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Player envoys bring “baseball diplomacy” to Nicaragua

Through the MLBPA’s collective charity, the Players Trust, players have become increasingly active as ambassadors of baseball around the world.  In partnership with the US State Department Sports Envoy program, Major Leaguers Jed Lowrie, John Mayberry, Jr. and JC Ramirez recently visited Nicaragua to help conduct three clinics in four days.

These particular clinics were a bit different than most, combining baseball with education about gender equality.

“Like most clinics, we had stations for infield, outfield, pitching, catching and hitting, but we added another station for a talk about gender-based violence,” said Lowrie, a veteran infielder with the Oakland A’s. “For that 15-minute rotation, a local expert would sit down with the kids to have a discussion about gender-based violence and equality.”

Mayberry, who has known Lowrie since they were roommates at Stanford in the early 2000s, tried to make sure the messaging carried over to the other stations, as well.

“From a practical standpoint, it’s one thing to hear an educational message in a classroom setting, but we were able to bring it to the ball field and communicate in that setting,” Mayberry said. “Even the hitting and fielding stations, we made sure the groups were divided equally with young men and young women and tried to make sure the young women were in the forefront.”

The State Department’s Sports Envoy program seeks to empower young people, with a special emphasis on women and girls, through sports and discussions about the role of women in society, addressing issues such as leadership, health, and women’s well-being. In addition to this month’s trip to Nicaragua from Jan. 5-8, major leaguers have also participated in this unique Players Trust program to support clinics in Ecuador, Nigeria and Romania.

“The skills that this sport develops, such as teamwork, coordination and discipline, as well as companionship and solidarity, are important qualities for life and professional performance and should be applied to promote a culture of equality and respect for others,” said US Ambassador Laura Dogu, who spearheaded the Nicaraguan clinics.

In addition to the clinics, Dogu also invited the players and the entourage to her home for a dinner with more than 100 Nicaraguan friends and dignitaries.

“We got a wide view of baseball in Nicaragua,” Lowrie said. “From the national stadium, which is a major-league quality facility, to the back fields where kids come to play after school and stay off the streets.”

It wasn’t the first venture into baseball diplomacy for Lowrie and his wife, Milessa, who previously worked as a diplomat for the State Department for nearly six years. In 2015, the couple traveled to Colombia for clinics and they plan to do more.

“This is a perfect melding of both of our worlds,” Lowrie said.

The Nicaragua clinics – billed as “Home Run for Equality” — were held on three consecutive mornings beginning with one at Dennis Martinez Stadium in Managua, the Roberto Clemente children’s stadium in Managua and the Ciudad Sandino stadium. More than 300 kids from 16 youth baseball and softball teams participated.

“I wasn’t sure what kind of skill level to expect from the kids but their skills were far superior to what I had anticipated,” Mayberry said. “For whatever reason, I had assumed Nicaragua was a soccer country, but I soon found out that baseball is the No. 1 sport there.

“It showed. You could tell these kids had been playing and watching baseball from an early age. Even the 9 and 10-year-old kids were very advanced.”

In addition to the clinics, Lowrie and Mayberry also made an impromptu visit to a community center where the pair joined in a sandlot ballgame that was taking place.

“We took all of these winding dirt roads off the beaten path to get to what was like a version of a Boys and Girls Club run by a couple from California who have Nicaraguan heritage,” Mayberry said. “Jed and I went out there and played for a half inning. We didn’t get any at-bats but Jed did get to pitch. That was a fun part of the trip.”

In addition to the valuable lessons the kids received about baseball and gender equality, more than 1,000 pounds of baseball and softball equipment was provided to at-risk children during the trip.

“Sports are a really good way to keep kids active,” Lowrie said. “What this program did was introduce new ideas that will help them become better people at the same time … It’s sports diplomacy in a way.”