Peace Ball | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Peace Ball 

American athletes tour Nicaragua to play some ball and express solidarity with the revolution.

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It is high noon, 97 degrees in Managua, Nicaragua, and Michael James and eight other norteamericanos jog onto a dusty baseball diamond whose outfield grass has burned dull brown under the blazing tropical sun.

By the end of the first inning, James, catching for the U.S. team, looks like he's just gone 15 rounds. His face is bright red, lines of dirt track the sweat as it drips from his nose and chin. His "Irish for Washington" T-shirt is soaked. It is Saint Paddy's day and he looks like he would be more comfortable back home in Chicago swilling green beer.

In the middle of the third inning, James remembers that the Nicaraguan at bat has hit two home runs already. From behind his catcher's mask he asks the Nicaraguan his name. The batter grins and in perfect English says, "Ringer." The Nicaraguans go on to easily defeat the Americans.

Nicaragua's version of the world series is being played this week, and two Managua teams are competing for the title. In the streets and bars here there is a feeling similar to what you would expect if the Cubs and Sox were playing for the championship. In Nicaragua, where most of the budget goes towards fighting the U.S.-sponsored contras, it seems ironic that the national sport should be a North American pastime that arrived with invading U.S. Marines in the 1920s.

After the game, I ask James why he came to Nicaragua. It turns out that he is a longtime activist who got his start with Rising Up Angry, a Chicago street gang cum political organization of the late 60s. He's also cofounder of the Heartland Cafe, the Rogers Park bastion of "natural" food and progressive politics. James is part of a 13-man delegation from Athletes United for Peace (AUP), an international organization that sponsors sports-related trips between the U.S., the Soviet Union, and other countries. Officially the organization came to promote peace. James says he wants to "express my solidarity with the revolution." Unofficially, the delegates say they came to "play some ball."

Two days ago they played a game on a cow pasture 50 miles from the Honduran border, outside of the mountain town of Matagalpa, an area that is often attacked by the contras. One of the Americans said he spent most of his time watching for contras along the ridge a few hundred yards away. Fortunately, the only problems encountered were the ones endemic to cow pastures the world over -- holes in the outfield and piles of shit that await the unwary like land mines.

It is 2:30 PM, today's game is over, and in his hotel room, Sherman White, former defensive end for the Buffalo Bills, has discovered that there is no water coming from the shower. (There is no water in Managua for two days each week.) "Do you know where there is a good hotel?" Sherman asks. I explain that he's already in Managua's finest. It is, after all, Nicaragua, and there are shortages of everything. U.S. embassy officials here quickly point to the shortages as the end product of a Marxist revolution -- an explanation that conveniently ignores the effects of the U.S. economic and material embargo. Blame whomever you will, the result is the same. Sherman will have to go without a shower until tomorrow. At least he has toilet paper.

The next morning finds the American athletes gathered for breakfast at an outdoor restaurant. AUP leader Phil Shinnick and a few others talk about Nicaraguans they've met. One story is about a group of Nicaraguan teenagers with whom they played a game about world politics. The Americans would name a country and the kids would name the capital and whether the country tended to be progressive or reactionary. The only disagreements came over Eastern-bloc countries, which the Nicaraguans tended to describe as progressive. Their verdict on the U.S.: a progressive population with a reactionary government.

Thursday, late afternoon, outside a prison, 20 miles from the Honduran border, Michael James is catching in another U.S.-Nicaraguan ball game, his third in three days. The site is incongruous. Behind third base, an incredible sunset is cascading shafts of light down the rugged mountainsides. You can smell a grass fire burning unattended in deep center field. Along the first-base line, 50 Sandinista soldiers, assault rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders, relax, watching the contest between the AUP and the prison's inmates.

As James signals his pitcher, two military helicopters break over a ridge, flying low enough so that you can see their rockets. Play stops momentarily, and soldiers, prisoners, and Americans stare skyward. Just as quickly as they appeared, the helicopters disappear into the mountains, heading north, toward Honduras. The pitcher delivers, strike three is called, and the AUP has won.

Later, as they are hurried onto a bus by their Nicaraguan guide, one of the Americans wants to know why they are rushing. Patiently, the guide explains about the dangers of contra ambushes on the roads at night.

Careening down the Pan American highway at speeds too fast for comfort, AUP members banter about the helicopters and the prisoners. A Jimmy Cliff tune comes on the stereo and everyone falls silent while Cliff sings, "Many Rivers to Cross" and the Americans think private thoughts about the U.S., Nicaragua, and -- some tell me later -- their fear that Nicaragua will become another Vietnam.

At a press conference in Managua on the final day of their visit, AUP members read a statement calling for more exchange programs between U.S. and Nicaraguan athletes. Nicaraguans have seen a lot of war and death in the last decade. The 1979 revolution cost 50,000 lives; another 35,000 have died fighting the contras. They are cynical about Shinnick's remarks that the strengthening of relations between U.S. and Nicaraguan athletes will lead to a day when "military fatigues can be converted to team uniforms, combat boots to baseball mitts, and bayonets to javelins."

After the press conference Michael James, Phil Shinnick, and other AUP members wonder aloud if maybe they should have taken a stronger stance against U.S. policy toward Nicaragua. When the U.S. government is sending money to the contras to overthrow their government, it must be baffling to the Nicaraguans to see Americans come to play ball and speak of peace.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Steiger.

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