“Jungle Softball” by Anson Lihosit (Panama)

 

Jungle Softball

by

Anson Lihosit (Panama 2015-17)

GETTING A BASEBALL MITT proved difficult. A Peace Corps Volunteer’s salary was not enough to buy a new one. Back in the United States, my father rummaged around the garage and blew dust off an old utility mitt I hadn’t used in years. He mailed it with a hometown baseball cap to the father of a Peace Corps pal since my pal was briefly going home to attend a wedding. He brought it back to Panama on the return flight. I had a four-hour long bus ride to the capital to pick it up, then four hours back to my tiny jungle truck stop, Torti, located halfway between Panama City to the west and the Darian Gap to the east —that stretch of roadless jungle between Panama and Colombia known for smugglers and armed rebels.

Cleats were much easier. I bought some cheap ones at a local store, threw them into my worn backpack with the creased, brown mitt and dodged puddles as I ran across town to a bus stop. Since Torti has no ballparks, softball is played in nearby villages. A ten-minute ride to the nearest hamlet in a van with the air conditioning set to a temperature of a walk-in refrigerator.

ball-fieldThe field had well-kempt grass with a dirt infield. The outfield fence was a tarp hung over wood posts. The field was located amidst small pink, turquoise and purple painted concrete-block houses and rice fields. The midday sun reflected off the recently painted homes. There were gaping holes in the old chain-link backstop. Behind it were two small bleachers and a large, outdoor canopy with national beer logos on the sides. The spectators entered shaking hands, nodding, smiling and waving to each other. This was a family affair.

As I walked up wearing a baseball cap, one local asked, “Are you from America?”

There were laughs and a few beers. “So what are you doing here?”

I ground my shoe into the grass while watching the ball being flung across home plate. I held my bag tight amongst the group of families and men wearing American baseball hats. I really wanted to pull out my glove and use it. One of the locals, Mambo, asked what I had in my bag. I threw the zipper to one side to show my glove and cleats. “I want to play.”

He nodded with a smile. He yelled over some toddlers running around, to get the attention of a man sitting with his family. Mambo turned his thumb toward me and told him I would be playing with them today. He then turned to me, “Our team plays next.”

Fat jungle clouds blew in. The sky darkened, temperatures dropped and the downpour began. I  shivered. The temperature had dropped 20 degrees within minutes, while the drops pinged like machine gun fire as they hammered the zinc-covered roofs of the stands and dugouts. The noise drowned out the tropical music and nearby conversations. I expected the players to walk off the field. The pitcher’s mound became a large puddle of brown water that went up to the pitcher’s ankles. This was a real baseball crowd dressed in their Sunday best: buttoned shirts, brown cowboy boots and jeans, some wearing traditional wide-brimmed sombreros. They did not move either, but rather cheered and joked with the players.

Mambo told me that it was time to get changed for the game. I finished the beer which was no longer cooling my hand while I pulled out my cleats. I noticed that the rest of my team walked through the rain to their trucks to change from their jeans into baseball pants.

Our players were men from 18 to 40 years of age. Some were truck drivers, others worked the fields, some worked construction. We also had one policeman and one college student. They wore an assortment of Yankees, Tigers and Braves hats. I sat in a small dugout on the wet bench watching and clapping. My team was winning in the storm. I was the only player whose shirt and pants were not soaked and covered with a layer of brown.

By the fifth inning when we were up by five (and my baseball clothes were wet but still mud free), the coach motioned for me to grab a bat and pinch hit. I sloshed up to the plate with a bat but no helmet, which was much too expensive for this team.

“Here comes the gringo!” shouted a short man in a red hat who played in the previous game. An old woman missing a few teeth sitting next to him smiled and waved to me. She sold lottery tickets in front of the market near my apartment.

As my new cleats began to fill with water in the home plate puddles, the bottom of my feet felt cold. I swung the bat for the first time in years. Whiff. I missed.

“Come on gringo,” yelled someone from the stands.

The next pitch I hit through the infield puddles. The crowd yelled and clapped as I stood on a submerged first base.

 

I CONTINUED TO GO to the games. At each, I was met with more smiles and handshakes. At a local dance, an opponent stopped me, smiled and described to his friends that I had gotten a hit on Sunday.

Finally, they let me play the field. I stood in the outfield grass, grinning ear-to-ear. Later, at bat, I heard cheers from the crowd for “the gringo.” I hit the ball into the outfield which garnered applause from the stands. The next batter, my buddy Mambo, hit the ball deep. I put my head down and ran from second, kicking up dirt as the third base coach jumped and waved me in. I safely slid home and the crowd cheered loudly.

