A NICARAGUAN ADVENTURE

Some kind of baseball on a goodwill tour
December 24, 1990

With two down in the seventh inning, I wasn't taking any chances. I had doubled and gone to third on a groundout. As the pitcher wound up, I was only about two feet off the base. But I was also 2,000 miles from home, in Teustepe, Nicaragua.

The pitcher stepped toward home and threw...to third. I was picked off. He had balked, but I didn't know how to say that in Spanish. As I put on catcher's equipment, I groped for a way to describe a balk. Finally, I turned to the umpire, pointed to third base and simply said, "Balk."

"Si, fue balk" ("Yes, it was a balk"), he said. I laughed, even though my baserunning had just cost my team a scoring chance, and me 100,000 córdobas ($2).

The trail that led to my being hung out to dry in Nicaragua had begun two months earlier, in October 1989, with a call from Jay Feldman, a friend I had last seen 10 years before, when we were teammates on the Music of the Spheres softball team in Santa Fe, N.M. Now a writer living in California, Feldman correctly guessed that I would be interested in joining a team he was organizing for the Fifth Annual Baseball for Peace Goodwill Tour, to play four games, from Dec. 27 to Jan. 4, 1990, in Nicaragua.

It was a bittersweet invitation. The tour was cosponsored by Roy Hobbs Baseball, one of the national organizations for over-30 hardballers, and we were to play Nicaraguan teams of similar maturity. The prospect of playing baseball after a long hiatus was exciting, but it also meant I was now officially old. At 30, I could still take some solace in being the second-youngest ballplayer on the team, but not much.

In the weeks before I decided to go, I fielded questions from anxious friends and family. Because Nicaragua was a country torn by civil war, everyone expressed concern for my safety: "Great. What's next? Baseball in Beirut? Iraquetball? Bicycling in Manhattan?" But I was more worried about stepping in the bucket than stepping on a land mine. I had not hit, thrown or fielded a hardball in the 15 years since I had been the batting-practice catcher for my high school team. As it turned out, my friends' fears were not justified. Mine were.

The ages of the 13 players on our team spanned several decades, and our waist sizes were equally diverse. We came from both coasts, the Southeast, the Midwest and Canada. One of our best players, Dick Fitzgerald, was a lefty pitcher who played from 1955 to '59 in the Baltimore Oriole organization. In the winter of 1958 he was sent to Nicaragua to learn how to throw a breaking pitch. Now a Seattle insurance executive, he pitched batting practice for the Mariners from 1977 to 1983, and still plays Roy Hobbs baseball.

Over the years, Fitz had often thought of returning to Nicaragua. "The recognition was a big thing for a young kid," he recalled. "I was a mediocre Triple A player who never made the big leagues, but in Nicaragua I was treated like a major leaguer. I'd walk down the street and people would ask for my autograph." If all went as planned, he would have a chance to pitch once again in the National Stadium, in the capital city of Managua, 31 years after his first appearance there.

As most of us soon discovered, however, expectations—good and bad—were a waste of time, energy and even money. In a country with a 1,700% annual inflation rate, where resources-natural or manufactured—are conspicuous by their absence, plans are always subject to change. Adaptability is the key to survival in Nicaragua.

Those of us who held to the North American obsession with time schedules often found ourselves before a kangaroo court run by our resident lawyer, John Lehr, who also happened to be one of our two lefthanded catchers—I was the other. By the end of our six-day stay, any question that started with the words "What time will..." was met with the reply "That will be a fine." At first fines were levied in nickels and dimes, but Lehr soon switched to the local currency. "That's 100,000 córdobas," which was a far more effective deterrent than "That's a nickel."

On our first morning in Managua, on a field better suited for grazing cattle than for fielding, we held our first practice. It was hot, it was humid, and it soon became clear that there would be no true hops, that our catchers would have trouble catching Fitz and that cattle had grazed there rather recently.

Nobody wanted to stop, but after two hours the pitches were slowing down, grounders were being waved at, and the players could not stop looking at the ice chest sitting under a shade tree. Practice was over. Or so we thought. Nearby, a nickname was being born.

