MANAGUA – For the past hundred years, Nicaragua’s role in the world of baseball has been a bit like that of veteran catcher “Crash” Davis in the movie Bull Durham – an overlooked natural talent stuck in the minor leagues.
Teams and entire baseball leagues have come and gone, and young prospects have momentarily dazzled fans and raised hopes of greatness, but for the most part, baseball has never really reached its full potential here.
Despite the passion for the sport, Nicaraguan baseball has been plagued by the same cash-strapped underdevelopment and political myopia that has hampered everything else here.
To date, Nicaragua has produced only 11 major league baseball players – the same number of big leaguers to come out of Alaska, a state known more for dogsledding than hardball. Even England, a country that views baseball as a twisted perversion of cricket, has produced nearly three times as many major league baseball players as Nicaragua.
But that hasn’t dampened Nicaragua’s enthusiasm for the game. From barefoot kids who play stickball as aggressively as young Ty Cobbs, to portly men who squeeze defiantly into threadbare baseball pants and lumber heavily around the base paths like latter-year John Kruks, Nicaraguans have a love affair with baseball that transcends age, race and athletic ability. So much so, in fact, that the sport is one of the few institutions that has endured all the dangerous curves of Nicaragua’s recent history.
Now, the “boys of summer” are finally about to get their day in the sun. The U.S.-based International Baseball Association (IBA) recently announced its plans to build the first state-of-the-art baseball academy in Nicaragua, similar to the ones that have produced 494 major league baseball players from the Dominican Republic over the past 30 years.
The academy, which will be run by the IBA’s local affiliate, The International Baseball Academy of Central America, will become a baseball refinery and major league showcase for Nicaragua’s raw and untapped talent.
The best young players in the country will be scouted to play at the academy, where they’ll be housed, schooled and honed into the best ball players they can be. The cream of the crop will then be scouted and signed by Major League Baseball franchises in the United States.
If all goes according to plan, the echoed words “…Now batting…from Nicaragua…” could soon be heard with increased regularity on public-address systems in major league ballparks across the United States.
The $2.2-million phase I of the Nicaraguan baseball academy is scheduled for construction in the first half of 2010 on a coastal property adjacent to theGranPacificaBeachand Golf Resort in Villa El Carmen, one hour west of Managua. The initial phase will have two baseball fields, practice facilities, classrooms, computer labs, a weight room and a dormitory for up to 48 baseball players.
Phases II and III, which will cost an additional $2 million to $3 million, will see the facility expanded to accommodate up to 200 players at once, and include a full stadium to host international baseball tournaments.
Though the academy is not officially affiliated with Major League Baseball (MLB), “MLB’s front office and MLB have been 100 percent behind the project,” according to project head Roger Keeling.
Even before the first pitch is thrown out, the academy is already being hailed as a tremendous success for the 50,000 Nicaraguan youth involved in organized baseball, and the country in general.
“This will help bring Nicaragua back into the baseball world,” said Red Sox hall of famer and Team USA baseball coach Reggie Smith, one of three former major league players involved with the academy. The other two players are former pitching great Dave Stewart, and Brad “The Animal” Lesley, a former major league pitcher who also played in Japan.
“This is a great triumph for Nicaragua and for baseball,” said U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan. “This will promote tourism and employment and lend international fame to Nicaragua.”
Baseball is Life
In addition to teaching kids how to hit a major league slider in the batter´s box, the baseball academy will also strive to teach kids how to hit the many curve balls that life will throw them off the diamond.
The lessons of tolerance, teamwork and discipline that players learn on the field will also help them to develop into responsible and productive citizens off the field, according to the former Major League stars involved in the project.
“[Baseball] serves as a microcosm for life,” said Reggie Smith, who played for 17 seasons in the Majors before hanging up his spikes in 1982. “It teaches you to use judgment and trust that judgment. It teaches you to interact with people and be a teammate and rely on one another. And it teaches you how to deal with failure as well as success.”
Former All Star pitcher and 1989 World Series MVP Dave Stewart agrees. He added, “What we are going to focus on here is not just baseball, but life skills, so (the Nicaraguan players) learn how to be good individuals and place themselves in everyday society – so they can be useful not just on the baseball field, but in life.”
Stewart said that he was fortunate to play 16 years in the majors, but notes that the careers of many other players are much shorter – and most never make it to “The Big Show.”
The academy, he said, has to teach kids not only to succeed on the field, but also “What it takes to be a good young man.”
Spreading the Sport
While not every kid who plays ball will make the cut, the International Baseball Academy of Central America hopes to have a much wider impact on youth baseball in Nicaragua.
Bob Ottinger, a driving force behind the project, says the academy will also train local coaches and scouts, and hold baseball clinics across the country to spread the love of the game and find the best talent in the country. He said the academy is “determined” to have a presence on Nicaragua’s isolatedCaribbeancoast, which has already produced several major league players over the years.
“If we are going to be successful, we need to help build the baseball infrastructure in Nicaragua; we need to start to get equipment and bring it down to Nicaragua in large quantities to make sure that people who play baseball here at least have a glove and a pair of cleats,” Ottinger said. “So this is all part of this big plan. It’s an enormous project that is going to take a while, but we are determined that we are going to do it the right way and we are going to build a foundation.”
Smith said Nicaragua, in many ways, already has a solid foundation for baseball. In fact, he said, that was an important factor in deciding to put the academy here rather than in another Central American country.
“When we were trying to find a location, the one thing I wanted to make sure of was that we picked a place that has the passion for the game and where we wouldn’t be competing with soccer. And Nicaragua was that place,” the former gold glove center fielder said.
Smith, who was recently involved in efforts to promote baseball in the country of Ghana in Africa, said it’s different here in Nicaragua because kids already know how to play the game, and have an appreciation for the sport.
“Here I think every little boy has the same dream I did as a kid, which is to play baseball,” he said. “Baseball is still a little boy’s game. You have to be a man to play it (professionally), but you still have to have a lot of little boy in you.”
A Boost to National Moral
Mario Rappaccioli, president of Managua’sAmericanCollegeand a consultant to the baseball academy, says the project represents “a great dream for all Nicaraguans, especially the youth of Nicaragua.”
Rappaccioli noted that current Nicaraguan baseball star Everth Cabrera, who broke into the bigs last year as an impact rookie shortstop with the San Diego Padres, is “in the newspaper everyday here,” even “when he does nothing.”
“Imagine, for a minute, if we had 30 Everth Cabreras playing in the majors within 5 or 7 years? What would that mean for Nicaragua?” Rappaccioli said.
“In Nicaragua, we are first and foremost baseball fans,” he said. “And secondly, we are tremendously anxious to have national heroes who truly represent all Nicaraguans.”
In a country where politics divides and baseball unites, who better to represent Nicaragua on the world stage than a baseball player?
Next: Nicaragua’s newest baseball hero: An exclusive interview with San Diego Padres shortstop and Nandaime native Everth Cabrera.