Bad News Bears
In our training at the very beginning of our service, we are taught about the Peace Corps’ overall goals of service around the world. One of those goals is to share American culture with our host country nationals. Kate and I have been doing this little by little with our conversation clubs, guesting and just being adventurous girls (showing the Azeri girls they CAN play sports and travel outside of Goranboy). This demonstration of culture has become a nation-wide effort on the part of the PCV’s here. We have a softball league in Azerbaijan. This league was started before Kate and I arrived in country, but was a two-team league. It grew this spring into eight teams, and includes… GORANBOY! We received equipment not two weeks ago, and have started practices.
I was so excited to receive equipment because I have been to both Ganja’s and Mingechevir’s practices, and they are the two best-established teams in the leagues. Respectively, they are the Red Sox and Yankees of Azerbaijan. Both teams had some heavy hitters and could field the ball pretty well. They had Azeri’s who had been coming for a few years who could tell the other Azeri’s in their own language how to play better and even stepped up and helped coach the players. I also went down to Lenkeran, a city in Southern Azerbaijan, two weekends ago to check out the first match-up of the spring season and it was one of the coolest things I have seen. The guys and girl coaching the two squads (Lenkeran and Bilesuvar) did a great job preparing the kids. They made some plays Tito would be proud of, and I saw a lot of talent from the boys. We even had two young girls participate, which is a huge deal, and they BOTH went 2 for 2. I was really very impressed. The Bilesuvar team even had an intimidating chant before they went out into the field which intimidated me, but I don’t think the Lenkeran kids were even phased. They played two games and split the series. I can’t wait to see the rematch! In all of the sites there was teamwork, smiles and partnership to be had for everyone. I loved these practices and wished oh-so-much for the ability to have this at my site. I got the equipment and immediately had ideas of an expansion team like the Diamondbacks, going to glory in its early years.
This past weekend was a four-team tournament with Mingechevir, Ganja, Tovus and Sheki participating. The tournament was wonderful and the kids seemed to have a really good time. I came back from the tournament energized and ready to teach the kids of Goranboy a real American sport. Our national pastime. A sport that produced the likes of Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth (the Sultan of Swat, the King of Crash!). I have missed a few practices these past two weeks due to ongoing clubs and soccer practices, but two nights ago was my first attendance at practice. I had visions of grandeur after playing catch with the kids in our apartment complex every night during the past week. They can catch and throw and there was an equal ratio of girls to boys. They were enthusiastic about learning the sport and seemed really athletic.
Alas, the heat has deflated the enthusiasm of our kids. At our third practice, the first one I have attended, we had six kids there, all under the age of 12. We played catch for a while and then each one had their turn at bat. It was like our own version of Bad News Bears, with each kids playing his own character, including the hot shot AND the tiny kids who always does something amazing at the end of the movie, like hit a homerun or tell the other team to shove their trophies up their you-know-whats. It was even more deflating when yesterday, no one showed for practice. Today they told us it was because it looked like rain. WIMPS!!!
Today, however, would have been the turning point in the movie, the part where the coach realizes what she/he has done wrong and the kids realize that hey, they actually like/want to play baseball. At today’s practice, we had 18 people, enough for a two squad scrimmage. We played catch at first, and told the kids not to be afraid of the ball. (They catch the ball like you would hold a pair of stinky socks, as far away from their bodies as possible). One kid told me that he is allowed to be afraid of the ball because the hospital is far away. Yukka yukka yukka. This wise guy is the “Ham Porter” of our Azeri All-stars.
So after the warm-up, we decided to play the game without teaching the rules. Most have NOT seen baseball in their entire lives, but Kate and I decided to keep their short attention span occupied by just diving into the deep end. And oh boy, the water was deep. Here are some of the gems that happened in our ONE-INNING, 40 minute scrimmage:
· A kid ran around the bases WITH the bat in his hand, until he hit third and realized he shouldn’t have the bat, and threw it at the pitcher’s mound, where yours truly was standing. Incidentally, I don’t think he was trying to hit me, just trying to get rid of the bat.
· The kids threw BEHIND the runner every time. I don’t think they understand that the ball has to get to the base BEFORE the runner, even though I tried to explain that critical part of the game to them.
· The sheep grazing in the outfield stopped to be our audience, along with the xanim who was shepherding them.
· There’s a scene in the Sandlot where Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez tells Smalls to hold his glove up, and he hits it right to the glove for an easy catch for the new kid to prove to the other kids that Smalls can play baseball. I tried to do this MANY times, to show the kids they can catch, but alas, my aim sucks and they can’t catch. (You’re KILLING ME Smalls!!).
We also have to constantly tell the kids to stand up when fielding and that yes, the younger kids ARE allowed to bat. They have to be physically placed in the correct place in the batter’s box, and which hand to throw and catch with. It’s teaching from square one, and it’s pretty amazing how hard it is to teach people who don’t have any kind of baseball reference to refer to. (Side-note: A thanks goes out to my dad, who actually DID teach me which hand to throw with. Apparently I am a lefty who plays baseball right-handed. We went through a lefty glove and two frustrating weeks where I was a TERRIBLE tee-ball player before my dad figured out I was a righty when I picked up Jessica’s glove. Good thing too, because I loved softball.)
So, my visions of grandeur are slowly fading into the background while “Coach Amy” is making her first real appearance in Azerbaijan. While I wish we could bring in some veterans to help season the team (like Jose Conseco and Wade Boggs for the Devil Rays) I love slipping into a role that has defined me for the past eight summers. Coaching softball, I have finally found a role where I can act completely as I would in the United States, without worrying about my reputation, how I am representing the United States, or how I am affecting my work in the community. This is my natural state. Even though these kids may be the Bad News Bears, I still feel like Walter Matthau must have felt at the end of the movie. Somehow, the kids are learning something from me about softball AND life. We may not win, but we’ll definitely go down with style (and maybe not so much grace). I will let you know how our first tournament turns out in June, but for now, I leave you with the immortal words of Coach Buttermaker: Listen, Lupus, you didn't come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did ya? Now get your ass out there and do the best you can.