As the rest of the team flopped beneath the tree, a large, sweaty individual was repeatedly assaulting the dirt near third base. It wasn't immediately clear that paving contractor Dan Henderson's ankle-jamming, earthshaking broad jumps into the pebble garden around third had a purpose, but eventually it dawned on us that he was holding a private sliding practice. The man was in a world of his own. From that moment forward he was known as Fantasy Camp, or simply F.C.

The next morning we climbed aboard our bus and headed north on a two-hour ride to the town of Matagalpa. Fitz, a veteran of minor league bus rides, fell asleep. The rest of us watched the fields of sugarcane give way to coffee processing plants as we gained altitude.

Once in Matagalpa, the team turned its attention to the Fabian Rodriguez Stadium, where we would play our first game. This was the home field of the Productores, the only first-division team backed by the National Union of Farmers and Cattle-Growers (UNAG). Altogether, UNAG sponsors some 700 baseball teams in Nicaragua, from youth leagues on up, and has been responsible for distributing most of the $50,000 worth of equipment—donated by manufacturers, retailers and major league, college and high school teams—that California-based Baseball for Peace has sent to Nicaragua over the past five years. On the wall in right centerfield, a Baseball for Peace logo had been painted in gratitude for the organization's work.

While I checked out the artwork, Fitz was checking out the mound. He let the team know that on a grounder to the right side he could not be counted on to cover first. He pointed out why—a large cow pie lay directly between the pitching rubber and first base. Armed with this knowledge, I vowed to drop down a bunt my first time up.

In our first at bat a series of walks and strikeouts left the bases loaded with two outs. As I led off second base, the batter lifted a towering pop-up between the pitcher and first baseman. I ran as hard as I could. Though I didn't see the ball, I heard it land with a plop—and scored standing up. We had two runs.

In the bottom of the first, Fitz took the mound. The speed and movement of his warmup pitches had the fans behind home plate gasping, and the umpire looked worried. My hand was stinging even before their first hitter, a skinny, 22-year-old second baseman, came to the plate. His presence on what was supposed to be an over-30 team was odd, but he said the regular second baseman was busy. That didn't explain the 19-year-old shortstop waiting on deck, but I decided not to worry, and called for a fastball.

Late in the game, Bob Wagner, a geodetic surveyor from Fort Myers, Fla., decided it might be a good time to hand out some goodies to the local kids. Wagner went up into the stands nearest our dugout with a bag of bubble gum—and was engulfed in sugar lust. Fortunately, Wagner is a large man, and he managed to keep a smile on his face despite the feeding frenzy he had unleashed.

Trailing by six, we were just about to take our last licks, in the top of the ninth, when the gum ran out. The kids began to close in on our dugout, anticipating a cache of gum still stored there. Many of us packed our bags and were preparing to dash across the field to the safety of the clubhouse. Then we rallied: With two out, we scored four times and had the bases loaded. Wagner was up to bat. On second was Ryane Snow, a 47-year-old Mendocino, Calif., high school teacher and baseball coach. "I could see everybody else on the team walking around with their bags," Snow said later. "I'm on second. My passport, my money, everything is in the dugout. And all I can see in there are dozens of kids. I was hoping Wagner would get a hit on the first pitch."

But Wagner struck out to end the game, and Snow sprinted for the dugout. He recovered his bag, barely, and headed for the safety of the clubhouse, where we gave our opponents a bag filled with bats, balls, gloves and uniforms. We shook hands all around and made our way to the bus.

The next day, Dec. 31, the small farming community of Teustepe was the site of our second game. Feldman was coming down with the flu, so Snow became the acting manager. Before the game he decided that we would use plain English to communicate the signs, so that nobody would risk a 100,000-córdoba fine. On our first opportunity to bunt, Snow hollered from the coaching box, "Lay one down." The opposition's third baseman started to charge in immediately. By the time the bunt was executed, the bilingual third sacker was shaking hands with the catcher, and our rally was nipped in the bunt. We lightened Snow's wallet by 100,000 córdobas for failing to discover that the third baseman spoke perfect English.

