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National Agenda : Pitching an Image : Battered Nicaragua plays host to the world, hoping that baseball will burnish its reputation after 15 years of political violence and hardship.

August 16, 1994|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — There were no television cameras or newspaper photographers in the bathrooms at Managua's Estadio Rigoberto Lopez Perez last week, which was probably a good thing. Nevertheless, if you ask Yadira Soza and the rest of the women assigned to keep the stadium clean for the 32nd World Baseball Championships, a well-kept bathroom just might be what Nicaragua needs to get back on its feet.

The reputation of a country was at bat here.

"We're in charge of keeping the stadium sanitary to leave a good image with those who have come here to Nicaragua, especially those from the 15 visiting countries," Soza said. "I'm proud that we could put on the tournament here."

After 15 years of war, drought, strikes, rising crime and recurring political violence, polishing Nicaragua's tarnished international image is probably too great a task for Soza and her small crew alone. But many here were hopeful that a clean, well-run tournament--with sanitary restrooms--would mark the country's first step toward mainline respectability.

"The majority of people here are in favor of the tournament," said Edgard Rodriguez, sports editor of the daily newspaper El Nuevo Diario. "They feel the importance of the world championships to project a different image of Nicaragua--that this is not a country of war and that we have nice things too."

Even the tournament's official slogan, "Friendlier Nicaragua," which was stamped on posters, banners and T-shirts all over the country, had been chosen with an eye to a new beginning.

"We are a hospitable people," emphasizes Carlos Garcia, who organized the tournament. "We aren't a country in which we are always fighting one another. The country is not bad like they say."

And what better vehicle to send the message than the World Baseball Championships, which are not to be confused with the World Series but nevertheless brought to Managua 16 international teams including the high-ranked Cubans, Americans, Japanese and the host Nicaragua squad--all Olympic caliber.

Baseball has been king here since the early decades of this century, as it has been elsewhere in Central America and the Caribbean, where American power and influence prevailed. Teams travel from city to city, bringing the game and some relief to the nation.

The most optimistic boosters of the tournament--the first major sporting event to be held in Nicaragua in two decades--believe the event can do more than just improve the country's international image. They're hoping it will lift Nicaragua's badly bruised national ego and sagging economy as well.

"Our people haven't had much to be happy about, and I think this will help get their mind off their problems," Cleveland Indian pitcher Dennis Martinez, one of five Nicaraguans to play in the U.S. major leagues, told The Times. "It can do so much for everyone's spirits. I think it's going to be really great for the country."

Martinez starred for the Nicaraguan team in 1972, the last time the world championships were held in Managua. In the first round of that tournament, Nicaragua's Julio Juarez shut out Cuba, 2-0, in what is still remembered as one of Nicaragua's greatest sporting triumphs.

"There have been a lot of great things that have happened to me in this game, but that was one of the greatest moments I've ever had," Martinez said. "(That) was as important as anything that has ever happened here. The whole country celebrated."

But the celebration didn't last long. Less than three weeks after the tournament concluded, a series of massive earthquakes leveled Managua, killing 10,000. Widespread government corruption in the quake's aftermath helped ferment civic unrest, eventually leading to the bloody insurrection that dethroned dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979.

But that was just the first of many blows Nicaraguans would have to endure. In short order, the country was ravaged by five-digit inflation, a hurricane, a volcanic eruption, a tidal wave, several droughts and an eight-year war against the U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

Arguments that a baseball tournament can overcome all that gain credence from the fact that the event has already had a beneficial effect on the economy by arresting the downward spiral of employment, if only temporarily.

"This is a great opportunity for me, even if it lasts just 12 days," said Soza, who supports a family of five with the $8 a day she earns cleaning the stadium bathrooms.

Soza, who hadn't worked for two years, is among the estimated 80% of Nicaraguans without steady work. She joined a line that stretched for more than five blocks to get the job, waiting hours to be interviewed for one of 500 positions created by the tournament. Those who made the initial cut were invited back for subsequent interviews over the next two months for openings as ticket takers, ball boys, vendors and janitors.

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