Baseball Diplomacy
Amid Post-Election Violence, Hall of Famer Ripken Cultivates a Field of Dreams for Nicaraguan Children

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.

"Let's forget what is happening out there and celebrate this," Martinez said. None of the questions from the Nicaraguan media touched on politics. Instead, the dean of Nicaraguan baseball reporters, Edgar Tijerino, set the tone when he asked Ripken to remember his 444th game, when he injured his ankle and kept playing. Did he have Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games in mind?

Ripken, who spoke in English, began by saying, "At moments like this, I wish I had paid more attention in Spanish class." His mission here, he said, "is to share, to be nice, to show people we can be together and have fun. And to spread maybe a little goodwill through baseball."

In an interview afterward, Tijerino said, "with so much polarization in our politics now," the Ripken visit "will help maybe a little, but not much. Even Babe Ruth, if he returned from the grave, couldn't divert us from our political situation."

At a cocktail reception for Ripken at the ambassador's residence Thursday night, Ripken talked baseball with his guests while five feet away, a former comandante and now economic adviser for the Sandinistas, Bayardo Arce, and a leader of the opposition in the national assembly and former contra commander, Maximinio Rodríguez, argued election results.

But it is also telling that both men were there to meet Ripken. "Cal Ripken is here to help run baseball clinics for our youth, and I support that effort," Arce said. Nicaragua, like Cuba and the Dominican Republic, is obsessed with baseball. There is a baseball diamond at the Ortega compound, which doubles as the presidential offices and Sandinista party headquarters. Young people play in fields and vacant lots. According to the Nica Times, 89,000 players are registered throughout the country, from youth leagues to professional ball.

On Friday, Ripken and Martinez traveled to the city of Granada, where they spent the morning in the sun, first teaching batting and pitching techniques to coaches, and then working with children from poor neighborhoods. Ripken pitched foam balls to 6-year-olds and awarded them extra points if they could hit him. They scored repeatedly. "How do you say 'extra points' and 'bald head'?" he asked his interpreter.

In the afternoon, the two men worked with 9- to 13-year-olds, who used real balls and swung aluminum bats. "How do you say 'Be careful'?" he asked.

While the TV crews and photographers following Ripken around retreated into the shade of a tent, Ripken kept at the drills all afternoon, way out in left field. "Excellent, nice, great," he kept saying. "Watch this kid swing!" Mario Chávez, 11, said he had never heard of Cal Ripken until Friday, but appeared impressed. "I think he is a great teacher," Chávez said.

At the end of the day, Ripken and Martinez toured the rural slum where many of the children he coached that day lived. The streets were rutted dirt, running with scummy water; the homes were improvised shacks. Some of children are so poor, they had never ridden in a bus before their trip to the Granada ball stadium. "So we brought extra trash bags," said Kathy Adams, founder of Empowerment International, which tutors the children. "They all got motion sickness."

The young players gave Ripken a baseball they had signed. He said he was honored to have played ball with them. "Stay in school," he told them. "Keep playing baseball."

Later, in the van driving back to Managua, with a police escort waving the traffic away, Ripken and Martinez cracked a cold beer. Asked his thoughts on the day, Ripken said: "There were some pretty good ball players. There were some kids with talent. You could see the enthusiasm for the game. How do you keep that going?"

He couldn't really solve that problem.

But Abraham Lowenthal, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California who was in Managua on Saturday meeting with officials and talking about the elections, was upbeat about the power of baseball diplomacy.

"It is a way to show shared interests even when the politics are very complicated and very hostile," he said. "Can it help? To have a ballplayer come and throw a few balls with kids? It couldn't hurt."

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