Getting noticed in Nicaragua was already hard enough.
Despite the country’s obsession with the game of baseball, it’s not a popular destination for Major League scouts looking for talent.
It wasn’t always that way. After Dennis Martinez established himself as one of the most durable and successful starting pitchers in baseball in the late 1970s, Nicaragua turned out a string of big league ball players. Tony Chevez in ’77 pitching alongside Martinez in Baltimore. Minnesota’s Al Williams in ’80. Super prospect David Green in ’91. Porfi Altamirano in ’82.
But then it stopped. Continuous political upheaval and civil war made the country too dangerous for scouts to visit. Baseball was pushed to the side by the daily struggles of a war-torn nation. Nicaragua didn’t produce another Major Leaguer for over a decade.
The country and the game slowly rebuilt themselves after the war and with time Nicaragua again became a destination for scouts. Marvin Benard became a mainstay with the San Francisco Giants. Vicente Padilla established himself as an All-Star with the Phillies. So did Everth Cabrera with the Padres. Erasmo Ramirez and J.C. Ramirez became bullpen mainstays for the Mariners and Angels.
Right when the country had begun to establish itself again as a legitimate producer of baseball talent, war struck again in April 2018, driving scouts out of the country and stopping Nicaragua’s momentum in the game cold.
Johnny Alvarez, a pitching coach from the coastal town of Rivas, quickly found himself in a tough situation. Baseball is his profession. The rosquillas, small clay-like cookies his family makes in an oven in their backyard, weren’t going to pay the bills. He had bet it all on the game of baseball, walking away from a job at Dennis Martinez’s academy a few years back to open his own baseball academy, Working For A Dream, to help train and prepare local youth for (fingers crossed!) Major League careers.
It had been difficult from the start. His only provider of equipment was Helping Kids Round First. On his own, he found it difficult to convince scouts to come look at his players. If scouts weren’t interested in signing his players, he’d have no revenue to keep the academy running or the lights on in his home.
With time and training, he started to put his academy on the map. In 2017, the Boston Red Sox signed one of his pitchers, Nixson Munoz. Soon after, multiple teams were calling to see if he had other talented young players. He did.
But, when the fighting broke out in 2018, the calls stopped coming. Worse, scouts stopped picking up the phone. Nicaragua was just too dangerous for a trip to check out a teenage baseball player to be worth it.
“The war made it hard,” Johnny said from his home in Rivas. “The baseball fields, the facilities, it was all closed. The scouts wouldn’t come to Nicaragua.”
Prior to the fighting beginning, multiple big league teams had expressed interest in two pitchers at his academy, Christopher Osorio and Martin Zamora. Knowing that Major League teams quickly lose interest in players as they get farther from their sixteenth birthday (the age at which they can first sign) and with no end in sight to the conflict in his country, Johnny knew he couldn’t wait out the war if he was going to help his players get signed.
There were no upcoming try outs planned in Nicaragua. But, one was scheduled in Cartagena, Colombia at the academy of former Red Sox infielder Orlando Cabrera. If Johnny could get them there, they’d have a chance.
“I had to find a way to take them to the showcase in Colombia,” Johnny said. “Helping Kids Round First’s help was very important, helping us get there and helping feed Christopher and Martin on the trip.”
Helping Kids Round First helped arrange for Johnny and the two young players to travel to Colombia. Once there, they found a full baseball field, over 100 kids trying to catch the eye of the scouts in attendance. Divided into four teams, they scrimmaged for four days.
In one of the games, Christopher caught the eye of the Colorado Rockies, who liked his hard fastball (88-90 miles per hour) and his mature frame (6’0”, nearly 200 pounds). They approached Johnny while Christopher pitched and offered a contract.
The following day, Martin took the mound. He pitched so well that Johnny quickly had a line of scouts waiting to talk to him. The Yankees. The Brewers. The Pirates. The Rockies. The Mariners. The Red Sox.
Having worked out a contract for Christopher already with the Rockies, Johnny knew he could trust the team’s scout, a trait sometimes rare in baseball’s unregulated international signing landscape. The idea of staying teammates and having each other for support when they left their families and homes behind to begin their professional career was comforting, and Martin and Johnny chose the Rockies offer.
“They were so excited!” Johnny said about the players’ reactions to signing their contracts. “They called home right away to share the news.”
News of the signings spread quickly in Nicaragua’s baseball circles, leading more ballplayers to reach out to Johnny for his help pursuing their baseball dreams despite the ongoing conflict in the country.
“I’ve got many kids now wanting to be a part of my academy. I’m excited to continue to work to help bring more opportunity to young players in my country. In tough times like these, the game can bring so much joy. Thank you, Helping Kids Round First!”
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