It was a tight game when Fantasy Camp Henderson slashed a line drive to right in the seventh inning. For almost anyone else this would have been a sure double—for the lumbering F.C., a good slide was in order. But after all that practice in the scorching sun of Managua, F.C. went into second standing up.

"Fine him! Fine him!" was the chant from our dugout. The English-speaking third baseman was baffled. F.C. was safe at second, but not from the kangaroo court. We went on to tie our record at 1-1 with a 3-2 win. Lehr was sick, so I caught the entire game, and was exhausted.

A few hours later, New Year's Eve, we were invited to celebrate at the home of Jorge Tinoco, a farmer from the town of Boaco who is the manager of the defending minor league regional championship team. It was on New Year's Eve of 1972 that Roberto Clemente died when his plane disappeared as he was flying from his native Puerto Rico with relief supplies for Nicaragua, which had been rocked by a major earthquake. As the night went on, we toasted Clemente, we toasted each other, we toasted baseball, and we toasted peace for the country.

Awakening with the screeching roosters, and none too pleased about it, we spent the day returning to Managua. On the next day we were sent on a visit to Danto, the only sporting goods factory in Nicaragua. Despite our weariness, we were eager to see how things worked there. As it turned out, not much was working, and not just because it was the day after New Year's Day.

The pride of Danto is a baseball-winding machine. But the big machine was shut down, because the government-owned factory had no U.S. dollars with which to buy yarn from Mexico. Like the rest of the world, Mexico has little use for córdobas. Instead of sewing baseballs, many of the workers at Danto were stitching padding onto protective cups or lacing baseball gloves. Several members of our group wanted to buy some of the well-made equipment, but the inventory was so low that we had to settle for one baseball each, at $3.18 in U.S. currency.

Despite Feldman's warnings not to expect too much, I could not help but look forward to playing in National Stadium the next day in Managua. Originally, it was named Anastasio Somoza Garcia Stadium, in honor of the first in a line of Somozas to rule the country, but even then it was commonly called National Stadium. In 1980 its official name was changed to Rigoberto López Pèrez Stadium, to commemorate the poet who assassinated president Anastasio Somoza Garcia in 1956. "Poetic justice?" Feldman wondered aloud. He was fined heavily for that pun, but he had been right about not counting too much on anything.

There would be no game for us at the National Stadium on Jan. 2, because, we were told by a UNAG official, the Nicaraguan national team was practicing there in preparation for the Central American Games a week later. We would be able to meet the players, though, and perhaps even work out with them.

Feldman and I filled a bag with the best equipment we could find as a donation to the national team. When we got to the stadium, we were told that the team had canceled practice. Seeing the ankle-high grass, we wondered if a practice had ever been scheduled.

So we declared ourselves the winners, by a forfeit score of 9-0, of the game we might have played, thus guaranteeing ourselves a .500 winning percentage for the trip. With only two days left in our stay, and with the stadium to ourselves, we decided to hold our own workout, if for no other reason than to allow Fitz to realize his wish to pitch there.

The next day, on the way to our final game, in the town of Masaya, we stopped at the local market in a last-ditch effort to spend our córdobas. While there we heard a car with a loudspeaker advertising our game. When we arrived at Roberto Clemente Stadium there was a crowd of several hundred, three times as large as any we had seen before. The local team was also larger than usual—and about half as old as we were. The game was no contest. We were beat when we rode into town, and we were beaten before the first inning was over. Final score: 8-2.

After the game the Masaya players threw a party in our honor and apologized for putting our team of geezers up against the best of the region's younger ballplayers. Swell. The cerveza went down easy, however, and soon all was forgiven. The festivities ended in a flurry of trading—caps, T-shirts, gloves, pants, jerseys, stirrup socks and anything else that could decorously be removed. One of the Masaya second basemen seemed particularly keen on my five-year-old Rawlings fielder's glove. I asked him what kind of mitt he had, and he held up a floppy Danto. The deal was done. His dignified, wordless nod of thanks gave me the better part of the trade. That, after all, was why I had joined the Peace Goodwill Baseball Tour.

Contact Baseball for Peace (enclosing an S.A.S.E.) at 906 Plum Lane, Davis, Calif. 95616.

THREE ILLUSTRATIONSTERRY WIDENER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)