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Sandinistas win - on the diamond

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 1987



Managua, Nicaragua

THE ROBOT ran out of power, leaving the Indians in despair and the Red Machinery triumphant. Which is to say that the Sandinista Army baseball team, the Dantos, won the Nicaraguan World Series last week with a 4-3 victory. The season was over. Life here could get back to normal.

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With an impeccable double play, the Dantos snuffed out a last-gasp rally in the ninth inning by Los Indios, as their rival team, El Boer, is nicknamed. The losers' starting pitcher, Alfredo (El Robot) Medina, who had given up only two hits until he lost his grip in the fifth, held his head in his hands.

Though few of the hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguan baseball fans had ever really doubted that the Dantos' overall strength would win them their second championship in three years, the Boers recouped valiantly from every setback during the series. They showed the same doggedness until the final moments of the last game, keeping their fans' hopes alive until the last pitch.

Down 4-2 in the ninth, with one out and Roberto Espino on second, stocky Apolinar Cruz hit a line-drive single to right field, and Mr. Espino made it home comfortably to pull Boer back into the game. Boer fans among the 18,000 spectators let rip with a frenzy of Indian war cries, thumping drums, and bugle blasts, as the Dantos brought on relief pitcher Lu'is Cano to try to save the game.

On the edge of their seats, like everyone else in the stands, were Daniel Ortega Saavedra, Vice-President Sergio Ram'irez Mercado, and Interior Minister Tom'as Borge Mart'inez. Not just as dignitaries, but also as fans, in a country where baseball is the national passion, and major games take precedence over all else.

During the 1985 series, the entire diplomatic and press corps, which had been summoned to hear the government's reaction the day after Washington announced its trade embargo against Nicaragua, waited more than two hours for Vice-President Ram'irez to show up.

It turned out that the penultimate game of the series had stretched to 15 innings. Only when it had been decided could the vice-president tear himself away from the television.

Though the existence of baseball diamonds all over the country was once mistakenly adduced by the United States' State Department as evidence of a strong Cuban presence in Sandinista Nicaragua, the game was actually introduced by the Americans. US Marines occupied Nicaragua on a number of occasions early this century, and the game they played in their off-duty hours caught on like wildfire.

With it came additions to the Spanish language, and a new range of metaphorical possibilities undreamed of by Castilian purists. ``Home run'' became jonron. And hitters are measured by their abilities at slug-in.

Political events are often described in baseball terminology. In 1978, for example, when a Sandinista guerrilla squad took over the National Assembly building, securing the release of scores of prisoners and a $5 million ransom for its hostages, the coup was popularly referred to as a ``home run with the bases loaded.''

And for Nicaraguan fans, whose home-grown teams are perhaps comparable to good minor league teams in the United States, American baseball is a constant source of interest.

The Dantos' nickname, ``the Red Machinery,'' makes conscious reference to the great Cincinnati team of the 1970s known as ``the Big Red Machine.'' Both Nicaraguan dailies carry regular reports on the American baseball scene, informing readers, for example, that Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens is embroiled in a contract dispute.

Nicaraguan fans are aware enough of major league games that they appreciate the sort of casual reference that appeared in the official Sandinista daily newspaper Barricada report on the final game.

Discussing a Boer error that paved the way for the Dantos' victory, the Barricada writer added that such things ``happen in the best families, and we all remember how it was an error by Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox in the sixth game of the World Series that gave the title away to the New York Mets.''

To newcomers in revolutionary Nicaragua, this obsession with an American sport sits oddly. But to Nicaraguans, baseball is not an American sport - it is a Nicaraguan sport.

``Saying that baseball is a product of North American intervention, and so saying we should reject it, would be like preaching the need to deny the Christian religion as part of our culture because it was a product of the [Spanish] conquest,'' another Barricada writer wrote recently.

Nonetheless, the game here is by no means free of political significance.

Supporting Boer, for example, traditionally offered a safe way of expressing opposition to the Somoza regime, since for many years the team was the archrival of Somoza's own team, the Five Stars.

This year, Boer attracted fans from the anti-Sandinista ranks, since it was up against the official Sandinista Army team. The Dantos are widely identified with the government, taking their name from the nom de guerre of a fallen Sandinista guerrilla hero. German Pomares, who died just before the revolution, went by the code name ``Danto,'' which is a local species of wild boar. The league in which the top Nicaraguan teams play is known as the German Pomares League.

Meanwhile, back at the ballgame, left-handed pitcher Lu'is Cano, was brought in to stem the Boer resurgence. With one out in the ninth and a man on first, he earned his award as the series most valuable player.

With the count at one and two, he threw a change-up, and batter Ulises Bojorge hit it right to the shortstop.

The Red Machinery snapped into action. Cruz out at second. Bojorge out at first. Boer out of the picture.