Baseball Diplomacy

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 16, 2008

MANAGUA, Nicaragua, Nov. 15 -- Cal Ripken Jr. could have guessed it was going to be "a real interesting trip," as he diplomatically put it, when the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua decided it was too dangerous for the baseball Hall of Famer to stay as planned at the Intercontinental hotel in the capital. The night before his arrival, a mob of club-wielding Sandinista supporters had smashed windows at the mall next door, part of ongoing violence here since contested elections.

This wasn't the batting practice that Ripken had in mind when he agreed last year to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department. Instead of an executive suite at the Intercon, Ripken hunkered down at the residence of the U.S. ambassador, Robert Callahan, who is, as Ripken noted, a Cubs fan.

But since he arrived Thursday night, the retired Oriole shortstop has adhered to his famous work ethic as baseball's "Iron Man," spending hours in the sun in weedy ballfields with 10-year-old Nicaraguan Little Leaguers, even as this impoverished Central American country struggles to deal with the chaotic aftermath of elections marked by accusations of widespread fraud on the part of President Daniel Ortega's Sandinista government.

Known for the focus and discipline that helped him smash Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played, Ripken is trying to steer clear of the politics that swirl around his visit. Sometimes it isn't easy.

Ripken is accompanied on his trip by former teammate Dennis Martinez, the first Nicaraguan to play major league baseball and one of only 17 players to pitch a perfect game. Martinez was known during his 23-year professional career as "El Presidente."

Martinez is treated like a sports god in his home country, where the national stadium in Managua is named in his honor. "In Nicaragua, it's like traveling with Elvis," Ripken said.

"Cal should be on the front page of the newspaper," Martinez said of Ripken's visit. He is instead on the front of the sports pages of the country's dailies. "This should be the most exciting thing in Nicaragua right now," Martinez said. "Not all this other stuff."

All this other stuff is the Nicaraguan municipal elections held last Sunday, when voters cast ballots for 146 mayors around the country. The elections were widely seen as a referendum on the government of Ortega, the former Marxist-Leninist leader of the Nicaraguan revolution and former president, who returned to power in 2006 vowing to be a flexible, pragmatic leader.

According to the still incomplete vote count, the Sandinista National Liberation Front has won most of the mayoral races, including the main prize of Managua, where the former world champion boxer Alexis Arguello was declared victor. But opponents have charged massive elections fraud, and they have been given support by the Catholic Church and business groups here, as well as European countries and the Bush administration.

State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood cited reports of "widespread irregularity" and added, "We also note that political conditions that existed during the campaign were not conducive to free and fair elections." Breaking with a tradition begun in 1990, the Sandinistas did not allow independent observers at the polling stations.

So when Ripken arrived Thursday, the atmosphere in the capital was tense. The city's current mayor warned of "anarchy" in the streets, where groups of Sandinistas and their opponents threw rocks at each other at several traffic circles. A reporter for the Sandinistas' Radio Ya station was beaten and his car burned. Ortega's government accused the U.S. Embassy of trying to destabilize the country.

But at their first news conference, Martinez and Ripken stuck with the theme of the importance of baseball in the lives of young people.

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