To play 'pro' ball, they went to Nicaragua
MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Three hours before game time the white cast-iron gates to Dennis Martinez Stadium are open to the public. So eager are the people to see their favorite game that they will sit in the hot Managua sun hours before first pitch. Waiting.
This January night is Game 1 of the Nicaraguan Winter Baseball League championship series and the fans' patience should be no surprise, since it took 37 years for professional baseball to return to a country where soccer and basketball lag far behind in popularity.
"Nicaraguans are very proud of their history in baseball," says Ronaldo Peralta, head of MLB's Dominican office, and a Nicaraguan. "And with the pro league, a new wind is blowing in the country."
So are the whistles as a cacophony rings throughout the large stadium, where wood panels peel away from the roof like dead leaves on a plantain tree. Soon, nearly 25,000 fans will pack into the park to cheer for Boer as it takes on rival Leon.
Williams, an Orlando, Fla. native, never played winter ball in seven years spent in the Expos organization, and it took a teammate on the independent Atlantic City Surf to get him a job with Boer. The Nicaraguan league, in just its third season, provides a way for Williams to earn money and get at-bats -- and maybe even catch a scout's attention.
"I was struggling at first and if you don't play well the fans are all over you," says Williams, who as co-MVP led the league in home runs, RBI and runs scored. "They were calling me ponche, which means strikeout, because I struck out 20 times in my first 30 at-bats. I just wasn't there mentally.
"But things got better and the numbers started piling up and I hit 13 home runs."
Williams and teammate Vincent Palmer are the only Americans who remain for the playoffs. Palmer, also 27, spent his childhood touring the globe thanks to his ambassador father. He became fluent in Spanish after going to high school in the Dominican Republic.
When Palmer quit his industrial engineering job in Atlanta late this summer, he came to Nicaragua unannounced and no guarantee of a spot. His family and friends were supportive, but some had reservations.
"Of course they thought I was crazy," says Palmer, who only had played in city leagues since his college days at Florida A&M, "but they knew it would make me happy."
The stadium which bears his name is falling apart, and Dennis Martinez knows it. He's not sure who was in charge of naming it, and he understands why and was humbled by the gesture. But he feels that at times, people expect him to contribute the millions of dollars that are needed for repairs.
The country's rich baseball history doesn't begin with Martinez -- whose 245 wins are the most by any Latino pitcher -- but he is one of its most successful and well-known people, and often feels burdened because of his prominence. At 51, Martinez says he wants to help his country, but he also feels as though people at times take advantage of him.
"Sometimes I feel guilty about not going down there and helping more," says Martinez, who lives in Miami. "Believe me, I want to do both. I know I'm key to the success of baseball down there. But I believe I need to put my family first."
Martinez wants to watch his youngest son pitch at a nearby college, since he missed out on a lot of his children's lives while playing mostly for the Baltimore Orioles and Montreal Expos. The national icon, whose nickname is El Presidente, says he travels home once a month and this January met with Nicaragua's re-elected Sandinista president, Daniel Ortega.
Martinez says Ortega genuinely seems to want to develop baseball in Nicaragua. Martinez will return to the country in a few months and hopes to present a plan to the real Presidente.
When Martinez speaks of his country, his emotions shift from deep pride, to feelings of frustration by his inability to solve all of its problems. He says he is troubled by the corruption that runs throughout baseball.
In a week he will report to Florida for the St. Louis Cardinals, who hired him as their pitching coach for short-season Jupiter. Meanwhile he'll keep working on building a proposal of a baseball academy in his hometown of Granada.
"Ortega asked me if I was willing to help," Martinez says. "As a Nicaraguan, I feel I have an obligation to do something for my people."
Baseball in this country predates Martinez. The sport thrived in the late 19th century. By the 1950s and '60s the professional league played host to major league players like Lou Piniella and Jim Kaat. Growing political turmoil and economic problems were some of the reasons for the league's demise in 1967.
As war and hurricanes devastated Nicaragua throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Dominican Republic became a breeding ground for major league superstars and teams invested in the small Caribbean nation. Venezuela, too, boasted big-league talent and grew in stature.
Slowly, Nicaragua rebuilt and started to heal. As did baseball. And in the fall of 2003, Rafael Perez, who at the time headed MLB's office in the Dominican Republic, along with his assistant Peralta, traveled to El Salvador for a clinic. Peralta suggested a stop in Nicaragua to see what was happening with baseball.
What they found was huge potential for a country where baseball is the No. 1 sport.
"It's their national pastime," Perez says. "We felt a resurgence of players could come out of there if there was more infrastructure."
The four-team winter league was formed officially in the spring of 2004 and the following October professional play began in Nicaragua for the first time since 1967.
"We knew the people were very proud of the game's history and were frustrated that other countries were getting ahead of them all these years," says Peralta, now head of the Dominican office. "But what was the best way to develop baseball in Nicaragua?"
The Little League system still needs help, especially with so many children on the streets -- a movement Martinez is trying to shepherd.
Perez is now the director of international scouting for the Mets, who are the most active major league team in Nicaragua. The organization has an unofficial relationship with Chinandega and this winter they sent five players there and Kingsport manager, Donovan Mitchell, to manage the team.
Because it's an A-ball league with independent leaguers occupying many of the roster spots, there is a struggle to gain acceptance to the Caribbean Confederation. Both Nicaragua and its sister winter league in Colombia have petitioned for full membership, which would allow them to play in the Caribbean World Series. But to many, that still seems far away.
"The big problem with the Nicaragua winter league," says Lou Melendez, head of MLB International, "is its inability to properly administer the league. They are weak in certain areas; there needs to be certain facility standards if you're to receive players from minor league teams."
Williams haggles with a cabbie in Managua.
Perez and Peralta both say that it's incumbent upon the federal government to help subsidize the league. With Ortega now in office and seemingly invested in sport, help could come soon.
Only nine Nicaraguans have made it to the big leagues, with Red Sox pitcher Devern Hansack and Rangers starter Vicente Padilla the only two last year -- neither of whom played in the winter league. Roughly 30 active Nicaraguan players are in professional ball, most in the lower levels.
Known as a pitcher's league, traditionally many Cubans have found a home in Nicaragua. Players like 18-year-old Cuban right-hander Duniesky Flores, who has signed with the Braves.
"There are a lot of Cubans here," Flores says in Spanish, "because it's a good place to play because the competition is a little bit lower, which helps us."
Juan Lara is the Latin American operations coordinator for the Padres. And while his organization is one of a handful of teams that scout in Nicaragua, he still sees the league as an unknown.
"We have a scout there because of the tradition baseball has, compared to Guatemala or El Salvador," Lara says. "At this point, though, the league is in its infancy and it's hard to know how much talent will come out of it."
Boer goes on to sweep Leon, and the two Americans, Williams and Palmer, celebrate wildly. For them, there's no place they'd rather be: In Nicaragua, helping establish a league that one day hopes to achieve a level where they'd no longer be welcome.
Amy K. Nelson is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine.
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