By KERRY BENEFIELD
PRESS DEMOCRAT SPORTS COLUMNIST
The guy was trying to hustle Kyle Moore.
Moore, a Mendocino High School senior and first baseman on the school squad, was getting the full court press from a guy at the Nicaraguan outdoor market trying to hawk pirated movies with English subtitles. That’s when the kid intervened.
The boy, who was probably 12 or 13, was selling coconut leaves twisted and tied to look like origami creatures. He spoke English well enough to make it clear to Moore that he was telling the guy to beat it.
As a thank you, Moore and teammate Taylor Gordon asked the kid where the nearest soda stand was. Because Moore doesn’t speak Spanish, the kid helped him order. Moore told him to get three, one for himself, one for Gordon and one for the kid.
Then he saw the boy’s feet.
“He just had slippers on,” he said. “I looked at his feet and they looked super rough. It looked like he had never had shoes. I was like, ‘Damn.’”
Moore pulled the last of his spending money out of his pocket, walked to a stall where there were new tennis shoes on display and bought the boy a pair.
“The best thing was, the smile that you could see when he was putting on his shoes, it was insane,” Moore said.
Divided by language, the boy said thank you in the only way he knew how.
He pulled a coconut leaf out and folded it just so before handing over. But this one was different from the other crickets and folded creatures the boy tried to sell to other tourists at the market.
“After he made it he wrote ‘I’ll love you forever’” on the leaf.
“I almost cried,” he said.
Well, don’t worry about it, Kyle, I almost did too.
Moore’s story, and those of teammates Damien Duncan and Sean Symonds, and Mendocino High School head baseball coach Wesley Hee, did worlds to soften my initial misgivings about a high school baseball team spending their week-long spring break on a team trip to Central America to play ball and donate baseball equipment to local players.
Sounds like a great time. But worthy of public praise? I wasn’t so sure.
These guys, who raised about $30,000 to travel with the non-profit group Baseball Without Borders, weren’t delivering medical supplies or helping build schools. How much of an impact is going to be made by playing a few games of baseball in a handful of cities while handing out donated gear?
A lot, it seems.
“I think my feelings on taking the baseball gear changed once I got there,” Duncan said.
It struck many of the Cardinals that for the guys they visited, baseball was more than a game, it was a source of light in lives that were otherwise by darkened by deep poverty. Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
“It was quite surprising to me,” Duncan said. “It made me think that this baseball gear is doing a lot more for them than I thought.”
The teams the Cardinals faced play year-round in conditions previously unimaginable to the boys from Mendocino.
One field didn’t have a backstop or bases and the infield was groomed by a horse and cart. An entire team shared one batting helmet. The coach would call timeout after every hit so the helmet could be passed to the next guy at bat.
But even with so little, the guys could play. The handed out some beatings to the visitors.
“They made us look like T-ballers they were so good,” Duncan said. “And they didn’t have anything gear-wise and they are trying to make something out of themselves as baseball players.”
So handing over duffel bags full of helmets and gloves suddenly felt like something more than handing out superfluous goodies.
“I was expecting it to be a poor country, but I’m telling you, it was poor,” Hee said.
On the flight in, Symonds said he looked out his window and saw tin shacks and hovels stretching out for what seemed like forever.
“I thought, ‘Oh we are flying over the slums right now,’” he recalled. “I was waiting for the good part of town. We kept flying and we never got there.”
For the last game of their week-long stay, the teams mixed up the rosters. Symonds was sent to the hometown side.
“I play center field so I used the other center fielder’s glove,” he said. “It was beat up, hardly usable.”
Duncan noticed the same thing about the guy he swapped with.
“It was a glove but it was just so wrecked and I was just ‘Whoa, how did you catch that pop fly with that piece of leather?’” he said.
Over the course of the week Duncan had handed out plenty of gear that Baseball Without Borders had collected, but after the last game he went one better. He pulled his hand out of his own mitt and handed it over to his counterpart on the Nicaraguan team.
“For me, gloves are pretty replaceable,” he said. “But for them, gloves are hard to come by.”
Still harder to come by than a glove?
The Mendocino Cardinals got that in spades this spring break.