It is no great secret that I am keen to hate on overly commercialized experiences of all stripes. What little TV I watch generally consists of documentaries on public television. I cannot step into a shopping mall without launching into a diatribe about the evils of materialism. Much to Lex’s chagrin, I cannot even handle sitting through standard Hollywood films. Taking into account my admittedly irrational and ferocious hatred of American consumer culture, some have wondered, “What gives?” with my enduring love of Major League Baseball.
My team, the New York Mets, sold the “naming rights” of their new stadium to Citibank. If you are willing to pay an exorbitant price to enter “Citifield,” you will be greeted with advertisements and sponsor messaging every direction you look. The Mets even named a portion of the right field wall after a leading advertiser. Baseball today is entirely saturated with crass commercialism. Why then, do I continue to patronize this industry that is steeped in a culture I wholeheartedly reject in every other arena of life?
When I was a boy, I was obsessed with baseball. To grow up in New York is to grow up with baseball history, particularly when you are raised in a Boston Red Sox family deep in the heart of enemy territory. I could not understand my father and older brother’s nightly anguish or joy without being schooled in the horrors of 1946, 1967, 1978, and countless other tragic conclusions to long, hard-fought seasons.
I was, to put it mildly, freakish in my absorption in only the way that boys of a certain age can be. When my elder siblings and I visited our grandparents in sunny Florida, I spent the entire week cowering in the shade, reading biographies of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and other greats from the early days. There is a line in the ageless baseball anthem “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” where the singer, declaring his love for a day at the ballpark, croons, “I don’t care if I never come back!” I guess you could say I took that spirit a bit too literally.
Nowadays when I hear the sound of baseball over the radio on a warm summer night, I feel it to be the same experience countless other guys sitting on their stoop in Brooklyn shared before me. If you strip away all the commercial pretense, it is still the same game.
Here in Nicaragua, you don’t have to imagine the game as it used to be. Game three of the national championship, held yesterday in Esteli, was pretty much how I pictured baseball to be while reading the old-timey biographies of my childhood. For starters, all games here are day games owing to the lack of lighting in the field. As we are currently in the rainy season, the championship game began at 10 a.m. in an effort to dodge the frequent afternoon downpours. The early start did not in any way dull the crowd’s enthusiasm, however. Esteli was up 2-0 in a best of seven series, taking the first two games on the road from the Caribbean Coast team in Bluefields. The crowd was a hungry for a championship—the first ever in the city’s history.
All seats are General Admission in concrete bleachers stretching from roughly the third base to first base side of the infield. In the outfield beyond the manual scoreboard, we could see groups of men perched on the branches of trees situated just outside the stadium, taking in the game free-of-charge. Tickets for the championship game went for 50 Cordobas, a little over $2 each.
Concessions in the stadium are not licensed out to corporate bidders or otherwise monopolized by the team. Rather, the stadium is an open-air festival, with barbeques set up outside the bleachers and people passing by offering everything from hamburgers to ceviche. Besides the numerous servings of Tona cerveza, I enjoyed a Nicaraguan street-food staple of refried beans spread over a crispy corn tortilla, topped with a vinagery shredded cabbage salad and, as is my preference, slathered in hot sauce. The cost? 20 C’s a beer and 5-to-10 C’s for the food, depending on your choice. There is no profiteering in the stadium, no box seats, “naming rights,” or other absurdities. Just food, beer, friends, family, and baseball. It didn’t matter that it was 10 a.m. on a Friday; work could wait until later.
The game itself started off as a pitcher’s duel. Costa Caribe was cruising behind their left-handed starter’s repertoire of off speed pitches. Esteli countered with a right-handed starting pitcher whose game revolved around a tough slider and fastball combination. After three innings, the game remained scoreless and hitless. Eventually, Esteli broke through with a two-out, two-run rally in the bottom of the fifth-inning that sent every man, woman, and child into an unbelievable frenzy.
Unfortunately, the rains came early and we were not able to see the conclusion of game three. As it happens, there are no rain-shortened games during the championship. After a second decisive bout of rain flooded the field beyond playability, it was announced that the game would be concluded the following morning. Play would be resumed in the top of the 9th inning, runners on 2nd and 3rd, with one out and Esteli leading 3-to-1.
Today, after traveling to the coffee-country city of Matagalpa, we learned via text message from our friends in Esteli that the championship had finally arrived in Norteno country. Game three ended successfully for Esteli, followed by a clean sweep in game four on a 1-0 shutout.
For all the happiness I feel for the Esteli faithful, I cannot help but feel a bit of sadness for the diehard Bluefields fans—a small contingent of which endured two days of travel over mud-slogged roads from the southeast, only to see their hopes vanquished. Some place on the remote, swampy coast of Nicaragua, I can imagine a beer or two washing down the sting of defeat while, perhaps, a father turns to his son to offer some form of lesson on the passing of time and the construct of history. Simple words to bring patience and perspective. Something to the effect of “Better luck next year,” or “Ya can’t win ’em all.” The same words uttered between friends in every American town at the end of every baseball season when the radio goes silent in observation of the coming winter.
(pix courtesy of our friend Kenan’s camera phone)
And a short video