The Politics of Baseball in Nicaragua

“I don’t know a lot about politics, but I know a lot about baseball.” – Richard Nixon

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By JM

It was a bit early. I had planned it that way. If we got it right, we would be able to get in line for decent tickets and catch the tail end of batting practice. My page one search results that day had taught me baseball was important in Nicaragua and there was a game at 7 pm in the capital city of Managua. As we left the hotel, I was excited to chat with the taxi driver about his favorite local team and what players stood a chance of standing out in front of American scouts. As he dropped us off in front of the Dennis Martinez national stadium, he offered to pick us up after the game in exchange for a play-by-play. We smiled, agreed and told him we’d see him in a bit. 

 

An hour away from the first pitch we were the first in line at the ticket window. Thinking the eager fans were already grabbing their first beers and taking their places, I asked for the best two seats available. The clerk punched a few keys, winked and handed us a receipt for ten dollars. He pointed around the corner to the gate.

“Thinking the eager fans were already grabbing their first beers and taking their places, I asked for the best two seats available. The clerk punched a few keys, winked and handed us a receipt for ten dollars.”

Baseball’s saturation into the fabric of Nicaraguan culture was a product of American export. While the United States’ military occupation in the early 1900’s trained soldiers and planted seeds for a century of socio-political conflict, it also laid infrastructure and built skills for the first generation of Nicaraguan baseball players. 

 

The country followed a predictable 20th century Latin American journey of foreign influence, local rebellion, strong-man rule and political destabilization. Baseball was both a product and casualty of this ebb and flow. Viewed as a living remnant of American influence, professional baseball officially ended in 1967 but remained a consistent thread of Nicaraguan culture producing dozen major leaguers.

It was the second baseball game I had attended in twelve years. The first game was two months earlier in New York…forty dollars for the left field upper stratosphere of Yankee Stadium. Having started to make peace with a game that had defined fifteen of my thirty four years, I was excited to sit down for nine innings in an atmosphere far from the 8 year olds’ travel soccer and Friday night lights of American sports culture. Rounding the corner from the ticket window to the entrance there was a handful of scattered fans milling around in front of the gate. After a few minutes, and sensing my eagerness to get into the stadium, the attendant glanced quickly at our paper stubs and let us through.  

Serving as the national stadium and named for the first and best Nicaraguan Major League player, the 15,000 seat park was immaculate. Fifty minutes before the first pitch it was also empty. Completely empty.

Born into a working class family Daniel Ortega became politically active as an eighteen year old. Joining the Sandinista movement in 1963, he was opposed to the conservative President who was both supported by the US and widely considered a dictator across Nicaragua. In 1979, after nearly twenty years of chipping away, the Sandinista’s – led by Ortega – overthrew the political dynasty that had been churning since the 1920’s.

He offered initial hope to many. The extreme concentration of wealth and conservative flavor over the previous five decades had nurtured support for communist reforms among many Nicaraguans. Over the coming years, Ortega would lead initiatives across the country that were grounded in Marxist-Lenist philosophy. After a troubled decade marked by unhelpful US attention, Ortega lost the presidency in 1990.

We made our way to our seats. First row, in arms reach of the first base home dugout. After fifteen minutes of marveling at the beauty of the stadium and speculating whether I got the game time wrong, a groundskeeper appeared and began the usual pre-game work of raking and watering the infield dirt. Quietly a player emerged from the locker room a few feet away and walked over to another on the opposing team. Obvious friends. More groundskeepers, slowly laying the white chalk of the infield foul lines. A coach, scratching away on his lineup, looking out at the field of imaginary players. Four home team players walking out and beginning to throw in right field. The crisp thwack of a ball being caught.  A soft “clack-clack” followed by a growing light brightening left field. Another and another. 

As more players came out of the dugout, more signs of life appeared across the field. In the stadium a few scattered fans began to take their seats not yet outnumbering the attendants and concession vendors. Game time neared and the contours of a Tuesday night minor league game on a beautiful early summer evening took shape. We bought beers and took our seats.

In the stadium a few scattered fans began to take their seats not yet outnumbering the attendants and concession vendors.

Ortega regained power in 2006 after a tenuous lesson in political patience and a strategic softening of some policies. Following the model of many imperfect leaders in imperfect governments he succeeded in extending his leadership past the bounds of previous legal constraints. It worked for a few years. A simmering mix of economic anxiety, social frustration and questionable elections however came to a head on April 18, 2018. 

Protests began in the capital city of Managua over a proposed reduction in social security benefits for the elderly and students. One city protest turned to six. In response to the citizen protests, the government’s rubber bullets turned to lead. Twenty-six people were killed. Independent media was censored. Social media unveiled what was hidden.

Over the months that followed estimates of deaths in the responses and counter-responses to the citizen protests range from 300-500. On May 30, during a Mother’s Day march for the victims of violence, 15 people were killed and 200 injured with Amnesty International reporting on a shoot to kill policy issued by the Ortega government.

“It was great fun but it was empty.” we said, as we said stepped into the car after the game. 

“I know.” he said, as we put on our seat belts. “They say it was where government snipers sat and shot protesters during the demonstrations.” Our hearts sank. 

Over the 20 minutes that followed our Taxi driver turned professor, explained the delicate recent history of a country that recovering from months of protests that left hundreds dead and countless injured. Silent protest was the only weapon remaining. Despite the immense cultural pull of baseball for Nicaraguans, the government’s heavy investment in the national stadium and the symbol of death that it provided from the 2018 protests was a strong enough motivation to listen to the game on the radio instead of in person. 

It was a lesson in humility. Though it was one of many wikipedia details in the latest flare of a complex century-long political problem, the stadium, named for one of the country’s heroes,  had been the symbol of repression by the government. 

As we pulled into the hotel, the car was somber. 

“We’re sorry. We didn’t know that people looked at the stadium that way. If we had we would have not gone” we said

“I know” he responded. “The only thing anyone can do is be aware and do what they can.”

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for writing this. Sad reality for a world that that gets sappy during the Olympics and sees sport as an agent and symbol of universal brotherhood.

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