Irvine City Hall may be the last place you would expect to find the Nicaraguan national baseball team.
But that is where it will be next week, receiving an official city welcome from Mayor Larry Agran. He plans to give the team Irvine's version of the key to the city--a pewter paperweight in the form of the city seal.
"I'm just welcoming some foreign visitors," Agran said Tuesday. "We do it all the time."
But the city's honored guests, Agran conceded, are not often representatives of a country as politically sensitive as Nicaragua, where the United States is providing aid to rebels battling a Marxist government.
"The fact that our governments aren't getting along . . . is all the more reason to encourage people-to-people meetings," Agran said. "We don't want to be drawn into disputes that our governments may have. We want to extend a hand of friendship and break down those barriers of distrust. I have no quarrel with the Nicaraguan baseball team--that's for sure."
Agran is scheduled to receive the Seleccion Nacional, as the all-star squad is known in Nicaragua, before an afternoon game Oct. 2 at Cal State Long Beach against the university team. That game is one of six exhibition games the Nicaraguans will play against college teams in California--three in Southern California and three in the San Francisco Bay Area. In Southern California, beside the game against Cal State Long Beach, the Nicaraguan team will play Santa Monica City College at UCLA and the College of the Canyons in Valencia.
A Los Angeles organization called Bats, Not Bombs is sponsoring the tour. The tour coordinator, Andrew Lieberman, said Agran has been interested in the tour "from the start."
A representative of Local Elected Officials of America, a group launched by Agran three years ago, contacted Lieberman and told him Agran wanted to do something to help the baseball tour, Lieberman said. At the time, plans were being firmed up for a game against Cal State Fullerton, Lieberman said, so he suggested that Agran play host to a fund-raising breakfast or lunch.
That idea was scrapped when the Fullerton game fell through, Lieberman said. But when the game at Long Beach was confirmed, Lieberman called Agran and asked if he was still interested in doing something with the team. There was no time to organize a fund-raiser, but Agran agreed to welcome the team at City Hall the morning of the game, Lieberman said.
It is not the first time Agran has involved himself in issues that go beyond Irvine city boundaries. In 1982, he was the co-author of Proposition 12, a statewide initiative that called for a bilateral nuclear freeze. In 1984, he and two co-workers from Local Elected Officials traveled to Iowa--the site of the Democratic Party's first presidential caucuses--attempting to convince mayors and city council members there to endorse the freeze idea.
Agran said his meeting with the Nicaraguan team should not be thought of as an overt statement of displeasure with the Reagan Administration's Central American policy.
"I happen to believe that, one way or another, the people on this planet are going to have to learn to live together instead of killing one another," Agran said. "To the extent that is contrary to our government's national policy, so be it. I don't regard a policy of killing as a policy that I want to in any way embrace. I would much prefer to engage in people-to-people meetings as a first step toward understanding one another."
Council member Sally Ann Miller, a frequent opponent of Agran, said she saw nothing wrong with the Nicaraguan meeting. "My feeling is that sports knows no politics," she said. "I think, quite frankly, that we receive all kinds of people all the time."
Council member Dave Baker, when told of the meeting, said he, too, saw nothing wrong with it "if it's a situation to honor athletes." But, he said, if Agran is meeting with the team for political reasons, "then that's exploitation" of the athletes.
Whether politics played a role in Cal State Fullerton's decision to back out of a game with the Nicaraguans is a matter of dispute.
Tour coordinator Lieberman says the school's assistant athletic director, Leanne Grotke, told him that Fullerton did not want to play the game "because of the political situation and concern over possible protests."
Grotke, when asked if that was true, said she had no comment.
Cal State Fullerton athletic director Ed Carroll, however, said politics played no role in the school's decision not to play.
"He (Lieberman) started dealing with our baseball coach, Augie Garrido, and Augie expressed an interest in playing, but we never had anything in writing," Carroll said. "The facts as Coach Garrido presented them to me made for a most undesirable plan."