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U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL : LOS ANGELES--1991 : O'Malley Takes a Role as Ambassador of Baseball : International sports: The Dodger president's hobby is to promote his business to countries around the world.

July 10, 1991|MARYANN HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seated together in an old, dark baseball stadium in Managua, Nicaraguan President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and Dodger President Peter O'Malley talked as they observed opening day of her country's 1990 baseball season.

Chamorro, who had come to power nine months earlier over the Sandinistan-controlled government, and Carlos Garcia, Nicaragua's minister of sport who had been jailed under the Sandinistas, shared O'Malley's vision for baseball, the country's No. 1 sport.

"Later, Peter was thinking out loud and he said, 'We really need to do something to help them,' " said Ike Ikuhara, O'Malley's personal assistant who accompanied him to Managua.

"And I told him, 'Peter, every time you leave the country you spend money!' "

For a man who shuns the spotlight and seemingly grants interviews based on their degree of controversy and the number of minutes he may have available, Dodger President Peter O'Malley is outspoken about his hobby--promoting amateur and international baseball.

He speaks proudly.

"There have been more international flags that have flown over Dodgertown (the Dodgers' spring training site at Vero Beach, Fla.) than over any other spring training camp--that's for sure," O'Malley said.

O'Malley boasting ?

Thousands of amateur and professional players from around the world have benefited from O'Malley's interest in promoting the game. Many foreign players and coaches have come to Dodgertown for instruction, among them groups from Japan, South Korea and the Soviet Union. Thursday, a group from Nigeria will arrive.

He has sent coaches to China and Australia and has spent countless hours counseling sports ministers and heads of state who want to increase baseball opportunities or develop programs.

But O'Malley's hobby met its biggest challenge in China, where, in 1986, he built Dodger Baseball Field--the country's first stadium to be used solely for baseball--at Tian Jin Physical Culture Institute, about 150 miles from Beijing. His next venture is in Managua, where construction of a stadium should be completed in the spring.

"Peter always says to me that the Dodgers are his business, so he has to make money at that," Ikuhara said. "But amateur baseball is his hobby. He wants to help baseball worldwide. And in a hobby, you spend money."

O'Malley's generosity does not extend solely to other countries. The Dodgers are the only organization to donate their facility to the Olympic Festival, which will use it for the opening ceremony Friday night and a baseball practice on Monday.

"Each team (in the Festival) will get the field for 1 1/2 hours," said Larry Schneiderman, who will coach the West team. "And that is really a thrill for the players to be on the field at Dodger Stadium."

The baseball games will be played at USC's Dedeaux Field, named after former USC coach Rod Dedeaux, who got O'Malley interested in international baseball 15 years ago while trying to get the International Olympic Committee to recognize it as a medal sport.

"It had never occurred to me before, but here I was in Holland and in Italy watching amateur baseball, and they were talking to me about how they were also trying to get the sport recognized by the IOC. So I joined in," O'Malley said.

"When the (Olympic) Games were here in 1984, we were able to get baseball in as a demonstration sport. Then in Seoul (in 1988) baseball was again a demonstration sport. And now, at Barcelona, baseball will be a medal sport."

Only eight countries will send teams to Barcelona, but about 86 either are playing baseball or trying to develop programs.

In Israel, organized baseball made its debut in 1987 with Little League players wearing yarmulkes beneath their batting helmets. In Australia--where baseball has been played for more than 100 years--tariffs make the average price of a glove $240; an aluminum bat about $200.

In Guatemala, some children are so determined to play that they cut soccer balls in half for gloves. And in Sofia, Bulgaria, a group of boys was seen playing baseball on a soccer field, using a catcher's mask that they had made from a plastic potato crate.

Except in the Dominican Republic, where O'Malley built a baseball institute to help provide major league prospects, most of the countries where O'Malley is involved may not produce a player of professional caliber for many years.

So why is he interested?

"It's just important that kids have the chance to play," said O'Malley, who recently was elected president of the U.S. Little League Foundation. "I want to see the opportunity provided for the 12- to 14-year-old kid."

There are those who contend that O'Malley's motivation may be fed by the gain he could make marketing Dodger souvenirs and memorabilia in foreign countries.

"I don't really see what is to be gained from this financially," O'Malley said. "When we send coaches to Australia or Asia, for example, we finance it."

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