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The darkness that stretched out below him seemed to be without boundaries to give it shape, and so he floated through it as he would a long, dreamless sleep. And then suddenly the stadium was there, a rictus of light in the blackened city. As Dennis Martinez peered out the window of the plane, the aircraft circled the ball field, buzzard-like, and then began to descend into the Managua airport. Fifteen thousand Nicaraguans had already waited more than an hour at the stadium through a steady drizzle for Martinez to arrive, and now he was dropping out of the sky and into the glow like a cloudburst.
Martinez, the righthanded ace of the Montreal Expos, arguably has been the best pitcher in the National League over the past four seasons. Playing in near obscurity for the lowly Expos, he has given up an average of 2.81 earned runs per nine innings during that span, pitching better than any of the league's Cy Young Award winners over the same period. He emerged briefly and brilliantly from baseball's shadows last July 28, when he pitched a perfect game against Los Angeles in Dodger Stadium, but quickly returned to oblivion as the Expos sank quietly out of sight in the standings.
But when Martinez returns to his native Nicaragua, as he did last month to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the national baseball season, he once again becomes el presidente, the pride of Nicaragua. After decades of dictatorship and civil war, this is a country that has no more valuable currency than a nickname with which to pay him tribute.
This trip to his homeland was the first for Martinez since his perfect game, which had triggered a delirious national celebration; his homecoming was to be cause for more merriment. But in Nicaragua the sudden intrusion of political fury is commonplace, and Martinez had had second thoughts about making the trip. Six days before the scheduled visit, supporters of the Sandinistas—the Marxist party that had held power in Nicaragua from July 1979 until Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected president in February 1990—set fire to the office of the mayor of Managua and engaged in an exchange of gunfire with demobilized contras at the office of the Nicaraguan Resistance Civil Organization.
The violent outburst by the Sandinistas was a response to a bomb explosion earlier the same day at the mausoleum of the group's martyred founder, Carlos Fonseca, who died 15 years ago fighting the hated National Guard of former right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The explosion was variously said to have been the work of rightists or the Sandinistas themselves, but regardless, the incidents endangered the uneasy truce that had existed between the Sandinistas and the coalition Chamorro government. Martinez, who had never publicly aligned himself with either the contras or the Sandinistas, feared that he and his family might make equal-opportunity targets for both sides in the simmering dispute; after weighing the possible danger, Dennis and his wife, Luz, agreed that 18-year-old Dennis Jr. would stay home in Florida to attend to his own commitments but that the rest of the family—including Erica, 17; Gilberto, 9; and Ricardo, 3—would make the trip. For a national hero, it is not easy to back out.
If Martinez felt vulnerable as he entered the National Stadium in Managua, it certainly didn't calm his fears when, just as he stepped onto the field, several explosions went off overhead. As the welcoming fireworks boomed on, Dennis and his family were placed in an open mule-drawn carriage for a slow ride around the field. An eight-piece marching band followed the carriage with a mad clatter, while just a few feet away an equally determined 12-piece ensemble played a different tune, as if oblivious to the hootings of the other. The carriage was flanked by three gray horses trained to prance wildly, so that their exaggerated steps looked something like a rumba as the strange convoy made its way toward the pitcher's mound.
Waiting there for Martinez was Antonio Lacayo, the so-called shadow president in the Chamorro cabinet; next to Lacayo stood his political opposite, Humberto Ortega. Chamorro had defeated Humberto's brother Daniel last year in one of the few openly contested elections for the presidency in the country's history. In a decision that some Nicaraguans considered a gesture of reconciliation and others saw as an act of betrayal, Chamorro retained Humberto Ortega, who had been head of the Sandinista army, as chief of the Nicaraguan military. As the ceremonies proceeded, Ortega, in green fatigues, stood at attention on the pitching rubber.
Ortega's control of the military is a continuing reminder that the Sandinistas retain considerable power in Nicaragua, and a day earlier in Miami, the usually diplomatic Martinez had cast a critical eye on Chamorro's conciliatory dealings with the Sandinistas. "Why did they bother going through the election?" Martinez asked. "If I was president and somebody was trying to take away my country...."
The three men stood side by side during the playing of the Nicaraguan national anthem—Ortega symbolizing the country's troubled political past; Lacayo, the uncertain present; and Martinez, perhaps, its future. After the last note of the anthem had drifted through the stadium, Martinez threw out the first pitch of the season—to Ortega, who squatted behind the plate sporting a Cuban-made Batos first baseman's glove.
The next morning Martinez met with Carlos García, the Nicaraguan minister of sport. García had been the president of the country's baseball federation back in the early '70s when Martinez played for the national team as a 17-year-old. But when the Sandinistas came to power, García was charged with, among other things, spying for the CIA and supplying arms to the contra rebels.