Standing in front of a mud-brick house, we exchanged pleasantries as best we could in our broken Spanish, our families were well and we were glad to be there, before getting down to business and posing the same question as always.
What do you need?
It's a near-foolish question, given that the community we stood in was one of the poorest in Nicaragua, way up north in the Somoto region where the only thing more profound than the natural beauty is the depth of the poverty. Where a dollar-a-day makes you wealthy. Where the floors are dirt and the houses are too. Long past where the power lines stopped reaching. Where the farmers aren't paid money for their labor, instead they're allowed to take home some of the rice and beans they grow for their families.
There was a murmur among the crowd, a collection of the local farming families, most Honduran refugees who had banded together to try to grow food together, before a woman stepped forward. Her son, no older than six, clung to her legs.
I had to double check with our translator to make sure I'd understood correctly. We had visited the village to try to find out why their well was spitting out nothing but mud, leaving them without water to drink or to grow crops, and to diagnose the illness that was rapidly killing the chickens that provided one of the only sources of protein in their diets. Socks seemed like a rather nominal ask, all things considered.
"Tell them what you did," she said, pushing her son in front of her while casting the I'm-not-angry-I'm-disappointed look that only mothers own.
"I'm sorry," the boy said, his head down. "I put rocks in all the socks you brought last time and made them into baseballs."
I couldn't help but smile. Despite the overwhelming poverty he was growing up in--Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere and nearly half of its citizens live on less than a dollar a day--the kid just wanted to play ball.
The good thing, the non-profit I was traveling with, Helping Kids Round First, would be able to help the village fix their well and would provide medicine to keep the chicken flock healthy. While a minimal contribution, I'd be able to help the boy upgrade from the rolled-up sock baseballs he was playing with thanks to the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
At the end of the 2019 season, a thrilling first year as a Minnesota Twins affiliate, the team came together for one final community service project.
As the Blue Wahoos players packed up their belongings to head home for the off-season, they filled box after box with equipment--bats, balls, cleats, gloves, catcher's gear, tennis shoes, and, yes, socks--to be donated.
From there, their equipment was packed into suitcases and lugged through a series of connecting flights before barely escaping scrupulous customs agents in the Managua airport who wondered why I had two dozen pairs of brand name cleats in my luggage. Then it was loaded into a truck and driven down dirt roads across Nicaragua to be given out to children in one of the poorest regions of the world.
While the athletic socks the team had donated, the same royal blue knee-highs the Wahoos wear on the field, would be comically large on the boy, the stack of Southern League baseballs I had stuffed into my suitcase would at least save the pair on his feet from being rolled up and turned into a ball.
Helping Kids Round First's work in Nicaragua started accidentally over 30 years ago. The non-profit's founder, Craig Severtson, had traveled to the country in the midst of its civil war, a decades-long, brutal conflict between the government and the people that left over 50,000 dead. In an act of peaceful opposition to the fighting, Craig joined local families in their fields, picking crops and doing basic handiwork, helping families get through day-by-day while husbands and fathers fought in the conflict.
Friendly chatter in the fields turned to talk of baseball despite the sound of gunfire in the distance. After hearing that Craig was a ballplayer, the local farmers quickly scheduled a game between the American volunteers and local Nicaraguans.
When word got out that there would be a ballgame, a ceasefire was called. The men were called off the battle field and onto the baseball field. The same soldiers they were fighting against, armed with rifles, circled the field to provide protection.
For nine innings, the war stopped.
The community had just one ragged ball and one chipped wood bat. Every time a foul ball was hit, the game paused until the baseball could be tracked down and returned to the field. The fielders on both teams shared gloves, leaving them at their defensive position at the end of each inning. Livestock roamed freely in the outfield.
When he returned to the United States, Craig vowed he would return to the village with new baseball equipment. If the game was powerful enough to pause a war, the least he could do was bring them new bats and balls and gloves.
So he did. Carrying a single suitcase filled with gear, he returned to the community. The response was so strong, the people so grateful, that he did it again at the next community over. And again. And again. And again. Soon, he needed to bring friends along to help carry all the suitcases of baseball equipment.
Three decades later, the non-profit now brings over 20,000 pounds of baseball equipment annually to Nicaragua.
While providing baseball gear is a worthwhile project, the game has more importantly provided a foot-in-the-door for more significant aid. On each return trip, Craig made a habit of asking the same question, "What do you need?", while handing out baseballs and gloves. The answers have always varied.
In the oppressively hot and arid northern regions of Nicaragua, extended drought had made it nearly impossible to grow enough food to survive. Kids can't play ball if they're starving. Helping Kids Round First began digging wells, providing water tanks and solar panels to power irrigation, bringing fertilizer and chickens, and now helps feed thousands daily.
