After an extended absence brought on by extended leave in Panama, work commitments that I’d rather not have to describe, minor injury, fever causing delirium (no kidding!), and some time to come up with the aforementioned excuses, elsalamigrande is now ready to recount the long awaited Baseball Gear Giveaway of 2010.
I had seen it myself on previous trips to Latin America, but the most dramatic examples had always been stories. Kids playing ball with taped up rocks, making gloves out of milk cartons, playing barefoot. What always got me were the surfaces. I once saw some school kids in Costa Rica playing baseball on the kind of hillside that my rugby coach makes us run up and down for punishment, or possibly for sadism. Home plate was at the top of the hill, so a fielder had a pretty good shot at making a play on a runner hustling up from third, no matter where it was hit. That was fifteen years ago. I’d like to think that those kids became world class mountain climbers after chasing that taped up ball down the hill and back.
You can’t export playing surfaces, so I took two large equipment bags with me to Venezuela, and did my best to spread some old and not-so-old gear around to kids who didn’t have any and couldn’t afford any.
I want to give thanks up front to all the generous respondents to my Craigslist ad – especially Darcy in Burnaby, who came through big. The most generous donor was the Storm 98A softball team from Cloverdale, BC (featuring future superstar and official niece of elsalamigrande Morgan Mack) who turned up with more gear than I ever imagined being able to bring down here. It was almost more than I could carry. They gave it to me with specific instructions not to forget about the girls.
So, my trip to Venezuela began with two bags containing more used baseball equipment than I could carry at one time. At the airport in Porlamar, I was mistaken for a ballplayer more than once, and the more I insisted otherwise, the less I was believed. One bag was left at a hotel in Caracas, and the other brought along with us to the Isla de Margarita where, initially, I had more trouble passing out baseball gear than one would expect.
Our first young prospects were three kids playing with a tennis ball in a small yard in Porlamar walled off by high wrought iron bars. We saw them playing on our way to one of the games, and doubled back to get a few mitts and a ball and bat from the big bag back at the hotel. When we returned, our gifts were met with immediate suspicion.
The eldest boy, maybe 10, took charge quickly when I tried to pass the bat and glove through the fence. “Por que?” Why? His younger brother and sister fell in behind him and watched it all happen, but the kid was initially having none of it. I told him that it was “por beisbol.” No kidding, he seemed to say. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to tell him anything more than it was for him, and that I didn’t want anything for it, but it wasn’t washing. The kid went to get his Mom. I explained to her through broken Spanish that I was from Canada, here for the Serie Del Caribe, and wanted to give her kids this baseball gear, and she gave the kids permission to take it. They thanked us, and the two youngest immediately began to play with their new gear. The older one remained puzzled and I don’t blame him. There isn’t much in the world that comes for free.
After Venezuela crapped out in the Series, we headed on a whirlwind tour of the island in a rented Renalut that was far too fuel small and fuel efficient for a country with 1.5 c/l gasoline. Our packs rode in the back seat while the big bag of gear was jammed in the trunk. Part of me had been worried that the children we encountered on the relatively well-off tourist-centric Isla de Margarita would have gear, and have little use for a bunch of beat up second hand crap from Canada, but I couldn’t be more wrong.
A short ways down the dirt road from Playa del Agua there were about 10 kids playing with a 2×4 bat and a taped up ball in a lot that looked like it once had a house on it – a shaky foundation still present and causing obstacles. The game stopped when the white man pulled up in his rental car and started dealing out gloves to the kids. There was a standard period of confusion as they came to terms with the fact that I didn’t want anything from them, and they immediately began distributing the gear according to rank. I made sure that the girls got gloves.
