By Ken Shulman

Baseball first arrived in Nicaragua in the late 19th century, with a New Orleans retailer peddling bats and balls. The U.S. Marines helped spread the green gospel from the Caribbean to the Pacific when they occupied the country from 1912 to 1933. And despite America’s support of the right-wing Contras during Nicaragua’s civil war in the 1980s, the Nicas still adore our national pastime.

“Our favorite sport may be anti-imperialism,” explained one minister of the revolutionary government the U.S. was trying to undermine, “but we love baseball too.” Nicaragua’s wars are a distant memory today. But kids still dream of making it to their country’s big leagues, or even Major League Baseball.

The drills at a youth baseball camp in southern Nicaragua may be in Spanish, but the numbers are always the same. Three is first base. Four is second, in Toledo or Taipei or here, in the shade of a grandstand in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, where local hero Alejandro Noguera walked 30 grade school students through the algebra of their national pastime.

Born and raised in this Pacific coast town, Noguera played 15 years in the Nicaraguan major leagues, and pitched for his country’s national team. Today the 34 year old directs the local youth leagues. And twice a year — once in spring and once in fall — he runs this week-long after-school baseball camp. Each camp draws from a single grade school. Campers range in age from 6 to 13, and include both boys and girls. No one who wants to play is turned away.

“We don’t want anyone to feel excluded or feel frustrated,” Noguera said in Spanish. “We want them to learn to say, ‘I can.’ This is very important. We want all of them to say, ‘I can do this.’ And once they say that, they have to say, ‘I must. I can do this. I must do this.’ We want them to learn to be positive, to set goals and to meet them. Because that’s what you need to do in life.”

“[My children are] always asking if they can play baseball, but they don’t have shoes. At the camp they have shoes.  They get to play. And I get a break from … this very stressful life.”
– Maria Magdalena Gonzaga
The baseball camps are sponsored by the Christopher Shatagin Sports Foundation in Burlington, Vt., and the Fundación A. Jean Brugger in San Juan del Sur. They’re held at San Juan’s municipal stadium. The field is a jewel – a finely-combed diamond ringed by a crew-cut outfield lawn, all carved out of thick jungle brush contained gingerly by chicken wire. You can almost imagine a Nicaraguan Shoeless Joe emerging from the palm trees beyond center field.

From the first base line, foundation director Priscilla Urquyo welcomed 30 students from the Azul y Blanco Elementary School. She asked them if they like baseball. They all raised their hands. She asked if there is anyone who doesn’t like baseball. Several raised their hands again. Doesn’t like baseball, she repeated, until they understood the question and lowered their hands. The kids were little nervous. It was their first day.

Most of the nerves came from excitement. Baseball is El Deporte Rey in Nicaragua — the king of sports. It’s said that Anastazio Somoza Sr., the dictator who rose to power here with American help, once called balls and strikes in Nicaragua’s big leagues. But these kids don’t know about America’s interference, or even that baseball was invented in the U.S. And many adults old enough to remember both don’t really care.

“Yes, it’s true we haven’t always had good relations with the U.S. government,” said Norberto Dilarte, a local merchant who plays on a regional team and helps at the baseball camp. “But this is all politics, and it’s all in the past. And these politics don’t have any effect on the support we get from the United States for our sport, which is very strong.”

Anti-Americanism may be history in much of Nicaragua, but poverty isn’t. Despite improvements, Nicaragua remains the second-poorest country in the Americas, after Haiti. The field of dreams that hosts the baseball camp is light years from this ragged scrap of pasture next to the Azul y Blanco school, where students play baseball during recess. Home plate here is a fragment of crumbling brick. Students slither through rusted barbed wire to retrieve foul balls, careful not to tear their white and blue school uniforms.

The students’ life prospects aren’t much more florid than the playing field. One teacher here estimated that fewer than 20 percent of the school’s 60 students will go on to high school -— less than half the national average.

“The majority of them will do what people here have always done,” the teacher explained in Spanish, “work as fishermen, work in construction, or work the fields, struggling to feed their families.”

A few, the lucky few, may find jobs in town, as taxi drivers, waiters, or hotel maids. San Juan del Sur is a newly minted lodestone for surfers and global nomads looking for an edgy-but-safe Third-World adventure. Hotels in the center of town offer hot showers and high speed Internet. At night, travelers in beachfront restaurants chatted in German, English, and French while a Latin Pop mix clashed with the live folk rock playing next door. MLB games unfolded in pantomime across giant flatscreens.

The music was a little different a few kilometers away, in the barrio of San Rafael del Valle. Maria Magdalena Gonzaga sells used clothes out of the three-room cinder block home she shares with her nine children. She’s thrilled that her daughter Sochari and son Lenin Jose were chosen for the baseball camp. Thrilled for them, and for herself.

“My children aren’t dying of hunger, thank God,” Gonzaga said in Spanish. “But there are so many things I can’t give them. They’re always asking if they can play baseball, but they don’t have shoes. At the camp they have shoes. As a mother I love it. They get to play. And I get a break from worrying about money, a break from this very stressful life.”

A few doors down, Alvarro Navarro relaxed in the afternoon shade beneath his home’s corrugated metal overhang. Navarro studied at the local university for three years before dropping out to support his family. Today he drives a taxi in town. Two weeks ago, the teachers at Azul y Blanco asked his nine-year-old son Jon whether he wanted to participate in the baseball camp.

“It’s important that my children do more than I was able to do,” Navarro said in Spanish. “To do this we have to give them confidence. In school. At home. On the playing field. When my son was invited to join the baseball camp, he knew to say yes. Because you don’t ask yourself whether you want to when an opportunity comes your way. You just say yes.”

For those who grew up with them, baseball and its numbers are strangely reassuring. Seven is left field. Eight is center, in Manilla, Montreal, and Managua. But there are other numbers here in Nicaragua. 79.9, for example, the percent of the population that lives on $2 a day or less — numbers that perhaps can’t be revised by simply chanting “four to six to three.”

For a few of these kids, the baseball camp may prove to be a turning point, the place where they learned the skills and focus they needed to forge ahead. For most of them, it’s five days of fun and baseball, and nothing but five days of fun and baseball. But for all of them, this chance to play on a real field coached by a real professional will make a beautiful memory. And even in wealthy countries, beautiful memories aren’t easy to come by.