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Baseball, Poetry, and Nicaragua

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In 1986 I went to Nicaragua with a North American baseball team. The Sandinista government was in full flower at the time, which meant that there was almost nothing to be had in Nicaraguan markets; citizens stood in line for basic foodstuffs. Bulgarians, sent by the Soviet government, were offering rather leaden infrastructure assistance, in this case the building of a large cement-producing plant.

Cement interested the Nicaraguans, but baseball fueled our conversations. In one exchange, begun as our bus was passing the cement factory, a Nicaraguan passenger voiced his dismay at American foreign policy. The factory’s smokestacks despoiled an otherwise lovely view of the vernal countryside; the Nicaraguan gestured with his chin toward the factory, then pursed his lips and shook his head. “What do we have to do with Bulgarians?” he asked. “They wouldn’t recognize a baseball even if I handed them one.”

“You like baseball?” I asked.

“It’s the Nicaraguan national sport,” he said. “We love baseball.”

“Even though it was invented in the United States?”

A snicker went up from the Nicaraguans, all of them amused by this display of gringo naivety.

“Señor,” the fellow next to me said. “Baseball is a Central American game.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“The Indians were playing it here two thousand years ago.”

There was general agreement with this. My companion gestured toward the window. In the yard by a roadside farmhouse, a boy was tossing what appeared to be a sock filled with dirt at another boy, who swung at it with a broomstick.

“The Indians didn’t have a sock,” my neighbor said. “But they did have a stick.” We watched as the boys receded into the distance. “They had a kind of rubber ball.” The faraway smokestacks, obdurate Stalinist intrusions on the landscape, rose into the blue sky. “And they had some great pitchers.”

One of my companions on the trip was the novelist and journalist John Krich, who had himself written about baseball, most notably the Oakland Athletics. We were part of a group dedicated to baseball diplomacy, extending the hand of baseball friendship across the turbulent waters of political conflict. . . that sort of thing.

Personally I was there because I wanted to see what was really happening in Sandinista Nicaragua. It is a tiny country that, as far as I could tell, was then causing no particular problem to anyone, yet was being severely punished economically by the United States because of its overthrow of a murderous dictatorship.

The government of Anastasio Somoza had been most notable for robbing its citizenry of all the best land and business opportunities. It was Somoza’s private fiefdom and it quashed all political opposition by murdering and "disappearing" its opponents. Its most public thievery was of all the money that had been collected worldwide to aid Nicaraguan citizens after the terrible earthquake of 1972.

The earthquake had killed many thousands of people and destroyed all of downtown Managua, the capitol. Fourteen years later, in 1986, the only thing that remained of old Managua was the grid system of streets. Each block contained a number of vacant lots and not one building. . . and this extended for hundreds of blocks.

John was then researching a book that would be published with the title El Beisbol: The Pleasures and Passions of the Latin American Game. As it happens, he and I were the only members of the group who were not baseball players, except for the group's one woman, who had a compendious knowledge of North American baseball statistics and was the most fine-tuned student of the game I had ever met.

Riding on the bus with several Sandinista political handlers, we talked almost exclusively of baseball the whole time. Even the political differences between our two countries were usually abandoned when someone would mention, say, Roberto Clemente, the great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder who had died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972 while trying to deliver medicines to Nicaragua after the earthquake. Talk of American Imperialism and The Need for Revolution, of the prospects for Nicaraguan industry and manufacturing, went out the bus window, in favor of collective admiration of Roberto’s sweet swing.

Indeed, when we had asked out of simple curiosity to see an example of a successful Nicaraguan industry, the bus had taken us to a factory in Managua where baseballs were made by hand.

Baseball in Nicaragua benefits from the profound understanding that all Nicaraguans seem to have of the difficulties of playing the game well. They spoke of it to us as others would speak of Rudolph Nureyev's dancing, Pablo Neruda's poetic inspiration, or the sweeping intensities of Monet’s water lilies. Baseball was the essence of corporeal grace and the finest expression of the human capacity for art, if not for feeling itself.

“Baseball is a poem,” my companion said. I looked out the bus window. The cement factory and the Bulgarians had disappeared. But in the meantime, I had seen at least three other small baseball tableaux, played out by little Nicaraguan kids by the side of the road.

My companion’s sentiment was similar to one that both John and I had noticed among the Nicaraguans in general. Whenever we asked one of them what he did for a living, the answer was almost universally, “I am a poet.” Putting aside for the moment that at the time it was almost impossible to make a living in Nicaragua — the United States embargo effectively cut the country off from most essentials — it still seemed unusual to us that so many Nicaraguans claimed to be poets. It’s well known in the United States that writing poetry will make you no money at all. So John and I figured that maybe the Nicaraguans were simply acknowledging that fact, and that, since there was no money anywhere in Nicaragua, maybe poetry was as good a profession as any.

But that was an insouciant observation on our part, because baseball and poetry in Nicaragua have in common one very important element. The heart itself is best expressed by baseball and by verse. The two make the soul sing in that country, equally so, and they do not alternate. Both express the same emotional infusion of earth, water and light. Both bring forth the same artistic flower.

Our group played a game of baseball against an all-star team of farmhands in the town of Boaco. Our guys had played in college or, in a few instances, in the North American minor leagues. One, a fine first baseman by the name of Tim Hickerson, who was a home run hitter as well, had come close to going to the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox organization. So our team had some chops.

We lost that game 13 to 1. Afterwards we were honored at a fiesta on a ranch outside town. The farmhands had all been invited, and there was a smattering of dignitaries as well, including the nurse at the local clinic, who was holding a baseball in her hands when we met.  She explained that she had loved the game all her life, and was overjoyed that we had come all this way to play against her neighbors here in Boaco. At first John and I didn’t know that she was the local nurse, because when I asked her what she did, she replied, “Well, I’m a poet.” Only a few minutes later did we discover her medical leanings.

But I took the opportunity to tell her that many, many Nicaraguans had told me that they were poets. Did she know, I asked, why there were so many poets in her country?

“Of course, señor,” she replied. Her eyes fluttered. Her hands caressed the baseball. Smiling, she took in a hurried, excited breath. “It is because Nicaragua is a poem.”

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About Terence Clarke