Marvin Sequeira's up. The score is tied 3-3, and the bases are loaded, with one out. Sequeira squints into the sun, squeezes his bat and measures the pitcher. The first pitch zips by. Strike one. Sequeira bears down. The pitcher winds and fires. Sequeira sends a looping fly to left. The ball falls easily into the fielder's glove, but the runner at third tags up and scores. A bugle sounds Charge over the P.A. We are not in New York, Atlanta or Toronto, but Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, and the Boers, Nicaragua's oldest and most popular team, have taken the lead. The crowd explodes.
With war raging around them, their economy crumbling and a U.S. trade embargo limiting vital imports, the Nicaraguans play baseball. They play ball on the east coast in Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas—where several power stations and an oil refinery were recently blown up and the port facilities destroyed. They play in Matagalpa, up north, in a stadium near the combat zone. In the mountains the brigadistas—foreigners, many Americans, who have come to Nicaragua to help pick coffee beans and cotton—play ball with the peasants. There's even a rumor about a pickup game between Nicaraguan army regulars and contras at the Honduran border. Nicaragua's national sport survives as a symbol of spirit and hope that transcends politics and ideology. Baseball is a U.S. import that can't be taken away.
It has been said, "If something's that good, you don't have to force it on people, folks'll steal it." In the early 1900s, schoolboys who had been sent to the States to study brought baseball home to Nicaragua. It became popular during the two occupations by the U.S. Marines, and by the time the Marines left for good, in 1933, baseball was firmly entrenched.
"The people of Nicaragua cannot live without baseball," says Sucre Frech, the country's leading sportscaster. "It's like eating." The government knows this. In spite of postrevolution austerity, the Sandinistas have given baseball a big boost. They have organized amateur ball from the kids' leagues through the majors and they rebuilt Managua's baseball stadium, which was destroyed in the 1972 earthquake that, indirectly, also toppled the Somoza regime. Only two buildings were left standing—the Intercontinental Hotel and the Bank of America—but President Anastasio Somoza Debayle kept for himself most of the $30 million in emergency aid sent by the U.S. That act galvanized the middle class's opposition to Somoza. The revolution further devastated the city, and much of Managua is still in ruins. But the 30,000-seat Estadio Nacional de Rigoberto Lopez Perez, built on the site of the old Anastasio Somoza Garcia Stadium, was a priority project. It opened in January of this year.
Ball games in Nicaragua are scheduled for daytime on the weekends, at night on weekdays. The schedule coincides with Nicaragua's dry season, from December until the championship series in May. During the month I was in Nicaragua, I went to a night game in Granada—the hometown of the Orioles' Dennis Martinez, one of two Nicaraguans in the majors—and several day games in Managua. Everyone needs a team to root for, and I chose the Dantos, the army team, which was third in its division at the time. The first game I saw the Dantos play, they were trounced 11-0 by the Industrials, the COIP (the People's Industrial Corporation) team. But by the time I left Nicaragua my team was in first place, and it eventually won the championship.
One Saturday morning in Managua I caught a cab to the stadium to see a game between the Boers and the team from León, Nicaragua's oldest city and its first capital. The cabbie, who wore a baseball cap, decided to stay for the game.
The stadium entrance is ringed by food-sellers hawking everything from Coke, Pepsi, beer, peanuts and ice cream to sliced mangoes sprinkled with coarse salt, pan dulce (a sweet bread), carne asada (grilled meat served on a palm leaf), vigoron (pork rinds, cassava and coleslaw) and baho (stew). But even the ordinary is packaged in extraordinary ways. Because of the shortages, items that usually come in a bottle, box, carton or tin are sold in plastic bags.
Inside, billboards ring the outfield fence, ads for Coca-Cola and Borden Milk sharing space with those for local businesses; the grass on the field is green and well tended—the president of the Nicaraguan Baseball Federation is also the Minister of Irrigation and Sewers. Television cameras are in position, the press boxes look out over home plate and the scoreboard keeps track of the STRIKES and the BOLAS.
Women and children, balancing on their heads trays that are often wider than the children are tall, scramble throughout the stands, selling the same food that's sold outside. I bought two plastic bags, one filled with Coke, the other with mango.
I battled the plastic while the Boers battled León. When I asked the young soldiers who guard the stadium if I could go out on the field to take pictures, they granted permission without hesitation. This would never happen in the U.S. The game was being televised live, and this was the first time they were using five cameras simultaneously.
