||Last Updated: Aug 8th, 2011 - 15:16:05
Ecuadorian Béisbol is published in
Volume Two: The Americas; Gather The Fruit One By One -
50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories;
a four-part series of personal stories by Peace Corps Volunteers.
By April the rainy season is over in Ecuador, and children are in school again. Soon the baseball season will begin, and La Comisión de Béisbol appears serious about reviving youth baseball in Guayaquil, the country’s largest city. To my surprise, they secure uniforms and equipment for four teams, ages fourteen and younger. El Universo and Radio Crystal promote the new Liga Infantil, and on a beautiful Saturday morning the leftfield bleachers are filled with boys eager to play.
There are men present that I don’t know, some of whom played baseball in Guayaquil during an earlier era. Even another foreign coach is there. Eufemio is from the Dominican Republic. I am from Norwood, North Carolina. A year ago I was co-captain of the North Carolina State 1963 Wolfpack team. I’m now a Peace Corps Volunteer.
After a brief try-out period, La Comisión de Béisbol selects the teams and announces the coaches. I’m stunned to learn that I am not among them.
What’s going on? Am I not the best baseball coach in Ecuador? El Universo suggests as much in article after article. Compounding my confusion, no one in the stadium speaks English, except me. And, my Spanish fluency is narrow.
Motioning to centerfield, Señor Sáenz, the president of La Comisión de Béisbol, gathers the boys not selected and says to me, “Let’s take these boys out there to play.” Now I get it. They want me to coach the boys no one else wants.
Señor Sáenz calls to the stadium keeper, “Juan, where are the balls and bats Enrique delivered yesterday?”
“In the clubhouse, boss.”
“Bueno, bring them here.” We walk to deep centerfield, and Juan arrives with the balls and bats. They’re homemade – short bats turned from lightweight wood and hand-stitched balls, soft enough to catch barehanded – perfect for these boys who’ve never touched a baseball before.
We begin tossing and catching, and Señor Sáenz returns to the infield. I show them how to throw the ball overhanded, catch with their hands formed like a basket, and hold and swing the bat properly. Fly balls require more attention. I develop a technique for catching them – palms up, hands touching with fingers spread apart. And I demonstrate, over and again. As the ball arrives, lower your hands and body, and bend your knees, reducing the chance the ball will bounce from your grasp.
The eight young boys pay close attention and learn quickly, and I begin to experience that wondrous feeling a teacher gets when a student masters a subject hitherto a mystery. When practice is over I ask, “Do you want to play again next Saturday?”
“Sí! Sí!” they reply.
Delighted with their enthusiasm, I say, “Then bring a friend with you. It takes more players than this for a game.”
These boys remind me of a childhood disappointment of my own. One day I overheard some of my older friends discussing a try-out for a ball team. Fourth graders were not invited. I was too young, but that did not deter me: I went there anyway, mitt and mask in hand. I knew I could play ball as well as any fifth- or sixth-grade boy, better than most. To my disappointment I didn’t get to try-out. With tears in my eyes, I walked home from the ballpark that Saturday morning. My parents must have noticed. The following season there was a three-team league in our little two-stoplight town, and I played second base for the Reds.
The next Saturday morning I’m thrilled to find thirty boys waiting for me at the stadium, enough for four teams. The weather is beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. It’s this way from April to mid-December, year after year, perfect baseball weather. Guayaquil, a bustling port city, is located just two degrees south of the equator and fifty miles upriver from the Pacific. Farther east, but not visible from Guayaquil, the Andes dominate the landscape with brilliant snow-covered peaks.
We practice for awhile and then I align the boys by height and count-off by fours, hoping this will yield relatively even-strength teams. They each take names – Los Gatos and Ratones, Las Cobras and Mangosta – the Cats and Mice, Cobras and Mongoose.
I appoint the tallest boy on each team as el capitán for the day, and he assigns positions to his teammates. Each week new captains will be named, extending the privilege eventually to all. To further simplify game-day organization, a pre-fixed batting order is established. The first baseman always bats first, second baseman second, shortstop third – the easier to remember the batting order. No written line-up is required; I record runs on the ground with a length of caña – a bamboo strip.
