In this excerpt from Beyond Baseball: Rounding First, Helping Kids Round First volunteers visit Academia Mimadas Rubilena Rojas for the first time to donate softball equipment to the young women who train there.
“Welcome to the most dangerous neighborhood in Nicaragua!” The man shook our hands, introducing himself as Denis Martinez, 'the catcher, not the pitcher'. “And welcome to the Academia Mimadas Rubilena Rojas, Nicaragua's only softball academy!”
We had originally pulled up in our truck, bags of softball equipment in the back, at one of the saddest ball diamonds I had ever seen. The entire field was dry dirt. No baselines or batters boxes were chalked. Instead of bases, someone had simply sprayed white spray paint in a heap in the general area the bases should be. A wooden board had been dropped where the pitching rubber would have resided. The outfield had no fence.
One girl wearing a jersey with number 15 across the back sat in the cement bleachers behind home plate. Besides her, the field was completely empty.
“You sure this is the right place?” Craig asked Sergio, looking around the empty field. Prior to the trip to Nicaragua, Craig had asked him to try to find softball teams in Nicaragua to donate to. It had proved a challenging task. Women were not typically allowed to participate in athletics in the country, strict gender roles relegating them to domestic activities. Sergio had been tipped to this field by a friend of a friend who thought he had seen a team of girls playing on it, the best tip we had received in Managua.
We were given the full tour, Denis and a female instructor leading, the girls trailing behind, waiting to jump in to demonstrate the different drills and equipment they used for practice. The academy was housed in a warehouse building much like the one we had rented to store our equipment. About fifty feet of spotty green turf lined the floor inside. Surrounding it, mismatching netting was hung and tied together to form a batting cage. Denis showed off the academy with pride. The girls had recently won the Central American Women's Softball Championship, a six-team tournament featuring teams from Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama.
“Most of the girls that come here are very poor. Some are homeless. We do our best to provide for them with the resources we have.” He pointed into a closet-sized room with cement walls. Three cots filled the room. “Some of the girls sleep here at night. We find room if others need a bed.” We stepped into the room to look one at a time. With the cots taking up almost all of the floor space, there simply wasn't room to fit multiple people in the room at once.
“The biggest problem we have is girls coming here hungry. You can't train, practice, or get better if you haven't eaten. We do our best to have food available, even if it's not much.” We poked our heads into an equally small kitchen. Two girls in uniform sat next to a metal pot set over an open flame. A mixture of rice, beans, and chicken simmered inside. “The girls take turns cooking for each other.”
We were led next to the far side of the batting cage. Metal posts with a spiderweb of bungie cords hanging from it held a softball in place at waist height.
“Most of our equipment is homemade. This one I made myself. The cords make the ball come right back in place so you can hit again.” The girl in the number 15 jersey who had met us at the field stepped up to demonstrate. The grey bat in her hands was visibly dented and any logos that had adorned it were long worn off. “Since we don't have very much equipment, we focus on using proper technique and mechanics.”
We were led outside where the academy's top pitcher was getting warm. The bullpen was nothing more than a strip of sidewalk with netting set up at the end to stop wild pitches from escaping. A mannequin with a batting helmet on its head was propped up near where the catcher sat in over-sized catchers gear. The pitcher stood balanced on a two-by-four, propped up so it angled down towards home plate.
“This helps with balance and mechanics. If you don't use proper technique, you'll fall off.” The girl went through her motion, throwing a strike and landing gracefully on the board. Had I ever been required to pitch on a balance beam, I would have ended up in the hospital.
We were shown the academy's lone batting tee next and another contraption Denis had made. “This lets four girls practice at once, since we don't have very much space.” He had taken a piece of orange pipe, about five feet tall, and pounded it into the ground. At the top, four smaller pipes stuck out horizontally like helicopter blades. A thick strip of leather hung from each. He instructed four girls to demonstrate how it was used. They lined up surrounding the machine, each facing one of the strips of leather. In unison, they swung. The strips of leather spun around the pipe after they made contact.
