This past summer I had the unique opportunity to meet former New York Times columnist Richard Kinzer in Leon, Nicaragua.
During my time there I inhaled his account of the slings and arrows of the Sandinista revolution and made sure I was within handshaking distance when I attended one of his speaking events.
Flanked by his journalism students from Brown University, he spoke with passion and pride about the spirit of the Nicaraguan culture. His anecdotes reflected a desire to get past the oversimplified stereotype of a nation ravaged by war, of a people unfulfilled.
Strangely enough, he found the country’s baseball diamonds to be an ideal location to bond with both the young and old, rich and poor — to get in touch with local flavours and personal stories. It’s as if, during long years of repressive rule, often funded by Uncle Sam himself, Nicaraguans co-opted America’s past time for their own social purposes. There was fiery passion, firecrackers, and general whooping and hollering in the stands of the Nicaraguan ballparks I visited.
Detractors denounce baseball as boring. I would make the same assessment of poker because I don’t know — or care to know — the rules, strategies, and nuances. And so it is with baseball, “the most literary of sports”, according to Smithsonian historian David Ward.
Although the poet TS Eliot dubbed April “the cruelest month”, for baseball fans April signifies the renewal of spring. After a tough slog through winter, North American fans anticipate the prospect of opening day and all its optimistic potential.
Does the game serve similar functions throughout the Americas?
One local fan observed, “There’s so much you want to forget; this is as close as you can come to forgetting it all.”
But Kinzer opined that in times of civil war and invasion by foreign powers, “Baseball had become the way Nicaragua expressed itself to the world.”
In cross-cultural lore, striking similarities underscore the latitude-bridging importance of the game.
In his conversations with oldtimers around the ballparks of Nicaragua, Kinzer heard many tales, but claimed that none was as moving as the one about “that error”.
On October 25, 1986, in game 6 of the World Series against the New York Mets, Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner let an innocent ground ball go between his legs. His error allowed the winning run score in the bottom of the 10th.
Although the Red Sox had already blown the lead and there still was a game 7, the blame was placed squarely on Buckner, a former batting champion, for committing “that error”.
Although he was playing through terrific knee pain and had several clutch hits leading up to his error, Buckner suffered death threats and moved to a remote part of Idaho to escape the onslaught of abuse. Whether he knows it or not, he has a kindred spirit of sorts in Nicaragua.
By the end of World War II, Nicaragua had come close to winning international championships but, like the Red Sox, managed to lose in unforeseen and excruciating ways, often at the eleventh hour. That said, by the 1940’s Nicaragua was recognized as one of the world’s baseball powers.
When the Nicaraguan national team arrived in Columbia to play for the World Amateur Championship in 1947, many believed it could win. But in one of the fi nal games, a substitute third baseman allowed a slow grounder to roll through his legs. Although his error was in the second inning of a nine-inning game, a myth grew up that the sub, “Jaguita”, had cost Nicaragua its best shot at redemption on the world stage. He was known as the man who committed “that error” for the rest of his days.
For another indication of how central baseball is in the Nicaraguan popular society, consider October 8, 1986. While Bill Bucker and the Boston Red Sox were preparing for the MLB playoffs, Sandinista foot soldier Fernando Canales was deep in the jungles of southern Nicaragua, on patrol. It was the height of the civil war.
Members of the Sandinista army who had overthrown the US backed Samoza dictatorship were now facing incursions from the contra army favoured by Ronald Reagan. Canales spotted an unmarked plane.
As he later testified in court, “When they [his superiors] saw it wasn’t one of ours, they ordered me to fire… After I shot.. We saw it explode in the air, and we saw it go down in flames.”
Caneles’ actions revealed the contra supply chain and he was celebrated along with his comrades on the cover of Sandinista newspapers for days.
But his crowning glory was being invited to throw out the fi rst ball of the baseball season.