood bat tournament, open to all 11/12-year old Little League teams in the metro. Originally for charity, the tournament became “more tense” the past couple years without a cause behind it, according to Langfellow.

This year, Tonsager and Langfellow agreed on the idea to use this tournament to help raise funds for Baseball in Benin. The entire tournament is non-profit, and “no one is being paid to be here,” said Langfellow.

“[The Benin program] enables kids overseas to learn to play and enjoy the game,” said umpire Paul Perez.

Just like the little leaguers Perez mentors during local little league games, the Benin program will help young boys learn the game and build a sense of camaraderie with their teammates and coaches.

With hopes to raise as much as $4,000 this past weekend, Langfellow and Tonsager have big dreams for the future of the program.

“In two years, we want to have a team from Benin play in the charity tourney,” said Tonsager.