Nicaragua: Baseball, Kids, and Jesus
Steve Dennie, Communications Director
Jeff Dice: “I’ve been to Nicaragua 29 times, and have probably been on 45 mission trips in my life. But it’ll be hard to top this one.”
Jeff is a Global Ministries “nontraditional” staffmember serving part of the year in Nicaragua. He visited Huntington, Ind., soon after returning from Nicaragua as part of team which, on their Facebook page, described themselves as, “We are a group of men heading to Nicaragua to play baseball and share Jesus with kids.” They did both quite well.
The team had 20 members:
- Jeff and his son Camden.
- A friend of Jeff’s who is a coach in Clare, Mich., and his son.
- 10 baseball players from Huntington University.
- 3 soccer players from Huntington University who wanted a mission experience during January Term and, according to Jeff, “actually played pretty good baseball.”
- 2 former baseball players from Anderson University (Anderson, Ind.). One of them, Cody Young, played minor league baseball (shortstop and outfield) for the Baltimore Orioles.
- Josh Kesler, pastor of The Well in Huntington, Ind. He went along as the team pastor.
“We had a mixed bag of people, but the chemistry was unbelievable,” Jeff said. “From the first day, I’m happy to say, we never had any kind of group issue. The maturity of these guys was amazing.”
The team spent a week in Masaya, of city of 130,000 (the country’s third largest) which is the center of our work in Nicaragua. Nicaragua has a four-team winter league, which they would call their professional league. It includes players from many countries. Then in February, 16 teams—all Nicaraguans—begin playing what they call their First Division.
“We played the team from Masaya that plays in the First Division,” Jeff explained. “The level of player was at or slightly above that of a US college player. We matched up because we had Derrick McKinney and Mitch Bowers pitching. They are elite college-level players, both from Huntington University. That leveled it out for us.”
They played their first game—actually, a double-header–on Saturday, January 7. They lost the first game 3-0, but won the second 6-2. The team’s Facebook page recorded it this way: “McKinney scared the crap out of several local hitters by buzzing them inside and high. He pitched really well except to a hitter we now call Goliath. He is 6’7″ and hit a McKinney 3-2 offering that is on it’s way to Costa Rica.”
Jeff recalls, “After the inning, Derrick walked over to the Nicaraguan bench to shake Goliath’s hand. We had this baseball connection that overrode any barriers present, because we all loved baseball.”
The Americans shattered four bats during those first two games. They went to the local bat maker and bought ten more bats. Then they stopped at the local Papa Johns, where they ordered 8 large pizzas and watched the Cincinnati Bengals lose to the Houston Texans.
On Monday, January 9, they began a series of baseball clinics which ran every day from 9 am to 12:30 pm, a different age group each day. After the clinic they would get some lunch, and then have a few hours before the evening game.
The clinics were conducted in partnership with the Masaya mayor’s office, which contacted local baseball coaches. Those coaches then brought their teams to the clinics—an average of 40-50 players each day.
Jeff says, “The partnership with the mayor’s office was critical to the success of the trip. The mayor encouraged us to be evangelistic, which was exciting to us. He told us to share our faith. He said that Christians make good citizens. He’s Sandinista, but there’s a new breed of Sandinistas.”
With the mayor’s blessing, they used the city stadium—a very nice stadium–every day for the morning clinics and the evening games. That would be Roberto Clemente Stadium in Masaya, named after the Pittsburgh Pirates star—the first Latin American elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame–who was killed in 1972 in a plane crash while taking relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
For the clinics, they employed 10 translators so the players could communicate with the kids. They had six stations at which kids sharpen their skills in specific areas—hitting, pitching, infield defense, outfield defense, bunting, and base running. They spent about 40 minutes at each station.
During those clinics, players had a chance to share their testimonies and incorporate the Gospel presentation.
“The first day was for age 6 and under, but after that we asked kids for a response,” Jeff says. “Quite a few kids told us, through translators, that they wanted to give their heart to Christ. Since we had some pastors there, we hope some connections were made to help them begin their journey. We didn’t think about having follow-up in place, so on future trips we’ll want to do that. Maybe bring some Spanish resources to help kids start their journey.”
Adam Christner, one of the players, commented on Facebook after the second day’s clinic, “I’m sure every kid that has been at the camp will never forget it. I’ve never seen that many smiling kids at once. God is truly working through baseball to talk to these kids.”
Said, a guy who was not a Christian before the clinics, told Jeff Denton he would “see him in heaven.” Pretty neat stuff.
They played another double-header on Tuesday night, January 10, again splitting the series. It was a twilight series, beginning at 5 pm with darkness coming around 6 pm. Being short on pitching, they borrowed some pitchers from the opposing team.
Another double-header came the next night, Wednesday. They described the night on the team Facebook page: “We won the first game 7-2, with Derek McKinney pitching brilliantly after yielding 4 walks in the first inning. He settled down and pitched really well. Blake Hohlbein came within 10 feet of leaving the yard. Camden Dice made a diving catch in right field. We lost the second game 3-2, but had so much fun we didn’t really care!”
The players had names on their jerseys. Josh Kesler took the nickname “El Guapo,” from the movie “Three Amigos.” The name means “The Handsome.”
Jeff says, “The local people took it good naturedly. When we would drive the truck through town, with Josh usually in the passenger seat, somebody would always yell out ‘Guapo!’ That happened probably three times each journey. ‘Guapo!’ That told us we were having a far-reaching impact on the city.”
On Sunday, they attended a baseball game between the two top city-league teams in Masaya. Jeff recalls, “There was this fairly inebriated man who was continually berating the umpires from behind the fence directly behind homeplate. During the music interlude between one of the innings, this man began to dance. Cody Young jumped down from his seat and danced with him for a few minutes.”
Jeff figures about half of the translators stuck around for the games, which enabled the US and Nicaraguan players to communicate. When Derrick McKinney wasn’t pitching, he would go sit on the Nicaraguan bench with a translator. Other players had similar experiences.
After six games, they were tied, 3 wins apiece. “We were hot and cold, but we scored some runs and had bright spots everywhere,” Jeff said. “Adam Christner and Sean Marion really led us offensively.”
The rubber match came Saturday, January 15. The US team went up 6-0 in the final game, but the Nicaraguans roared back and tied the score. “They said, ‘Can we just quit now?’ So we quit, tied.” Both teams went 3-3-1 for the series.
Jeff says, “It was a perfect storm—the combination of playing baseball and sharing Christ. The three soccer guys even got to play a few times on AstroTurf at a private club, which they said was awesome.
“There were instant bonds with the other team. I think every one of our players traded jerseys with a Nicaraguan player. The city wants us to come back and partner. To a man, I think every one of the guys wants to go back.”