Johnny’s wife quietly pointed to the knife sitting on the table next to his plate and with a small nod of her head gestured he pick it up, trying not to draw too much attention to the fact that he had no idea how to use it. She picked up her own and turned it over in her hand to show him how to hold it. She delicately held a piece of meat in place with her fork and cut it slowly while he watched intently before trying to do the same with his own meal.
“So, which team would you like to play for?” I asked, trying to break the nervous tension clinging to the 16-year-old boy sitting next to me and steer the conversation back to baseball, the topic we both knew best, the topic that had brought our lives together at a small café diner in Managua, some three thousand miles from my home.
“I’ll play for anyone,” he said quietly, the knife and fork still awkwardly in his hands.
“But if you had a choice, who would you play for?” It was a simple enough question, I thought. I had stared out the window in class as a kid daily, daydreaming of putting on a Minnesota Twins uniform and bouncing across the turf of the Metrodome to strike out the side for my favorite team. Surely he had grown up with similar dreams, the kind that are a universal prerequisite to being a Little Leaguer.
“Anyone. I’ll play for anyone.” There wasn’t desperation in his voice, but something close to it. Beggars can’t be choosers. Beggars don’t have the luxury of picking favorites. I had heard rags to riches baseball stories before, but watching the kid next to me struggle to use a fork and knife, watching him try to decide from all of the choices on the menu with wide-eyes, his first time in an actual restaurant in his life, as we celebrated the start of his career in professional baseball made the poverty in Nicaragua stand out to me again. I had gotten used to it, the dirt roads, the sheet metal houses, the meager meals, over the last few months. They’d just become part of the background of my daily life. Watching the boy try to figure out how to hold a knife and fork, just days away from signing a life-changing contract to play baseball, brought it all back to me.
I watched him out of the corner of my eye as we ate, the boy seemingly not noticing the conversation going on around him, although he was the main subject being discussed, simply focused on the hunk of chicken in front of him and figuring out how to get it from his plate into his mouth without embarrassing himself.
“Boston called and offered 40, but with tryouts with the Yankees and San Francisco next week, I think he’ll get more,” Johnny said, a smile spread across his face. He wasn’t boasting, but there was a well-deserved pride carried in his words. It had been a year since he had quit his coaching job at Nicaragua’s top baseball academy, determined to start his own baseball training ground. It had been a huge risk for his career and his family. There’s no money in Nicaraguan baseball unless your players are signed by Major League teams and getting a scout to notice your ballplayers when you’re at the country’s biggest, most well-connected academy is difficult enough. Doing it solo is nearly impossible. The kid sitting next to me was proof his hard work and faith was going to pay off, both literally and otherwise.
“I want you there,” Johnny said, looking first at Craig and then at myself. “When he signs his contract, I want both of you there. None of this would have happened had you not supported our academy. We’d have no equipment or money without you helping us.”
Doubt isn’t the right word, but at times I had been skeptical of the impact we were making in Nicaragua. Bringing baseball equipment to kids in the third world is a nice project that puts smiles on faces of kids who might otherwise not have all that many reasons to smile, but I had struggled wondering if it was actually changing any lives. Knowing that we had made it possible, in a country where nearly three-fourths of the population lives on under $2 a day, for a kid who had grown up in poverty to sign a contract with a major league team, forever altering his future and his family’s while providing hope to every other kid with a ball and a dream in his community, made every baseball and bat and glove we had handed out matter in my mind in a whole new way
After dinner, we moved outside to the parking lot. The back of our truck was packed full with bags of baseball and softball equipment we intended to distribute to children across the country. We pulled a few duffel bags out of the load that we had packed specifically to donate to Johnny’s academy. I slung one over each shoulder and the young ballplayer whose signing we were celebrating at dinner did the same. As we carried them across the parking lot to Johnny’s car, he turned to me.
“Are there any gloves in the bags?”
“Of course there are. Do you need a new one?” I rifled through one of the bags I was carrying looking for a suitable glove for a future major leaguer.
“Not a new one, any one. I don’t have a glove.”
I stopped and stared. Here was a kid so talented that multiple major league teams were vying for his services as a 16-year-old, yet he was so poor that he had never eaten in a real restaurant before, never learned to use a knife and fork, and never owned his own baseball glove. Through the game of baseball, his life was about to change in ways too dramatic to imagine. In the grand scheme, our equipment donations to Nicaragua wouldn’t change the world for many, but for one, we had helped make all the difference. An inch is a good start when you’re trying to move mountains.
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