Bush League

Bush League

It was a late September night in New York’s Yankee Stadium; the crowd roared and flashbulbs popped. But the evening was bittersweet: The Yankees wouldn’t be going to the playoffs — they were saying goodbye to a hero. The tears streamed down Mariano Rivera’s face as he embraced his teammates and left the mound for the final time in his storied career. Rivera — a pitcher so consistently and unremittingly dominant over the course of his career that many jokingly questioned whether he was part-machine — stood tall, waving his cap to 47,000 adoring fans.

Half a hemisphere away, in Rivera’s native Panamá, the triumph of a proud native son was splashed across the country’s newspapers. In Panamá, Rivera is a god. But the baseball system that produced the great closer is in shambles. Marred by underachievement, scandal, and corruption, it’s taken the opposite path of Latin American baseball success stories like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Today, baseball in Panamá — the first of the great Latin American baseball powerhouses — is an institution coming apart at the seams.

"You know, if you can’t keep up, you’ll be left back," says Héctor López, a Panamanian ballplayer who played for the Kansas City Athletics and New York Yankees from 1955 through 1966, in an interview. "And I think Panamá didn’t keep up."

Panamá’s early baseball dominance was due, in part at least, to the head start the country got on the game. Historians believe the country was first exposed to baseball in 1850, while still a province of Colombia, by Americans working on the U.S.-built Panamá Railway. It was quick to catch on, thanks to the skills of the cricket-playing immigrants from the British West Indies who came to work on the railway and later the Panamá Canal. By 1914, when the canal was completed, Panamá was a 10-year-old republic, and baseball her national pastime. The nation’s first stars began to emerge, many of whom were the sons and grandsons of those same cricket-playing immigrants.

Over the next three decades, the sport would grow, hitting its stride during a golden age in the 1940s, which saw the advent of the nation’s first professional league. With teams owned by corporate giants like Marlboro, Chesterfield, and General Electric, a baseball-crazy Panamanian fan base, plus 50,000 Americans living in the Canal Zone, the league played to packed stadiums and even attracted high-level talent from the United States, mostly from the minor and Negro leagues.

"The league had a tremendous level of competition," says David Salayandía, a television sports broadcaster with TVN Panamá. "It had a great fan base; the stadiums were full." Panamá was a founding member of the Caribbean Series, capturing the tournament in 1950 over the likes of Cuba, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico — a tournament it would ultimately be booted out of in the 1970s, when it no longer had a professional league that could compete.

Panamanian béis would reach true international powerhouse status in 1955, when it sent its first player to the U.S. major leagues. Pitcher Humberto Robinson, born in the hardscrabble town of Colón, would be the first of 46 Panamanians to eventually make the grand journey. Others would follow in his footsteps: López, Panamá’s first non-pitcher export; Manny Sanguillén, the bombastic catcher who helped lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to two World Series titles; Ben Oglivie, the first non-U.S. born player to lead his league in home runs; and the immortal Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who won seven batting titles over the course of his career.

But as quickly as baseball on the isthmus reached its zenith, even faster would it begin to fall — a victim of the turbulent politics of 1970s Latin America.

U.S.-Latin America relations were at a low in the 1970s, as publics chafed against U.S.-backed military dictatorships meant to serve as a bulwark against communism. Panamá was no exception: By the mid-1960s, a period of intense nationalism had developed on the isthmus, and continued U.S. sovereignty over the Canal Zone was causing relations with Panamá to grow increasingly tense. On Jan. 9, 1964, 21 Panamanian civilians were killed by U.S. National Guard troops during protests that turned to riots on the Canal Zone. Gen. Omar Torrijos, Panamá’s leader who would arise from this turbulent period, was no communist — but he was something of a leftist who pursued an agenda of expanding state-owned companies, increasing social services, reducing U.S. influence in the country, and most importantly, winning back control of the canal. He would also turn his attentions to many aspects of Panamanian culture, including baseball.

