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Mahler: Spreading Baseball’s Language, and Gear, to Nicaragua

It was a typical December morning in El Hormiguero, Nicaragua. Typical, as in hot and humid. Located in the Atlantic Norte region of the country, the small community is more than 10 hours away from a town with more than 50,000 inhabitants.

It is a community of maybe 50 families. In the municipality of Siuna, 318 kilometers from the capital city of Managua, El Hormiguero is in the forgotten side of Nicaragua. To give you an idea of how small it is, El Hormiguero translates as The Ant Hill.

The men work in the fields from morning until night, taking their machetes to the undergrowth and hacking out a meager existence. It is a life they will pass on to their children … as they have for generations.

But on Sunday, there is no work. There is — first and foremost — church. Then, following a morning of devotion, most of the small community find their way to the open field at the center of town.

Most days, the field is home to the cows, pigs and sheep of the community — complete with various droppings and waste products.

But not on Sunday. On Sunday, the pasture is transformed, as are many of the adult men. Instead of a pasture, the field becomes a crude diamond where stones take the place of bases. Instead of wearing wide-brimmed hats to combat the sun, the men now are wearing baseball caps and assorted uniforms.

Sunday, you see, is game day in El Hormiguero, Nicaragua. And while they may be lacking in money and resources, they are rich in their baseball tradition. Throughout Central America, soccer is the national sport. Not in Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, the national sport is baseball.

Suddenly, around 10 a.m., a rumbling sound fills the air with an accompanying cloud of billowing dust. And coming up the road, headed straight for the little diamond at the center of town, is another group of men riding into town on a herd of horses. As they appear out of the dust, you see they are attired in their own colorful uniforms.

Quite an entrance for the visiting team. In El Hormiguero, it’s game on! Yes, it’s a beautiful day to play two.

Jack Turco has baseball in his blood. The director of health services at Dartmouth College, Turco played collegiate baseball at Harvard. He was the Crimson’s starting catcher back in 1968, when Harvard played in the College World Series. His claim to fame was recording the first extra-base hit in that series.

While his baseball career is in his past, it is still a game that Turco knows and loves. It’s something he found he had in common with the residents of El Hormiguero, when he first traveled there as part of a Tucker Foundation initiative, where local doctors attached to Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital donate two weeks in December in Nicaragua at the town’s health center. A Columbia Medical School grad, Turco has been working in Nicaragua for eight years.

As they tend to the medical needs of the townspeople, Turco and his group, which consists 15 to 20 Dartmouth undergraduates, three Dartmouth Medical School students and three Upper Valley medical providers.

20 to 25 physicians and Dartmouth students live with the residents, staying in the convent, where there is no running water and boasted electricity only recently.

When he was not working, Turco noticed how the kids would show up early in the morning and shovel the excrement off the big field and then bring out their equipment and start playing baseball. There’s somewhere between 20 to 30 kids, ages 6 to 14.

“You could see what natural players they are,” Turco said. “They hardly have any equipment — a ball, maybe a bat and a few gloves … nothing like a real uniform.

“But they play the game. It’s baseball. It’s a universal language.”

One time, Turco noticed there was an adult in charge of the kids’ practice. Through an interpreter, Turco discovered that the gentleman was a volunteer, and the kids all belonged to the town’s baseball academy.

“You could see he knew what he was doing,” said Turco. “It’s hard to run a baseball practice and keep everyone involved, but he was doing it.”

The idea of a baseball academy gives the impression of manicured diamonds and state-of-the-art facilities and equipment. Nothing could be further from the truth here. “The equipment they had was just so rudimentary,” Turco said.

So he decided to do something about it.

He came home and started working his A-list. He got some equipment from Dartmouth baseball coach Bob Whalen and some more from Hanover rec director Hank Tenney. Just the basics: some bats, balls, a few gloves. But to the kids down in Nicaragua, it was like Christmas came early.

“It’s important for the kids,” says Turco. “They have fun, but it’s a hard life. They don’t have much to look forward to but going into the fields and work until they are 70. At least the baseball gives them something to enjoy.”

Turco will be going back again this year — first in August to look into the building of a larger medical facility in the community, and then again in December with the medical team. He’d like to come bearing gifts of a baseball nature, if he could.

And he’s looking for a little help from his friends in the Upper Valley.

“Everybody has some old equipment stuck away in the garage or down in the basement,” Turco said. “If there’s anything people would like to donate, it would be so greatly appreciated and would help those kids so much.

“Anything, really. Anything to help the kids.

“These hand-me-downs and used equipment will mean so much,” Turco said. “For these kids, their dream of making it big would be if they could just play on the town team. And maybe, someday, they would be one of the guys who comes riding into town on the horses.”

If you have any equipment or baseball apparel you would like to donate, contact John Turco at John.H.Turco@dartmouth.edu. Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.