As the Santo Domingo baseball team rounded the bases together after their 4-0 win in the Costa Rican national championship on Sunday, players from the team took turns hoisting their trophy into the air.
Fittingly, as the team rounded third base and headed towards home plate, the trophy arrived in the hands of pitcher Maikel Neninger, the star of the game and Most Valuable Player of the championship series.
With the trophy held high over his head, Neninger leapt onto home plate and was immediately swarmed by his coaches and teammates, as Santo Domingo celebrated its second consecutive national championship.
During the game, which was the 7th game of the national championship series against the Nicaraguan Astros, a team made up of Nicaraguan expatriates, Neninger threw a complete game, a four-hit shutout. With a 2-0 lead in the ninth, Neninger sealed the win by belting a two-run homerun over the left-field fence. It was clearly Neninger’s day.
“This is amazing,” said Neninger, who is Cuban, mixing into his Spanish an English phrase to accentuate his feelings. “It was a very emotional day for me, and this is the first championship I have ever won in my life. Now I have one, and I have to thank the team for their support, the Santo Domingo organization and my family.”
Neninger seemed a man amongst boys on Sunday, and, considering his past professional playing experience with Cuban and Nicaraguan professional leagues, there may be another reason Neninger carried a larger than- life persona in the seventh game (other than his 6-foot, 4-inch stature). The top Costa Rican baseball league, known as the Primera División, is not actually considered a “professional” league.
The Costa Rican First Division There are 15 teams in the Costa Rican baseball league, but, unlike the neighboring leagues of Panama and Nicaragua, the majority of players in the First Division hail from other countries.
According to Rodrigo Vargas Castaing, president of the Costa Rican Baseball Federation (FCB), 10 of the 15 teams are made up mostly of Nicaraguans and other foreign players. Santo Domingo’s opponent on Sunday, the Nicaragua Astros, is a prime example of the foreign influence in the First Division. Despite their “Nicaragua” name, they play in the Costa Rican league. Castaing said the large contingent of foreign players stretches a few years back.
“The league was at a very low level with very little participation a few years ago,” Castaing said. “When the foreigners began to compete in the leagues, our numbers really grew. It helped us to really grow and develop the league.”
Foreign influence has a long-standing history in the Costa Rican baseball league, as well as in the history of Central American baseball in general.
Why Baseball Missed Costa Rica Geographically, it seems baseball skipped Costa Rica as its popularity moved south down the Central American isthmus and into South America.
Nicaragua has a long history of baseball success, as do Panama, Colombia and Venezuela. Combined, these four nations have produced 299 Major League baseball players (Venezuela has had 233), while Costa Rica has had only four players who made it to the Minor Leagues. The reason for this disparity is rooted in the region’s history.
“According to several baseball historians and some of the literature I have researched on the subject, there are two main factors that helped to introduce baseball in Latin countries,” said Edwin Fernández, of the Society for American Baseball Research.
“First, the presence of the United States military or commercial ships off the coasts of some of those countries …The second is that wealthy families used to send their youngsters to study in U.S. universities in cities like New York and Boston. They learned the game and became enamored with baseball. They brought baseball bats, gloves and balls to their Latin countries.”
These two theories are supported by most baseball historians. In Latin American and Caribbean countries where the U.S. had military bases, baseball was played during downtime. This is the acknowledged origin of the game in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama and Nicaragua.
“The arrival of the military bases of the U.S., as in Panama and in Nicaragua, brought the game to Central America,” Castaing said.
“Thank God we didn’t have U.S. military intervention here. But, because we didn’t, baseball has caught on here more slowly.”
The seventh game of the championship of the Costa Rican First Division at AntonioEscarréPark in San José did not quite have the makings of a World Series game, but the two decks of seating behind home plate were full of about 1,000 lively fans who chanted, yelled and supported the teams. Despite a few fielding bobbles, the caliber of play was decent and the intensity was high. Though Neniger was the star of the game, there was talent on both teams.
“The league has developed an enormous amount in the last six to 10 years,” Castaing said. “There are a total of 25 organizations now in the country. There are 10 little leagues around the country and each has 10 teams. Though the talent is not yet at a very high level, participation is growing.”
Like the majority of Latin American countries, soccer is king in Costa Rica. Castaing and the FCB are at work to develop the game of baseball, but it is still a long way from earning significant national attention.
According to Castaing, as the numbers continue to grow, investment will be essential to further cultivate béisbol in Costa Rica.
“A lot of people contribute to the development of baseball here, but there are still many poorer areas of the country that don’t have anywhere to play or equipment,” Castaing said. “Donations and contributions will be essential to grow the game. As interest grows, hopefully some more people will start to consider baseball a national sport and contribute to its growth.”