Torrijos felt the sport to be too centered in Panamá City, the country’s capital, and wanted to rid it once and for all of U.S. corporate involvement. Torrijos viewed it as his duty to give all Panamanians, regardless of province or economic standing, equal access to the game, and in 1970, Torrijos made it official: He dissolved the nation’s professional league, with its privately funded teams, and created a government-funded semi-amateur national league and feeder system. In one stroke, Torrijos forever altered the course of baseball on the isthmus.

Immediately, Panamá was disqualified from competing in the Caribbean Series, whose rules stipulate that competing nations must have ongoing, professional baseball leagues. Panamá, along with Cuba, which had also dissolved its professional league, was expelled, clearing the way for México and the Dominican Republic to join, the latter of which has gone on to win a staggering 19 Caribbean Series titles.

With Panamá’s economy ever prone to uncertainty, funding for baseball became — and remains — scarce. Under the nationalized model, funding comes from the state, and there is simply not enough to go around; provincial and local league officials today compete viciously for precious little. In theory, funds should be equally distributed to all provinces and districts, but in practice this has hardly been the case. Money is often parceled out via backroom political deals — candidates for the elected positions of provincial league presidents dole funding out for votes, and favoritism runs amok.

Meanwhile, some of Panamá’s stadiums are literally crumbling; one, the Estadio Mariano Bula in Colón, saw its roof collapse in 2012, injuring a teenager. Teams sometimes simply skip out on away games, unable or unwilling to travel due to budgetary constraints. Local Little Leagues are either underfunded or nonexistent, meaning many young Panamanians no longer get key early exposure to the game. The incompetence of FEDEBÉIS (the Panamanian Baseball Federation) stands in stark contrast to the professionalism of FEPAFUT (the Panamanian Soccer Federation), with its well-funded professional league. As a result, an entire generation of young would-be baseball fans — Panamá, historically was never particularly into fútbol, despite being located in soccer-mad Central America — has been lost to the world’s game.

Attendance at ballparks around the isthmus has reached critically low levels. Though the perennially successful teams like Panamá Metro (located in Panamá City) and Los Santos (located in Los Santos province) can still draw acceptable numbers of fans — that is, more than 1,000 per game — it’s not uncommon for teams playing in poorer provinces like Colón and Coclé to see minuscule attendance figures. One game this year in Coclé saw an official attendance of 20.

"The fans, they’re not watching good baseball," said Olmedo Sáenz, a former Panamanian major leaguer. "They’re watching a kind of a circus right now going on in Panamá."

Mariano Rivera remains a hero in Panamá, but the prospects for this broken system producing another player of his caliber look shaky. Talented peloteros on the isthmus have nowhere to go to hone their skills, and few U.S. scouts visit these days. Panamá’s national league is no place to prepare for the big show; rising stars could seek a place in one of the Latin American winter leagues abroad, for which they’re likely ill-prepared, but even those who’ve found spots in the U.S. minor leagues have to return home to Panamá in the off-season to work for supplemental income, taking their focus off of baseball.

"When we come back in September, we spend all the money we saved during the season, and if we don’t have a chance to play in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, México, those other countries, we gotta look for a job here," said José Camarena, a catcher formerly in the Atlanta Braves farm system, who spent his winters driving a Panamá City taxi.

Once a force in Latin America, Panamanian baseball is now on life support. But there’s still a pulse: A number of former major league players, nongovernmental organizations, and members of the business community have sprung into action on the isthmus, trying their best to fill the void and rekindle Panamá’s baseball fire. Players like Sáenz and Omar Moreno have both opened free baseball academies for kids; NGOs like the Lions Club of Panamá have spent years building fields and donating equipment; business leaders like Lauren Flores — who, together with a group of investors in 2011, founded PROBÉIS — are once again bringing professional baseball back to Panamá.

"Right now, our baseball is going through a great crisis. Everybody knows the crisis that Panamanian baseball is in," Moreno said. "Our goal is to get it back to a high level."

As Mariano Rivera hangs up his spikes for the last time, and heads off into the baseball sunset, another challenge awaits him, should he choose to accept it. A challenge located half a hemisphere away, on a tiny land bridge separating the continents. For baseball in Panamá, it’s getting late in the game, and the time for a hero is now. For Rivera, perhaps his 653rd save won’t come on the diamond, but it could very well be the most important of his career.