The elderly lottery ticket saleswoman shouted “Muy bien, mi amor!” I blew her a kiss. The crowd laughed and yelled louder.

The next week, more regulars returned and I warmed the bench. As the seventh inning began, the short man in the red hat yelled, “Why don’t you put the gringo in?” I realized that I had made friends.

 

A FEW WEEKS LATER, while standing stranded along a road with some other Peace Corps Volunteers, a red truck pulled up. The driver was a softball player from a neighboring hamlet. “Where are you and your group going?”

“Across town. The buses aren’t running well today,” I answered.

“They are now. Jump in,” he said and smiled.

20161208_143048Anson Lihosit (Panama 2015-17) grew up in Madera, California where he played basketball, baseball, tennis, ran track and threw the discus. He graduated from Northern Arizona University with a major in Urban Planning and a minor in Spanish. Immediately following graduation, he worked as an intern at a city planning office in a small town neighboring Madera. A few months later he was hired by another small town near Bakersfield, California. Since the Peace Corps was not recruiting Urban Planners, he applied as an English Teacher based on his part-time volunteer and tutoring experience. He arrived in Panama for training in February 2015 and will complete his service in May 2017.

Anson’s father is Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77) who has published a dozen books of poetry and travel narratives and the extremely important and useful Peace Corps Chronology 1961-2010.

6 Comments

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  • Thanks for sharing, I love the story and the memories of the camaraderie many of us enjoyed in villages and towns all over the world. Steve C (Ethiopia 1965-67).

  • Unlike Anson, I wasn’t an avid baseball fan nor very good player but soon realized that the game was the only unifying force in the village deep in the Venezuelan llanos. So, as a community development effort, I helped get a few gloves, bats and balls from the Peace Corps office in far-away Caracas, but on the condition that the community clear a grassy field and mark out a diamond, which they did. Despite my protestations, I became the club manager, mostly because I was the only one big enough to separate our and visiting players from going at each other. I also discovered that I was expected to supply a big pot of stew for the post-game meal…lots of yucca and bush meat. To reach outlying villages for games, we occasionally went up and down churning muddy rivers in dug out canoes. I don’t recall our record, but I do know that for the first time the disparate folks in the agrarian reform colony started showing community pride and cohesiveness….probably didn’t last long, but long enough to use this sentiment to get community actions resulting in an operational health post and a supply of clean drinking water for the vilolage….probably more than a few babies survived as a result….thanks to baseball.
    Rob Thurston, PC Venezuela, 1968-70.

  • Anson is too shy to admit that he began playing organized baseball at 5 years of age. A year and a half later, he was working out with his older brother’s 8 to 12 year old team on the sly. The coach was so taken with Anson’s grit that he asked me to suit him up for their last game (at his own risk for breaking the rules). They put my youngest son in as a pinch hitter in the 9th inning, with the score tied. This was hardball, not softball and Anson (the second grader) faced a fifth or sixth grade pitcher. After two whiffs, he grounded to the short-stop who bobbled the ball as Anson ran lickety split safely to first. He stole second on the next batter’s first pitch. That next batter hit into the outfield and Anson ran home to win the game. His team carried him off the field on their shoulders. By his last year in Little League he became a small farm town legend, batting 480 and stealing 29 bases (including home 5 times).

    At one of his games, his older brother forced one of his buddies to come to the field. I sat behind them. Zeke’s buddy complained, “What do I want to watch Little League for? Didn’t I watch you play?”

    His older brother replied, “I never played like this.”

    And now the little kid with grit represents us all.

  • And we wonder what Peace Corps is all about, making friends and learning about one another. Baseball is your vehicle, but you are the energy to reach your communuty. I am honored, you have made a change in the lives of many…you too!
    Bob
    PCRV, Azuero 2009-2010, Darién 2013-2014

  • Aaron is certainly his father’s son and we are all the richer for it. What a great story! It also should be used in Peace Corps training as it shows a path to community engagement. Thank you to the Lihosit family!

  • As soon as I read Anson’s story I thought–he must be related to Lawrence Lihosit–whose book, “Peace Corps Experience: Write & Publish Your Memoir” I found very helpful in writing my own first book–a memoir, “Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond.”

    The compelling part of this story from my perspective is how we pass a long our values to our own children so we have a second generation promoting peace and cross cultural appreciation and understanding. My own daughter is now a professional fundraiser as well–for an international NGO–IRC–this is where the multiplier effect kicks in.

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