Leo W. Banks
    The Wall Street Journal




    The politicization of baseball under the Sandinistas has been dramatic. The current season began with the soldier who shot down the plane carrying Eugene Hasenfus throwing out the first ball. He did so in Managua’s national Stadium. Even team names in the Nicaraguan major league have political significance. One is called the Dantos, after a rebel hero, and another is named Southern Front to commemorate guerrilla insurrections in the South.

    When public officials talk about the sport it is usually in the context of the revolution. Vice President Sergio Ramirez, a fan and a writer who has used baseball in his short stories, calls it “the sport of the people,” and says baseball’s role in society is to unify the population and generate pride in the country. “There is a political cult for baseball in this country and the best players are our national heroes,” he says. “Baseball is so important to the people that even in moments of economic crisis we couldn’t fail to recognize that one of our priorities after the triumph of the revolution was to rebuild the national stadium.”

    At the Dantos factory, making baseballs is considered a patriotic mission. Nicaraguan baseballs used to be imported from the States; this factory was established by order of the Defense Ministry to change that. “The game is more our own property now,” says Carlos Cuadra, baseball director of the Nicaraguan Sports Institute. We use to import all the materials we needed for the game and this was one more example of our economic dependence. The factory is a symbol of the new Nicaragua.”

    But the Sandinistas control more than the means of ball production. They control the lives of the players as well. Teams that were once privately owned are now under the thumb of the Sports Institute, which does everything from collecting gate receipts and determining player salaries, to deciding when injured players can return to the lineup and even limiting the number of innings pitchers can work.

    Theoretically, it ends the exploitation of pitchers that occurred under the old system. But there is more. The Institute expects and demands that players support the revolution, even to the extent of showing up in uniform at political rallies and waving carbines over their heads. Because most teams are run by Sandinista commandantes, not attending could have serious consequences, such as being bumped from the starting lineup or not being chosen for the prestigious national all-star team that represents the country in international tournaments.

    Correct politics has not fostered good ball. The quality of play is declining. According to Mr. Cuadra, the problem is American aggression, which has forced the government to draft players for the Army. “We can’t begin to guess how many potential stars have died from this aggression, or how many future stars will die,” he says.

    In spite of mediocre play, Nicaragua still produces stars with big-league potential, but the Sandinistas do not allow players to pursue professional careers in the U.S. In March 1983, Brant Alyea, son of a former U.S. big leaguer and one of the Nicaragua’s best prospects, left the country and signed with a farm team of the Toronto Blue Jays. But Alyea, did not leave as a free man. He was sneaked out by scout Eppy Guerrero, who posed as a Sandinista and bribed immigration officials at the airport. Within hours, Bayardo Arce, Sandinista political director, denounced him as a traitor to the revolution.

    After a U.S. reporter spent a day at the ballpark with Nemesio Porras, a young first baseman for Managua’s Boer Indians, a Sandinista sportswriter went on his radio talk show the following morning to announce that Porras was about to be snatched from the country.

    “Alert! Alert!” he said. “It seems someone is in town looking into Nemesio Porras. He has been talking to everyone, even his family… He’s come to Managua wearing the mask of a journalist, but don’t believe it. He’s a scout and he’s come to take Nemesio from us… It’s the same thing that happened with Brant Alyea. They started talking to him and he disappeared… But Nemesio isn’t going to work out for you. He can’t play the outfield in the big leagues because his arm is bad and he can’t play first base because he’s practically a dwarf …”

    This comic diatribe followed months of adoring coverage during which Porras was described as the league’s rising star. Being seen in the company of an American reporter (not a scout) changed that very quickly.

    It is tragic that the dreams of talented ballplayers are held hostage by revolutionary ideology. These are not players who necessarily dislike the Sandinistas. For the most part they are indifferent to politics and simply want better lives. Here is what Eustace Martin, a second baseman for the Boers, says about his life:

    “If I got the chance to play in the States I’d go. I want to build a house for my family. You work for one year in the States and you can do much for your family in Nicaragua. Here you work five years and you have nothing. Maybe with the right training, food and vitamins, I could be something. I think I could play like the Yankees’ Rickey Henderson.”

    Who knows, maybe Martin is right. But his dream is being decided for him.