With two down in the seventh inning, I wasn't taking any chances. I had doubled and gone to third on a groundout. As the pitcher wound up, I was only about two feet off the base. But I was also 2,000 miles from home, in Teustepe, Nicaragua.
The pitcher stepped toward home and threw...to third. I was picked off. He had balked, but I didn't know how to say that in Spanish. As I put on catcher's equipment, I groped for a way to describe a balk. Finally, I turned to the umpire, pointed to third base and simply said, "Balk."
"Si, fue balk" ("Yes, it was a balk"), he said. I laughed, even though my baserunning had just cost my team a scoring chance, and me 100,000 c�rdobas ($2).
The trail that led to my being hung out to dry in Nicaragua had begun two months earlier, in October 1989, with a call from Jay Feldman, a friend I had last seen 10 years before, when we were teammates on the Music of the Spheres softball team in Santa Fe, N.M. Now a writer living in California, Feldman correctly guessed that I would be interested in joining a team he was organizing for the Fifth Annual Baseball for Peace Goodwill Tour, to play four games, from Dec. 27 to Jan. 4, 1990, in Nicaragua.
It was a bittersweet invitation. The tour was cosponsored by Roy Hobbs Baseball, one of the national organizations for over-30 hardballers, and we were to play Nicaraguan teams of similar maturity. The prospect of playing baseball after a long hiatus was exciting, but it also meant I was now officially old. At 30, I could still take some solace in being the second-youngest ballplayer on the team, but not much.
In the weeks before I decided to go, I fielded questions from anxious friends and family. Because Nicaragua was a country torn by civil war, everyone expressed concern for my safety: "Great. What's next? Baseball in Beirut? Iraquetball? Bicycling in Manhattan?" But I was more worried about stepping in the bucket than stepping on a land mine. I had not hit, thrown or fielded a hardball in the 15 years since I had been the batting-practice catcher for my high school team. As it turned out, my friends' fears were not justified. Mine were.
The ages of the 13 players on our team spanned several decades, and our waist sizes were equally diverse. We came from both coasts, the Southeast, the Midwest and Canada. One of our best players, Dick Fitzgerald, was a lefty pitcher who played from 1955 to '59 in the Baltimore Oriole organization. In the winter of 1958 he was sent to Nicaragua to learn how to throw a breaking pitch. Now a Seattle insurance executive, he pitched batting practice for the Mariners from 1977 to 1983, and still plays Roy Hobbs baseball.
Over the years, Fitz had often thought of returning to Nicaragua. "The recognition was a big thing for a young kid," he recalled. "I was a mediocre Triple A player who never made the big leagues, but in Nicaragua I was treated like a major leaguer. I'd walk down the street and people would ask for my autograph." If all went as planned, he would have a chance to pitch once again in the National Stadium, in the capital city of Managua, 31 years after his first appearance there.
As most of us soon discovered, however, expectations—good and bad—were a waste of time, energy and even money. In a country with a 1,700% annual inflation rate, where resources-natural or manufactured—are conspicuous by their absence, plans are always subject to change. Adaptability is the key to survival in Nicaragua.
Those of us who held to the North American obsession with time schedules often found ourselves before a kangaroo court run by our resident lawyer, John Lehr, who also happened to be one of our two lefthanded catchers—I was the other. By the end of our six-day stay, any question that started with the words "What time will..." was met with the reply "That will be a fine." At first fines were levied in nickels and dimes, but Lehr soon switched to the local currency. "That's 100,000 c�rdobas," which was a far more effective deterrent than "That's a nickel."