In a remote area, baseball is the universal language
I wouldn't be the first choice for an international ambassador of baseball. But on this day that's exactly what I am.
I'm not a pitcher, but more of - as they say - a belly itcher. I played baseball at a semiorganized, weekly outing started by one of my father's childhood neighbors. We didn't have uniforms or equipment other than bats, gloves, and balls. The diamonds were open grassy areas between cornfields. There were no set teams. It was a sort of Minor Little League where no one kept score.
We chewed a lot ... of taffy. I considered this the best part of the game. My favorite flavor was grape. Still is.
I discovered early on that playing baseball wasn't for me. Batting required standing still, and at the age of 5 I found this to be nearly impossible. The stiller I stood, the more my nose, back, neck - and, yes, my stomach - would itch.
Also, when you're in the field you have to stay in your position - a cruel punishment. How are you supposed to talk with your friends if you are strategically spaced to cover a line drive?
So I wouldn't be the first choice for an international ambassador of baseball. But on this day, on a small island in Honduras, that's exactly what I am.
"Kelsey, teach them to play baseball," Norma says as she tosses me a Nerf bat and a tennis ball.
Kokota is an unusual island because it is surrounded by a freshwater lagoon to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east.
The island is just one of the villages Norma, a US citizen of Honduran descent, adopted along the Mosquito Coast of Honduras after hurricane Mitch ravaged the region. Each time she visits, she brings toys and clothes for the children.
Today she also happened to bring a non-baseball-playing American.
With ball and bat in hand, I step out of the small single-room school where Norma is divvying up her contributions to needy mothers.
I speak a little Spanish; most of the villagers do not. They speak Miskito.
Let the charades begin.
One part grass and two parts mud, the field before me is pockmarked with large, loose stones. I grab several and make first base: "Primero!" I announce. I do the same for second and third - "Secundo! Tercero!"
By now, most of the people in the village have joined the crowd. They whisper to one another while watching the "crazy gringo" run about collecting rocks in the mud.
The village kids are all gathered together and take a step back when I approach asking for volunteers. They stare. I sweat.
Finally, three girls step forward, and I station them at the bases. I hand a little boy a bat and direct him toward casa while showing him how to swing.
Here's the pitch.... The batter swings.... Contact!
The ball dribbles off the tip of his bat and dies quickly in the mud. No one moves - not the batter, not the fielders.
With my hand on his back, I run the batter to first. I motion to the girl at second base to pick up the ball and throw it to first. When she does, I holler and motion "Safe!"
Soon, what grass there was has disappeared. When a barefoot 8-year-old girl knocks the ball at my feet, mud splashes onto my face.
I grab the ball and run to first to make the tag and out No. 1. But nearing first, I try to stop - and my feet slip out from underneath me. I slide across the base - a pile of sharp rocks - to the laughter of the entire village.
Enthusiasm for playing baseball picks up, and I get three more players to cover the outfield. Kids start to run bases and field balls. Outs are a rare commodity.
After one hit, the third baseman beans a runner from first. Close enough. "Out!" I yell. Explaining the finer points of the game's rules is beyond my prowess at charades.
A plastic piece at the bottom of the bat's handle breaks, stopping the game. When i was the age of these kids, I would have thought nothing of the small piece, but concern spreads from the children to the crowd of adults. They inspect it and clear it for play.
After a few more innings, the game ends. Covered head-to-toe in mud, the children recount the plays in a language I don't understand. A group of players and adults pat the standout of the bunch on the back; he's 11 and can already hit and throw farther than I can.
Away from the crowd, a barefoot boy in a faded red Adidas shirt reverently squeegees the muddy water from the bat.
When you don't have much, what you do have is extra special. The children of Kokota have a ball and a bat.
I taught them the game of baseball. They taught me there was much more to it than grape taffy.