A Proud Tradition Revived
by Tim Rogers
Granada. “¡Tiempo!” yells Jeter, stepping out of the batter’s box as the Masaya bus lumbers over home plate and up through the middle infield, scattering the pitcher and shortstop.
After the bus clears the outfield and turns the corner at Puente Papa Q, Jeter, a 22-year-old Yankees fan with the wiry strength and feline reflexes of his namesake (the Yankee’s famous stortshop, Derek Jeter), steps back up to the plate.
“¡Game on, jodidos!” Jeter uses the term for ¨screw-ups¨ lightly, as it´s commonly heard in Nicaragua and not terribly offensive.
The rules of street baseball in the Granada neighborhood of La Otra Banda are pretty cut-and-dry: the street is fair territory, and everything else is foul.
If you hit the rag-ball off the electrical wires, onto a rooftop, or into the overgrown empty lot next to house of doña Flor de María Gutíerrez, you’re out.
Each team has five players, games are three innings, and the ante is 2 cordabas per person, or about 12 US cents.
Reluctant timeouts are called for the Masaya bus, horse-drawn carts or women passing by with baskets of fruit on their heads. The same courtesy is not usually extended to men peddling by on bicycles, who are considered part of fair territory.
Other than the curious park dimensions and constant risk of being mowed down by a motorcycle, street ball in La Otra Banda is just like regular baseball, with each game played with the intensity of a Red Sox- Yankees playoff.
“They usually don’t make it the full three innings before there is an argument or fight and someone quits,” observes Elmo Urbina, the honorary umpire and holder of the bets.
Baseball has always been a serious amateur sport in Nicaragua, played enthusiastically in fields, streets and stadiums across the country by all age groups. For generations, it has provided a common thread in a country long divided by politics, war and deep cultural rifts.
Yet not until recently has Nicaragua gotten serious about developing baseball as a professional industry to help talented young athletes out of poverty, while reviving the country’s once-proud sporting tradition.
Last November marked the first pitch of the new Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League (LNBP), the first professional baseball league in Nicaragua since the old Liga Profesional Nicaragüense folded in 1967, when former dictator Anastasio Somoza cut off funding.
Nicaragua has had several other competitive amateur baseball leagues over the years, but the lack of a professional league here has prevented Nicaragua from home-grooming national talent, or attracting capable foreign players. The new league now has pro ball players from Cuba, Panama, Mexico and the United States, as well as the best Nicaragua has to offer. Players are paid an average of $1,000 a month, funded by private sponsors.
Last year also witnessed the birth of American College, Nicaragua’s first integral baseball academy for promising young athletes.
Founded by former Major League Baseball pitching great Denis “El Presidente” Martinez, Nicaragua’s most celebrated baseball talent of all time, American College aims to groom the country’s best young talent into future Big League stars. The baseball academy, modeled after similar programs in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, has become home for 150 select players from around the country, teaching baseball fundamentals on the field, and English and high-school courses off the field.
The academy hopes to sign all its young Nicaraguan players to major or minor league contracts in the United States. If not drafted, the student athletes will have a full high-school education to fall back on.
“We hope soon to have hundreds of Nicaraguans in the Major League system and several dozen playing for Big League clubs,” President Enrique Bolaños said during the academy’s inauguration.
Similar academies in the Dominican Republic have enjoyed enormous success in past years, having paved the way for hundreds of Caribbean islanders to break into Major League Baseball.
There are currently 600 Dominicans playing professional ball in the U.S., 79 of whom play for Big League clubs. Nicaragua, meanwhile, only has one player in the majors (Phillies pitcher Vicente Padilla), and 30 in the minors.
The four-team Nica League has clubs from Managua, Masaya, León and Chinandega, with tentative plans to add Granada next year.
While the guys from La Otra Banda most likely won’t make the team, they play each game of street ball with professional-league passion, just in case the scouts are watching.
PUBLISHED IN THE MARCH APRIL 2005 EDITION OF LANDINGS
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