Nicaraguans of all political persuasions devour baseball. On the day of Game 6 of this year's national championship, between the Dantos and Granada, Vice-President Sergio Ramirez was scheduled to go on national TV and radio at 2 p.m. to announce President Reagan's trade embargo against Nicaragua. At two o'clock, the game was tied and still going strong. The vice-president gave his speech on schedule, but it wasn't aired until four—30 minutes after Granada had broken the tie in the 19th.
The sports pages are often the only sections of the papers where the four major Nicaraguan dailies agree on the facts. The coverage of both Nicaraguan and U.S. ball is extensive. "Almost any child of seven knows the stats of his favorite players," says Frech. "The older ones know the stats of all the players, Nicaraguan and American. And everybody in Nicaragua knows Reggie Jackson." Of course, the real media stars are Martinez and the other Nicaraguan major-leaguer, David Green, from Managua. When Green was traded to the Giants by St. Louis in January, the news was splashed over the sports pages for days—although, interestingly, no mention was ever made of his salary. And every move Martinez makes is covered with the attention the American press gives to Madonna's navel. But the U.S. players aren't slighted either. Phil Niekro's 286th win made headlines, and recently the sports section of one paper did a full-page retrospective on Don Drysdale and his six consecutive shutouts in 1968. The standings of the AL and NL are listed daily in the three Managua papers, along with game highlights and schedules. Special coverage is given to those perennial favorites, the Yankees and the Dodgers. Some habits die hard. The Nicaraguans see no irony in sharing a national pastime with the United States. Now one of their own has joined the Yankee organization ranks, pitcher Al Williams, from Bluefields, the home of many of Nicaragua's best ballplayers.
"There's a saying in Nicaragua that every ni√±o [little boy] is born with a glove in his hand," says Frech. But the war has taken its toll on baseball, which is not exempt from the shortage problem. Nicaragua has no batting machines, Nautilus machines or access to sophisticated sports medicine. When the batter connects, instead of a thwack, there's a ping. Aluminum bats—imported from Japan and the U.S., pre-embargo—are used, not because they give the batter an edge but because they don't break. Yet, the players complain, even with the aluminum bats jonrons don't come easy. The problem? The locally made ball is dead. As was the case in the U.S. during World War II, when we used the balata ball because of a rubber shortage, runs are hard to come by, and the pitchers have racked up some phenomenal stats.
But these are no Bad News Boers. The caliber of play is at least equal to our Double A. A country the size of North Carolina, with about the same population as Brooklyn, Nicaragua has enough talented players for two divisions of five 25-man teams each. Haifa dozen of these teams have been organized since the revolution, with the Sandinista army team, the Dantos, replacing Somoza's National Guard team. The teams are administered by a union or a branch of the government, generally with a comandante (cabinet-level minister) as the honorary president. The Boers are run by the city of Managua and the Ministry of the Interior, with the minister himself, Tomàs Borge, at the helm. León is supported by the National Institute of Insurance as well as the city of León.
The Sandinistas believe that business has no place in sports. "Money isn't the object of baseball in Nicaragua," says Yamil Zu√±iga, the director of the Institute of Sports. Nobody in Nicaragua gets rich playing baseball, but it's not totally a losing proposition, either. Gate receipts are funneled back to the teams through the institute. It is noteworthy that in a country wracked by war, baseball is included in the national budget, right there with the military. Before the embargo the government laid in a supply of Rawlings balls to enable the national team to practice for amateur baseball's Intercontinental Cup, now going on in Edmonton, Canada.
The support has paid off. Nicaragua has become a force to contend with in international amateur ball. This small country boasts a national team that was good enough to win silver at the '83 Pan Am Games, behind Cuba but ahead of the U.S.
With Cuba boycotting the '84 Olympic Games in support of the Soviets, the Nicaraguans thought they had a chance to beat the Yanquis at their own game on their home turf (not an impossible dream; they beat the U.S. 9-5 at the Pan Am Games). But the anticipated showdown never came to pass. The Nicaraguans forgot to reckon with Japan, which shellacked them 19-2 in the first game and went on to beat the U.S.
But that's life. And that's baseball. War-weary Nicaraguans live for the day when the guns will be silenced and the swords beaten into plowshares—and those much needed baseball bats.