As the first game is played, the other two teams watch patiently, waiting their turn. I know I must do the pitching. Let the batter swing until he hits the ball. No strike outs, no walks. For smaller boys I pitch from closer range. I pitch underhanded, when needed, until the batter can hit an over-handed pitch.
Another rule I decide to break concerns substitutions. Everyone on a team is entered in the batting order and everyone plays in the field. If a child comes to play, he gets to play.
Some of the boys hit the ball immediately. Others have trouble getting their bat on the ball. Miguel is among the latter. After a series of missed swings, I notice a frown. I approach Miguel and say, “Try to see the ball bounce off your bat. That’s impossible to do; no one can do it. Yet, the longer you watch the ball, the better chance you have of hitting it solid. Do you understand?”
“Sí,” Miguel replies. He swings again and comes nearer to the ball.
“Bien,” I say. “That’s better, but swing harder. And keep your eye on the ball.” Miguel connects with the next pitch and races to first base, his teammates cheering and jumping up and down. Safe, a base hit. A smile as bright as the Ecuadorian sunrise appears on his face, and on mine too. “Que bueno!” I roar, loud enough to be heard throughout the park.
On another Saturday little Alonzo kicks at a pebble and says beneath his breath, “No! Not Carlos. He’ll make an out.”
I stop the game and gather everyone around to talk about sportsmanship. “Listen,” I tell them. “We are here to have fun, and everyone gets to play. Putting down another player has no place here. Encourage each other, don’t tear down each other.”
I beckon to Alonzo and we walk a few paces away. Bending to one knee and looking him in the eye, I choose my words as best I can, “Do you understand why I stopped the game?”
“Sí,” he looks down. “I should not have said that about Carlos.” Then, returning his eyes to mine, “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. I promise.”
“Bien. I didn’t think you would,” I reply. “Now, let me tell you what’s going to happen. There’s a penalty for poor sportsmanship. I don’t like doing this, but I must. It’s important that you and everyone else know this rule. The penalty is: You lose your next turn at bat. Do you understand?”
“Sí,” Alonzo answers, putting forth a brave face, no tears, no pleas for leniency. He’s such a tender boy, not more than twelve years old, but he looks younger. All Ecuadorian children look younger than their age. I’m sure he wants to cry.
“Bueno.” We turn back to face the others and I announce, “Play ball.” I pat Alonzo on the back as he returns to his teammates, and I to pitch to Carlos. Some of the boys may be confused, not having heard Alonzo’s comment, but it will become clear to them when Alonzo forfeits his next turn at bat. I’m confident I’ll not have to impose this penalty again.
Little Carlos doesn’t hit the ball hard, but he runs like crazy, his hustle making up for his small stature. Who knows? One day Alonzo may be pleased to have little Carlos as his teammate and friend.
Within a few weeks our league grows to six teams. Week-by-week more boys arrive, many walking great distances to the ballpark, some barefooted, others in shoes molded from injected plastic, no socks. We continue forming new teams, playing our games in deep centerfield, as the older boys play on the regulation diamond. By the end of the season our league contains fourteen teams, and Pepe, a new Peace Corps arrival, helps with the coaching. Later Pepe informs our Peace Corps Director, “I want to coach Les’s league next year.” I’m happy to know this. My two years in the Peace Corps will end before the next baseball season.
Prior to my departure Pepe asks, “Tell me, Les, what is the secret of your league’s success?”
I think for moment, careful to get it right. “We are talking about beginners, right?” Pepe nods agreement. “Let’s see. One, have the same adult pitch to both teams, and forget about strikes and walks. Two, never allow grow-ups to compete with each other as coaches. And three, insist on good sportsmanship.”
“That’s about it,” I conclude. “Follow this and you’ll be fine. Keep it simple. Keep it fun.”
Then, before our discussion drifts elsewhere, I add, “There’s one thing more. Let ‘em all play.”