In the eastern autonomous regions of the country, rough jungle roads make healthcare almost completely inaccessible, leaving rural families with five-plus hour treks to the nearest hospital with functioning equipment. Kids can't play ball if they're sick. Helping Kids Round First now ships two containers of medical equipment for every shipment of baseball equipment, bringing hospital necessities like X-Ray machines, fetal heart monitors, and electric hospital beds to clinics across the country.
The projects have become numerous. Scholarships for students who otherwise couldn't afford to go to college. Health fairs in rural communities where women have never had access to a female doctor before. Daycares that provide quality education and allow single mothers to hold steady employment. Nursing homes that provide safe quarters to homeless elderly. Softball equipment to give young girls the same access to sports that boys enjoy. Each community's needs have been different and each solution started with the simple act of bringing a ball and a bat to a kid who previously didn't have one.
The equipment donated by the Blue Wahoos will end up in communities across Nicaragua, but the majority of the first shipment, what I carried in a pair of stuffed duffel bags, found a home at a small baseball academy in the city of Rivas, nestled alongside Lake Nicaragua in the southern stretches of the country.
Prior to the war, Nicaragua had seemed destined to join the Dominican Republic and Cuba as one of the baseball greats in Latin America. Dennis "El Presidente" Martinez had become the country's first big leaguer in 1976 and quickly established himself as a bona fide ace. Tony Chevez reached the majors a year later as one of the league's top pitching prospects. Albert Williams and Porfi Altimirano became bullpen mainstays for the Twins and Phillies, respectively. David Green, a prospect so lauded that he was compared to Willie Mays and dubbed "the next Roberto Clemente, left scouts from every big league team scrambling to book flights to Nicaragua to look for the next superstar.
The war stopped all that. The country quickly became too dangerous, the political situation too tenuous for Major League teams to have a presence, and the scouts fled the country as quickly as they'd come.
It wasn't until the late 1990s that enough peace prevailed for teams to return to Nicaragua. The country produced a pair of stars, Marvin Benard of the Giants and Vicente Padilla of the Phillies, as the 2000s approached, but the war had left the country so ravaged that growth both financially and in the game was dreadfully slow.
Finally, in the 2010s, Nicaragua finally seemed ready to truly establish itself as a baseball powerhouse. Everth Cabrera electrified as an All-Star shortstop for the Padres. Erasmo Ramirez settled in as a stalwart in the Mariners and Rays rotations. J.C. Ramirez became one of the Angels top relievers. Cheslor Cuthbert won a World Series with the Royals. In the minors, Kevin Gadea (Rays), Roniel Raudes (Red Sox), and Jonathan Loaisiga (Yankees) shot up top prospects lists with the game's best teams. Reporters went as far as to declare that a "Golden Era for Nicaraguan Baseball" had begun.
Unfortunately, history repeats itself. In the '70s and '80s, the good guys had beat the bad guys in the war. Over time, though, the good guys became the bad guys and simmering political tension recently turned again to all-out war, turning the golden age dark almost overnight. As the fighting took over the streets, the economy crashed and scouts again pulled out of the country. Even El Presidente himself shut down his baseball academy, one he'd run for almost two decades after his Major League career ended.
That left Johnny Alvarez, a former collegiate ballplayer turned coach, trying to almost-singlehandedly keep the professional side of baseball alive in his country. A former assistant coach at Martinez's academy, he continued training young prospects, establishing a makeshift academy in his hometown after El Presidente's ceased operations. Helping Kids Round First has remained its sole financier and provider of baseball equipment.
While Alvarez is poor, the young players he trains often come from even humbler backgrounds. In 2016, the first prospect from his academy signed professionally when Nixson Munoz, a left-handed pitcher, inked a contract with the Boston Red Sox.
At the time, we took Nixson to dinner to celebrate. As we all ate, I noticed Nixson had barely touched his food. It wasn't until Johnny's wife leaned over and patiently demonstrated how to cut his meat with a knife and fork that he began to eat. The young man had come from a family so poor he was unsure how to use silverware correctly in a restaurant.
Following dinner, we had proceeded to the parking lot to unload the baseball equipment we'd brought for Johnny's academy. As we carried duffel bags across the parking lot, Nixson stopped me.
"Are there any gloves in the bags?"
"Of course," I answered. "Do you need a new one?"
"Not a new one," He responded. "Any one. I don't have a glove."
The kid was so talented he'd been signed by the Boston Red Sox but didn't even own a baseball glove.
Thanks to the donations from Pensacola players, more kids like Nixson will gain access to the game. The same cleats that raced around the bases at Blue Wahoos Stadium will continue running across dusty fields in Central America. The same gloves that caught fly balls and snagged grounders in front of the Hoosville faithful will soon become the first glove a child owns in Nicaragua. The same Southern League baseballs that were hit in the batting cages underneath the stands in Pensacola will be hit by bats and tree brances and replace rolled-up socks on playing fields a thousand miles away.
Through the generosity of the Blue Wahoos players, the 2019 season will be one that continues to live on for years to come.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!