Onward we went, a day later to Juan Gregor where, again, we didn’t have to go very far to find houses made out of plywood and kids playing ball with a stick. This time, it was three boys, about 5 years old, playing with what looked like a tree branch. One of them did have a proper glove. We stopped the car and I dug out three small mits, a new ball and a miniature bat. Those kids weren’t suspicious of anything, although they were a little astounded. I played with them for a bit. The one kid fouled off my nice ball into a makeshift chicken coop, and they looked at each-other like they might get in trouble, so we decided to get moving and waved good bye. When we got back to the car, I remembered that I had some cleats in that bag that were just about their sizes, so we came back with three sets.
By then, Mom had arrived. She was too confused about the ball gear to be worried about the chickens. She thanked us as we gave each of the three kids (who had all been playing barefoot) a new set of ball cleats. The eldest got a set that were too big. “He’ll grow into them,” I explained to Mom. “Si.”
The next day, further towards the inner city of Playa Congrejo we found more kids. The owner of our hotel, Carlos found us a lot where three kids were doing their best to play ball with what they had. The street front lot, which I think abutted a tent based living facility and kitchen where a curious and brooding mother poked here head out a few times, was one half covered in garbage. The other half, however, had been meticulously cleaned by these same three children to be used for baseball.
I initially gave them a standard sized Louisville Slugger wooden bat, but traded it for a smaller aluminum one when it became apparent that the kids were too small to hold the weight. The rules were simple in garbage lot baseball: You get one good pitch. Make contact and hustle for the pizza box by the near brick wall that is first base. Second base is the edge of the pile of garbage, and third base is over there somewhere. If you manage to bury a fly ball deep enough in the garbage, it’s a round trip. A ground ball that gets lost in the garbage, however, is a ground rule double.
We donated the last of the gear in the bag we brought to the island to a baseball school that some lawyer who we met at the series set us up with. By then it was mostly catcher’s gear, which I figure sandlot kids didn’t have much use for.
We returned to Caracas with only 2 hours of daylight remaining, an AM flight to catch, and a whole bag of gear sitting at a hotel to be given away. I met a driver at the airport and told him that I wanted to find kids playing baseball. Standard Venezuelan confusion ensued.
He wanted to get us a hotel.
Yes. A hotel will be fine. But first, we must pick up this baseball gear and deal it out before sunset.
Well, we can do that once we find a hotel.
We can do that before we find a hotel.
I do know of a good hotel. It’s not far. They have shuttle service to the airport.
The baseball gear. We want to deal out this gear.
Can I have some of that gear for my son?
Sure! Just find me some kids on a sandlot.
First, I must find you a hotel.
Eventually, I had to walk away and pretend to look for another driver to get my point across. Then it was out to pick up the gear and a mad rush around town looking for kids on sandlots. We found the mother lode on the only semi-flat piece of ground in the hills of Caracas. About 15 kids, all taking turns at bat on a lot that once held a concrete/re-bar structure and still held the leftovers.
No sooner did I remove the bag and open it than the gear was gone. I directed traffic a bit to make sure that the girls got equal opportunity in the feeding frenzy. Then I put my own mit on and tried to get in on the game, but it wasn’t that easy. These kids, freshly acquainted with what was likely the newest ball gear of their lives, weren’t about to put that stuff down. Not for anything. Not even for baseball. Many kids left briefly to stash their new loot and then returned. I did end up getting my one Venezuelan sand lot at-bat, mostly, I think, because the kids could see that I’d get a kick out of it. I looked at three pitches outside, then grounded one to the kid playing 3rd base/left field who beat me easily in a footrace to first. Next time.
These kids were also confused once the new-gear high wore off. I explained the best I could that this gear was for them, and they couldn’t quite figure out why. Our driver told them that we were from Canada, we didn’t need this stuff, and we wanted them to have it. Then they asked when we were coming back.
I don’t know when I’ll be coming back, but I hope that it’s soon. I’d like an opportunity to see more of Caracas and the other parts of Venezuela that aren’t geared for tourists. When I do, I hope that I’m as lucky as I was this past time and I’m able to bring down some used gear and get a game going with the locals.