In his classic account of Sandinista era Nicaragua, Blood of Brothers, Richard Kinzer notes, “With the sole exception of Roman Catholicism, no institution is as deeply rooted in Nicaragua as baseball. More than simply a pastime, it has for generations been a way for Nicaraguans to define themselves and hold themselves together as a nation. People play baseball in the most remote hamlets and the most miserable urban slums.”
This winter, I spent seven weeks in this fascinating nation. As I toured each part of the country seeking out sights, smells, history, and culture I was also careful to note where ball diamonds, big or small, were located. Locals were excited that I was excited about finding a game in their town but seemed totally unaware of the schedule of play. The common refrain was “Domingo Domingo”, which means Sunday.
When my explorations took me to the island of Ometepe I sought to find a beer and a baseball game on the Sabbath.
I find that when traveling alone the best backpacking days are often inspiring for what they aren’t. For example, my first day in Altagracia, on the far side of the Ometepe Island, was significant in its rural solitude, lack of fellow travelers, calm countryside, and the bad things that didn’t happen, i.e. diarrhea, drunkenness, conflict.
Altagracia has retained much of its pre-Spanish contact identity. In fact, the Nahuatl ancestry of the local population is specifi cally promoted and on display. I discovered plentiful petroglyphs (one of which features an X insignia said to be a site of human sacrifice) and evocative totems of pre-Columbian idols of the Nahuatl tribes whose influence accounts for the guile, calm, and honour of the locals. I also discovered two ball diamonds.
I explored the community on foot to find a winding foot path to the ocean, got a pleasant wave from a man training his horse while his friend carried an enormous wack of stick logs on his back — think the cover of the Led Zeppelin IV.
When I backtracked back to town and past two security guards, I struck gold… the baseball diamond. In broken Spanish and excited gringo glee I tried ascertaining from the guards when I might catch a game. “Domingo Domingo!” they said, both in a celebratory tone indicating we were understanding each other but also in a finger pointing getthe-hell-out-of-here-until-Sunday sort of way. I was just fine with that.
Sunday morning, I planned a return to the Altagracia ball diamond, about a 45-minute trip on the local chicken bus, in search of a game. But only 10 minutes into the trip I saw players warming up on a diamond built near the base of Volcan Conception, within view of its twin Volcan Madera. I signaled the bus driver to drop me off, and ran excitedly out. I looked left to a storefront and then right to a similar shop, both essentially rural family dwellings that sold an assortment of food, beverages, and household products.
Both sold Tona, the local beer. I purchased three cold ones, threw them in my backpack and set out for the small local stadium like a child sprinting out of a classroom into a recess match with his mates. And what a spectacle.
I was there in time for a few warm up tosses. A thin circlecloud hat sat atop Concepcion and a thick dust storm erupted while I tried to snap a few pictures, wondering if the locals in the stands would find that amusing or annoying. The dusty gusts came and went but finally subsided.
The umpire signaled for the game to begin. In the first demonstration of the good will and sportsmanship Nica baseball is known for, the leadoff hitter looked back and extended a handshake to the opposing catcher. It was a simple, heart-warming gesture. I was stunned and humbled. I’d never seen such a thing. How many times have my countrymen and I succumbed to chest thumping boorishness when playing ball?
The pitcher tossed a side winding fastball for a first pitch strike and lo, for 90 minutes and seven innings, time stood still and I dwelt with the baseball gods.