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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 Le�n, 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 Le�n. 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.