Bringing Baseball to Pisco, Peru

It was a Wednesday night, and I was getting nervous about leading the “Intercambio” cultural exchange with the local kids. Earlier in the day, at the 8 AM organizational meeting, I had raised my hand to volunteer to PM (project manage) Intercambio that night. Now, 5 minutes before I was supposed to be out there, I realized that I knew so little Spanish and was so unprepared that I was about to make a fool of myself in front of genuinely good kids.

So when I raised my hand to lead Intercambio, Jimmy (our de facto leader at the time), asked “what are you going to do?”

“Teach them how to play baseball hopefully.”

“Oh! You’re the baseball coach. I was wondering when you were going to get here! We should get a game organized at a field somewhere once you teach them how to play!”
“Yes? Okay.”

It is now 7 pm and I’m pacing around the inside of base camp, afraid to go out onto the porch where the kids are waiting for somebody to come out to interact with them. All I have is a 2 inch wide PVC pipe about 28 cm long, a tennis ball, and a piece of paper with notes on it as to what I should teach them.

Just before I head out, Huevos, a 20-year old OSU third-year, asks me if I needed any help. “Absolutely! Come out with me and help me translate to these kids. I have no idea what I’m going to say.”

“Okay. Do you know Spanish?”

“Not much. You?”

“A little. I’ll come help you out.”

“Thanks a ton man!”

So we head out onto the porch. The kids look at me quizzically and then introduce themselves.

“What are we going to learn tonight?”

“I’m going to teach you all how to play baseball. Beisbol. You want to learn how to play beisbol?”

“Beisbol?! Yeah! Me gusta beisbol!” the large guy who goes by Pepe says as he puts both hands in front of his face and then goes through the motion of shooting an invisible basketball into an imaginary hoop.

“No, not basketball. No basquetbol! Beisbol. You know, beisbol?” I respond as I put my hands by my right shoulder and then go through the motion of swinging a baseball bat.

“OOOhhh!!! BEISbol!” He confirms that he now knows what I’m talking about as he goes through probably the worst imitation of a pitching motion as I’ve ever seen. I laugh. Not at him, but with him. All the kids are laughing at our “conversation”.

Jasmine about to hit a home run.

So I attempt to explain the basics. Now baseball, to me, is a richly intricate and beautifully detailed sport that I’ve been studying/playing for almost 20 years. Before heading to Peru to volunteer, I was coaching a 13-year old select baseball team. As the pitching coach I taught the kids college-level techniques and knowledge in order to give them an advantage over their highly competitive opponents. These middle-schoolers picked up on concepts that would put them ahead of most high school players in the area. I was teaching the finer points and they were eating it up.

Now, here I am, attempting to explain in a foreign language that there our four “bases”, nine “players”, and a “batter”! My fear was spot on. I was making a fool of myself. Huevos, bless his soul, was translating my explanations the best he could while I spoke in the most ridiculous Spanglish imaginable. “Primera base, secundo base…” I haven’t even taught these kids balls and strikes, bunting, foul balls, or what getting out means. There is no way these kids are going to have any more clue how to play baseball after Huevos and I explaining to them than they did 10 minutes before.

I notice that the kids are getting a little restless, and that we’re losing their attention. So, I ask “Quieres jugar?” which I’m pretty confident means, “do you want to play?” The kids look at me like I’m crazy. It’s 7:30 at night, completely dark, and there isn’t a baseball field in the country, more or less one within walking distance! Oh we’re playing, kids! I’m about to show you a little thing we call “stickball in the street.” I grab the PVC pipe, the tennis ball and a piece of cardboard that was sitting nearby. On the other side of the street in the gutter, I toss the cardboard down as home plate. The backstop is the wall surrounding our outdoor workshop. Centerfield is the front face of Base Camp. It’s a pretty standard stickball set-up. Hit it over Base Camp and it’s a home-run. Hit it off the house and it’ll bounce back onto the sidewalk, porch, or street and it’s playable.

Pepe leads off. I position him in the correct hitting stance facing Base Camp. I toss the ball to Pepe and he swings as hard as he can. I motion for him to swing slower and concentrate more on hitting the ball. The second pitch he cranks over my head onto the porch. After a couple of Pepe hits, the others want to jump in. So I have them line up to take swings. Before I know it, they’re asking what to do after they hit it! Aren’t we supposed to run somewhere? Huevos and I look at each other thinking the same thing. Let’s play ball!

Huevos grabs a couple big rocks and places them down as first and third base. Somebody finds a styrofoam to-go box and flattens that out as second base. By now, other foreigners are jumping in and the game is on. As we’re playing, I explain the 3 strike rule. Also, I have to somehow explain what a foul ball is, because those are being hit quite frequently, and the purist that I am doesn’t want the kids learning the wrong rules. After a little hand motioning and half translating from Huevos and other foreigners, the kids start to understand. Every time a foul ball is hit, everyone yells, “falta, falta!” and the batter knows that he doesn’t get to run to first (aka the rock). Every time a fair ball is hit though, everyone yells, “corre, corre!” letting the hitter know that he better, “run, run!”

I kid you not, the game quickly became the place to be! At one point, as I was playing catcher/umpire, I looked up and saw that we had fans in the upper-deck section down the left field line. The second-story window of the Coast Guard Barracks next to Base Camp was open and a couple Peruvian Coast Guards were in the window watching the game. I laughed and waved to the guys, who smiled and waved back. Kids and volunteers were coming from out of nowhere to hop in the game. Everyone wanted to take a swing with the PVC bat. Parents and kids were walking by, and the parents would stop to watch the foreigners play “beisbol” while the kid would jump in to play. I think I even saw a kid jump out of a moving tuk-tuk (covered moped taxi) to get in the game.

I watched in amazement as the other kids would quickly accept the rookies and hurriedly explain the rules to them. There is no way I can explain to you how mind-blowing it was to watch a 9-year old explain to another 9-year old in Spanish how to hit, when and where to run, and that stopping near the rock meant you were safe and had succeeded. It was something truly and had succeeded. It was something truly unbelievable.

We ended up playing until I noticed a few of the parents urging their kids to return home with them while the kids begged to stay longer. I looked at my watch and it was past 9:30 at night. Intercambio had officially ended an hour and half ago yet there were at least 15 kids hanging out with us foreigners. Not to mention the fact that we lived in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in one of the most dangerous cities in Peru, and here we were playing stickball in the street late at night. I told everyone that it was getting late, and that we’d play one more inning. As kids trickled away home, they would run up to me and speak excitedly to me in Spanish. One of the other volunteers translated that the kids were asking if we were going to play tomorrow and pleading that the answer was yes. Thursday’s were English lessons, so I sadly had to inform them that we would not. I did, however, tell them that I would organize a real game at a park sometime soon.

‘Soon’ ended up being Saturday, and that ‘park’ ended up being the concrete basketball/soccer courts of the Malecon by the beach. We had over 30 kids show up Saturday to play ‘beisbol.’ There were boys and girls from 8 to 18 years old joining in, not to mention the 20 or so volunteers age 18 to 30 that helped organize the kids while playing as well. It was a beautiful day for baseball. But let’s be honest – what day isn’t?