Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Baseball in Nicaragua

The crisp, hot, late afternoon sunshine in Nicaragua creates perfect conditions for playing baseball. We noticed that the construction crews seemed to finish up the day’s work with a bit more energy and gusto; several of them asked me as the work for the day wound down, “Baseball?” Just that one word, with their deep Spanish language accent, and the interrogative lilt rolling up at the end, turned a word into a question. “Si,” I would readily reply, wondering what I was getting myself into.

David, our host and translator, had organized the game the evening before. He told me that there are two things that the guys on the construction crews really love: work and baseball. They play all the time in the field next to the school. The schedule was set. Baseball after work today!

This was truly a multi-purpose field. It is huge, easily the size of a full soccer field, with the main road of the village running along the long side of it. A few scrub trees line the edge of the field next to the road. There is a makeshift soccer goal set up at one end. Three long sticks: two sticking in the ground vertically, with Y notches at their tops, and one mounted horizontally in those Ys. No net in this soccer goal. I guess if you score a goal you must also chase the ball. The field also served as pasture, and we enjoyed watching the mama horse and her day’s old colt quietly grazing.

The baseball field is evident only because of its use. There is no backstop, no chalk lines, and no outfield fence. But the base paths were clearly evident from their heavy use. The area around home plate is smooth and clean. Home plate is imaginary; but obvious. First base is a now empty, paper concrete bag. Second base is a rag. Third base was imaginary; a spot in the dirt. What interested me about this field was the accuracy of its size. Despite the lack of real bases or a backstop this was, my measuring eye told me, really close to a full size baseball field. The spots in the dirt where the bases were supposed to be were in their perfect place; 90 feet apart in American measure. Baseball fields express beauty with their straight lines, angles, and symmetry. This field in the Nicaraguan dirt was beautiful.

David divided the teams, Americans and Nicaraguans all mixed up. This process took a while, with some thoughtfulness and discussion which was not translated into English for us. I guessed there was an effort to balance the teams, with some mysterious assessment made of our American ability. Indeed, we had two full teams. None of the Americans had gloves. So after three outs each player simply dropped their glove on the field at their position for the other team to pick up and use. The glove at my second base spot was gloriously well used, it flexed precisely like part of my hand, its leather was smooth and worn. This was an excellent baseball glove. It has been many, many years since I played real baseball, but as this glove fit over my hand I heard my heart whisper, “I can play this game!” A lifetime of baseball memories rushed through my mind: the feel of the glove, the grip on a hardball, the polished grain of a wooden bat, pick up teams, sweat and dust, grimy cap pulled down tight, kick the stones out of the way which may bounce up a hard grounder. Baseball is meant to be played; not watched. Baseball is poetry enacted.

We played fast pitch, regular baseball. The only difference is that each batter got ONE swing, not three strikes and unlimited foul balls; but one swing. “This will be a challenge,” I pondered. David instructed me, “They will pitch easy to you; wait for a good pitch and hit. If you strike, you’re out; if you foul off; you’re out, one swing per batter. Wait for your pitch.” This style made the game real fast, three outs came and went quickly. We settled into a very nice game; I found my rhythm and comfort. The memory of how to play this game came up out of my bones.

I played second base. I handled a few, routine ground balls, making the easy throw to first base. Innings went by quickly. Now we were back in the field, Carlos led off and drilled a hard grounder past the shortstop for a single. Jerry, a small, terrifically strong and always smiling construction worker, was playing shortstop. He yelled over to me; there was no need for translation. I knew instinctually that he said, “Be ready; double play.”

Instincts were correct. The next batter hit a hard ground ball to Jerry at short stop. As soon as I saw its direction, I started my move to cover second base. Jerry fielded the grounder clean and fast, turning to throw to me as I arrived at second base. His throw came hard, fast and perfect. I caught it while in full stride, stepping on the rag that was second base. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Carlos coming down the base line hard. He knew he was dead at second, so he started waving his arms and yelling to disrupt my turn toward first. I ran through second base and well past it to avoid his rush at me, stopped fast, and fired on a string to first base. My throw was also perfect, the first baseman ready and waiting. A cheer went up from all around. Double Play. Baseball glory.

On a Nicaraguan baseball field, of all places, I had this moment of true joy and blessing. Such moments are the stuff of real faith, exhilarating and thrilling and all grace. Why do we adults in America never play pick up baseball anymore? Why do we so seldom run and play, sweat and laugh? Why are our lives so structured and organized and professional? Why do a bunch of people from Derry Presbyterian Church – doctors, professionals, computer geeks, teenagers, executives – want to go to Nicaragua?

After a hot day building a concrete block house, while standing on a Nicaraguan baseball field I received a glimpse of an answer. We are called back to something deeper and more meaningful. We are called back to something that we often lose in our sophisticated, air-conditioned, sanitized, modern lives. We are called back to the dirt where we learn again the basic truth of all truth. We are not as good and proper as we think. The dirt makes us clean. We are called back again to the joy of life itself revealed, maybe, in a game of pick up baseball or the quiet contentment of helping to lay the block for a new home for a quiet, deserving family. We are called back again to a deeper joy by the boisterous fun of men who can laugh together while laboring for a weekly wage that would not buy a round of drinks in our town. We are pulled back again into a deeper respect for others by the dignity of the women who sweep the dirt outside their shacks, and hang their crisp, hand-scrubbed, clean clothes on barbed-wire clothes lines. We are inspired by the faith we see in people who have no reason to have faith. We go to Nicaragua because we need to face the mystery again of seeing people who are happy and content when they have no reason to be, while we are seldom happy and content when we have every reason to be. I learned about Jesus again mixing concrete and playing baseball in the bright Nicaraguan sun. I am very grateful. Thanks be to God.