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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."