“The one that spins the longest is the winner.” Denis told us as the girls prepared to swing again. “Behind, you can see our weight room.” He gestured beyond his contraption. I tried to see what he was pointing to, but only saw a pile of boulders stacked against the fence surrounding the academy.
“We have rocks of all different weights. It's not much, but it works. We have one more batting machine back by the weight room. I made it by hanging a scuba diving fin from a post. It works well for teaching the girls to swing through the ball.”
As the only softball academy in Nicaragua, this was the best of the best available to women in the country.
We held a small ceremony in the bullpen, the girls crowded in, some sitting on plastic chairs, others standing. Craig talked briefly about the non-profit before focusing on his mission to help give women more opportunity in sports in Nicaragua. He lauded the girls for their dedication to the game despite the adversity, opposition, and poverty they faced each day. Jay and I were pulled up front to present the top hitter and top pitcher from the academy with brand new Spalding gloves.
Denis followed by thanking us profusely for our visit. While he spoke, we were presented with heaping plates of rice, beans, chicken, and tortillas. Only after we had finished eating were we allowed to present the equipment we had brought for the academy. We had six duffle bags full, complete with bats, helmets, catchers gear, shorts, game pants, uniforms, dozens of softballs, and a new glove for each girl. During the ceremony, the girls had formed a polite semi-circle facing Craig, Jay, and me. When we started unpacking the gear, they crowded around us, eager to see their new equipment. I began handing gloves to the girls surrounding me. Every time I handed another glove from the bag, a chorus of thank yous rained on me in both English and Spanish. The girls' ages varied widely, from early teens to early twenties, and they distributed the gloves to their teammates according to size.
Soon the small bullpen area became hazardous as the girls swung new bats, broke in their new gloves playing catch, hit balls off new batting tees, and tested new catching gear. I pulled Denis aside, eager to hear more about the academy and the impact the donated equipment would have.
“This is a very dangerous neighborhood,” he told me. “There is a lot of crime, a lot of drugs, and a lot of abuse here. Without softball, many of these girls would be on the streets. Some were homeless, some were addicted to drugs, most were in broken homes when they came here. Some already have children of their own.” He gestured towards a small toddler running back and forth between the girls, a batting helmet bouncing up and down as she ran, a glove on each of her hands.
“Here, they can have different lives. They have food here. They have a place to sleep here. For many, this is their home, and this is their family. Scholarships are available through sports, so softball gives them an opportunity for an education and a career they could not afford otherwise. We are able to meet their basic needs here and give them the chance to do more with their lives.
“We train the girls physically here to be better athletes and better softball players. But we also focus on training them mentally. Women are not respected here, especially in this neighborhood. Abuse against women is common. We work hard to improve their self-esteem and their confidence. We want to...” Sergio, who had been translating the conversation for me, paused.
“I'm not sure how to say that word in English.” He pulled out his phone to translate the word. “Empower. They want to empower women in this neighborhood.”
“Softball gives hope to other girls in the neighborhood as well,” Denis continued. “Seeing our girls in the stadium, playing just like the men, gives women pride. Young girls in the neighborhood know that there will be opportunity for them to play, to come to the academy, to have a home and a family someday. It's an incentive for them to stay away from the crime and the drugs that are easy to fall into here.
“It truly is a miracle that you found us today.” He had been watching the girls play with their new equipment while he spoke, but he turned now to look me in the eyes. “You see the equipment we have. It is not much. The equipment you brought us today will keep this academy running. When I was younger, I traveled to the United States. I got to watch softball and baseball practices there. I will never forget how much equipment they had. The outfielders had a bucket of balls to take fly balls with. The infielders had a bucket of balls to practice fielding with. The pitchers had their own bucket of balls. The hitters had a bucket of balls. The catchers had a bucket of balls. They had enough bats for everyone to be hitting at once. All the different positions could practice at the same time. Here at the academy, we have one bucket of balls and just a few bats. Only one or two girls can be practicing at a time. This is the first time anyone has donated to our academy, and now we will be able to actually practice.”
Helping Kids Round First has continued to work with and support Academia Mimadas. In addition to equipment and financial support, HKRF has started an English-language academy for the softball players of Mimades to help them pursue college opportunities.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!