Determined to put an end to the embarrassing failure of Nicaraguan baseball in recent years – the last two seasons have ended disastrously, with teams forfeiting, fighting each other on the field or collapsing in financial ruin – the Sandinista government is coming in from the bullpen to try to save the game.
Following Nicaragua’s surprise success in last month’s regional championship tournament in Venezuela, in which the underdog Nicaraguan National Team ended up winning the silver medal and qualifying for the 2009 Baseball World Cup in Russia, there’s been a renewal of baseball fever here, at least in the government.
President Daniel Ortega has pledged to support the national team with $230,000 to buy them new uniforms, equipment, trainers and medical staff, plus plane tickets to Moscow and even sweaters for the September chill in Russia.
“It’s going to be a little cold. For them it’s not cold, but for us it’s cold, so you are going to need a bit of cover,” Ortega told the ball club during an Oct. 21 meeting in Sandinista headquarters. He assured the players he would buy them all sweaters.
More important than his fall fashion advice, President Ortega also called for a revival of the defunct Germán Pomares Nicaraguan baseball league, which marked a decade of hardball here during the first Sandinista government in the 1980s.
Named after Sandinista martyr and revolutionary hero Germán “El Danto” Pomares, the old baseball league had more than a dozen teams, including two in from the capital: Bóer of Managua, Los Dantos of Managua, San Fernando of Masaya, Granada, Rivas, Carazo, León, Chinandega, Matagalpa, Estelí, Boaco, Chontales and the Atlantic Coast team from Bluefields.
The government is determined to resurrect the league next year and with it bring the sights and sounds of baseball back to the abandoned stadiums in cities such as Rivas, Boaco, Chontales and Carazo.
The idea is to also develop more homegrown baseball talent by giving more young players a chance in organized baseball. The Nicaraguan Baseball Federation has 89,000 Nicaraguan players – old and young, professional and campesino – registered throughout the country.
“It’s good that we are talking about advancing baseball in Nicaragua, because we have all the conditions. We have a youth that loves baseball, we have a baseball culture, and we have coaches who have given their lives to baseball. The only thing missing is money and organization so that we can plant a seed in the countryside, in the AtlanticCoast, in the cities and in the neighborhoods, all over the country,” Ortega said.
The president has already formed a special baseball commission to start organizing the Pomares league by contacting old coaches, tracking down new and veteran players, inspecting the stadiums and – most importantly – do the math to figure out how much it will all cost.
Despite the multitude of unanswered questions and logistical challenges, the government hopes to have the league up and running with 10 teams by January. Those in the baseball world are feeling optimistic it could happen, especially since the government is showing its full support.
“If the government doesn’t rescue baseball here, no one will,” Carlos Reyes, honorary president of the Nicaraguan Sportswriters Association, told The Nica Times this week.
Reyes, one of five men tapped by Ortega to resurrect the Pomares baseball league, said that both the Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League (LNBP) and the first division baseball league here are “failed disasters.”
The 2008 season of the first division ended when Granada forfeited in the finals to Matagalpa, and the four-year old LNBP, which ended the 2008 season with police on the field trying to break up fisticuffs between Managua and Masaya, is now down to only two teams after Chinandega and San Fernando folded this year.
Reyes said the professional baseball league was too expensive, in addition to being poorly run and unorganized. Each of the four teams was spending about $300,000 for a 10-week season, and teams such as Masaya were paying $100,000 just on salaries for a handful of third-rate foreign players.
Reyes said he and the others in the presidential baseball commission are still trying to determine what a realistic budget would be for the 10 teams in the Pomares league, but he estimates that each team would need about $150,000 for a six-month season from January to July. To cut costs further, the games will be played as doubleheaders on Saturdays and Sundays, allowing the players to keep their day jobs and reducing stadium expenses.
In addition to fostering a new spirit of nationalism and baseball pride, the league, which will be open only to Nicaraguan players, will also promote national tourism and culture, said Sandinista sportscaster Enrique “The Squirrel” Armas, who reportedly is the one responsible for putting the idea in Ortega’s head.
“In reality, the most beautiful trip each week was the trip to the ballpark,” Armas said, wistfully remembering the days of the Pomares league in the 1980s. “It was a trip that was part of the national identity, a trip that had folklore – the merriment that filled the stadiums, and all the traditional dancing in the games against the Atlantic Coast.
And it was about local gastronomy, because there is nothing more delicious than eating a vigorón at the park on the Sunday at 10 a.m. while watching Bóer play.”
Armas lamented that that baseball culture has been lost, but said that with Ortega’s support “we will play happily once again.”
The Politics of Baseball
Nicaraguan baseball historian and veteran broadcaster Bayardo Cuadra said that baseball has long been a refuge for unpopular governments in Nicaragua.
Cuadra said that former dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia was particularly unpopular in 1947, following his coup of President Leonardo Argüello. In a ploy to legitimize his government, Somoza invested an enormous sum of money to build Managua’s National Stadium (today known as Denis Martínez Stadium) in time for Nicaragua to host the 1948 Baseball World Cup and rally the country around the national baseball team, which was coming off of a bronze medal finish in the 1947 Baseball World Cup.
Somoza felt so invested in the team’s success that he ended up firing the manager and taking the team over himself, leading it to embarrassing defeat.
Though Ortega hasn’t expressed any desire in managing, Cuadra said he thinks the president’s sudden interest in baseball could be – at least partially – politically motivated.
“The spectacle of sport is a way to distract people from politics,” Cuadra told The Nica Times. “Behind baseball, there is always political motivation.”
Cuadra said baseball boosters have been trying to get the Ortega government to support the game for the past two years, but now – in the midst of a tight election and amid plummeting poll numbers – the president wants to finally play ball.
“This is an example of the old Roman adage: Give the people bread and circus,” Cuadra said.
What remains to be seen is whether Ortega can achieve in baseball what he hasn’t been able to do in politics: fulfill his government’s promise to provide “reconciliation and national unity.”