MANAGUA – The grass has been cut and the foul lines chalked. The lineups have been penciled in and the beer and quesillo vendors are ready for another season of brisk sales.
Even Mother Nature, who has become testy in her old age, cooperated last weekend by clearing the skies to allow the home plate umpire to chirp “¡Juega!” – or, Play Ball! – to mark the beginning of the fourth season of the Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League (LNBP).
This year’s pro league – featuring international players from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the United States – promises to be bigger and better than the three previous seasons, according to league president Edwin Cordero.
“The league has remained solid for four years, while the quality of players has improved each season,”Cordero told The Nica Times this week. “This year we are going to surpass our expectations with even better players.”
Cordero admits the LNBP is not yet on par with the talent or recognition of other “winter” leagues in Venezuela,Mexico or the Dominican Republic, but says that the Nica league has surpassed similar efforts in Colombia and Panama. The list of international guests of honor in attendance at the Oct. 26 Opening Day – a high-ranking delegation from the New York Yankees, a scouting team from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Commissioner of the Caribbean Baseball Federation, and Ronaldo Peralta, manager of Major League Baseball’s office in the Dominican Republic – is testament to how important the Nicaraguan league has become, Cordero said.
“Every day we get e-mails from player representatives in the United States, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, offering to send their players here for the season,” the league president said. “This is going to help to make the national players better, too.”
This season of the LNBP will again be played among four teams: The Indians of Bóer (Managua); The Wild Animals of San Fernando (Masaya), The Chinandega Tigers, and The Lions of León.
Each team must carry a minimum of six foreign players, or a maximum of 12. Players earn anywhere from $600-$3,000 a month, depending on their experience.
Granada, which is still buzzing over its baseball team’s come-from-behind victory last month in the series final of the First Division amateur league, will not be fielding a team this season, but is expected to enter the pro league next season, possibly with a sixth team from El Salvador.
Though there is some overlap of players between the two Nicaraguan leagues, the difference is that the LNBP is made up primarily of professionally contracted ball players from minor league teams in the United States or professional teams in other countries.
Some of the players are young prospects who are sent here by their teams during the off-season to get in a couple more at-bats or pitching starts, while others are Nicaraguan veterans or aging minor leaguers hoping to fine-tune their swings in hopes of making a last go at the Big Show.
Cordero says the level of play here has improved every year, and he hopes the fans will respond.
“We are hoping for an average of 2,000 fans a game, and 5,000 fans for the games in Managua,” Cordero said. “There are great expectations and lots of anticipation about this season.”
Big Fish, Small Pond
For an aging minor leaguer like Clyde Williams, a 28-year-old slugging first baseman from Orlando, Florida, the media buzz and celebrity that comes with playing in Nicaragua might be the closest taste he gets to the Major Leagues experience.
“It’s crazy, man,” Williams told The Nica Times of playing baseball in Nicaragua. “The people here are very nice and they treat you like they treat a major leaguer in the States. I get off the plane here and I have the media waiting for me. When I get off the plane in the United States, no one knows who I am.”
Williams’ status as a baseball celebrity in Nicaragua was ratified last year in the Final Series, when he homered in front of 20,000 fans to win game one for Bóer, in what turned out to be a four-game sweep of León. Williams finished out the season leading the league in home runs, doubles and runs batted in.
Originally signed to a minor league contract nine years ago by the Montreal Expos, Williams played several seasons of rookie and single-A baseball, putting together a couple of decent seasons before being released into free agency in 2004.
He has since spent the past several years bouncing around as a journeyman for various teams in Mexico and the Atlantic Coast League, returning to Nicaragua in the offseason to play for Bóer.
Williams says that the level of baseball play in Nicaragua would be on par with AA ball in the United States.
“There is some really good baseball here,” he said.
The Nicaraguan pro league is different from other leagues in Latin America in that it is held together mostly by veteran Nicaraguan players and foreigners, rather that younger teenage prospects who are being groomed for the Majors.
Though there are 30 Nicaraguans who are signed to minor league contracts in the United States, only 12 of them returned this season to play here.
Over the past three seasons, the LNBP has showcased such national-born talent as Texas Rangers’ pitcher Vicente Padilla, who is now the president of the Chinandega Tigers and may do some pitching this season; Red Sox pitching prospect Devern Hansack, who is scheduled to play this off-season in the Dominican Republic; Los Angeles Dodgers prospect William Juárez, who will be pitching for Chinandega; and San Diego Padres’ acquisition Aristides Sevilla, who is returning to León after leading the Lion’s pitching staff last season with an 8-2 record.
Edgard Tijerino, a veteran sports writer for the daily La Prensa, says the LNBP is professionally run and organized, but lacking in the talent and passion of its predecessor, the Nicaraguan Professional League of 1956-1967. The first professional league here featured such Big League stars as Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, who pitched a season for León. The league also drew visiting Caribbean teams that featured Major League MVPs, future Hall of Famers, and Cy Young winners. Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Willie Mays were just a few of the legendary baseball players to take the field against Nicaraguan teams here.
Tijerino says that back then, the government of Anastasio Somoza was very interested in supporting baseball. After Nicaragua won the bronze medal in the 1947 Baseball World Cup, Somoza ordered construction of the National Baseball Stadium (today known as Denis Martínez Stadium) to host the 1948 Baseball World Cup in Managua. The Nica team flopped that year, prompting Somoza – in true dictatorial form – to fire the manager and take over the team himself, leading it to further defeat.
But in the years to follow, Nicaraguans remained passionate about baseball, filling the stadiums for league and international play, until the professional league eventually folded in 1967 for economic reasons.
In the 1980s, baseball – as everything else in the country – became highly politicized.
The Sandinista Popular Army (EPS), headed by baseball enthusiast and aspiring pitcher Gen. Humberto Ortega, confiscated Somoza’s former team, Cinco Estrellas, and renamed it Los Dantos, after fallen revolutionary leader Germán “El Danto” Pomares.
Every victory against the Dantos was celebrated by opponents of the revolutionary government, as a rare open expression of civil disobedience.
Today, the Dantos no longer exist and baseball has never quite returned to its pre-revolutionary stature or revolutionary passion.
Though the Nicaraguan team has shown flashes of brilliance in past years – taking the silver medal in the 1990 Baseball World Cup and the bronze in 1998 – the country’s economic situation has deterred baseball from fully recovering, and some doubt the conditions exist today for a pro league to take off.
“Nicaragua doesn’t have the economic conditions for a professional league; baseball is not profitable here,” Tijerino said. “More money is spent now on the development of soccer players than baseball players.”
The fans, too, are less enthusiastic about baseball, Tijerino said.
“In the 1960s there were only 100,000 people living in Managua, and we had bigger crowds at the stadium than we do now, with nearly 2 million people living in Managua,” he said.
Despite the difficulties, Major League Baseball’s Peralta says he is “very optimistic” about the future of the LNBP. He does, however, admit that work needs to be done to improve conditions for play.
In an interview this week with The Nica Times, Peralta said that Nicaragua must focus more on identifying and developing young talent, as well as improving the conditions of its ballparks.
“The fields are OK, but the clubhouses and other dugout facilities are not adequate for professional players,” Peralta said. “The parks also need to improve facilities for the fans, like the conditions of the bathrooms.” Shortcomings aside, the LNBP, for many players, represents a last shot at getting discovered – or rediscovered – by a Major League scout.
“Anything is possible,”Williams says, referring to his chances of getting signed by a Major League club at the end of the season. “But dreams change. I made some good money in Mexico last year and guys get paid six figures to play in Japan or Taiwan. Baseball is my job and I am going to play as long as I can and put up some good numbers.”