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Original Issue

Dubious triumph in Florida

Nicaraguans believe they were thrown a changeup in St. Petersburg by the U.S. organizers and thereby deprived of the world amateur title

The United States captured its second consecutive World Amateur Baseball Championship recently when a squad of collegians defeated a Nicaraguan team composed mostly of sugarcane and tobacco-factory workers 9-2 before 400-odd fans at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Last year a similar U.S. team edged the Nicaraguans 1-0 in a 10-inning finale that drew 28,000 to a makeshift 9,000-seat stadium in Nicaragua, shortly after part of that country was devastated by an earthquake. That the Nicaraguans took their responsibilities as hosts more seriously than did the U.S. was shown by the $500,000 they spent to stage their tournament as opposed to this year's U.S. budget of about $10,000, and by the generally shabby treatment accorded the visiting teams in Florida where Italy, Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Taiwan, South Africa and Canada were represented along with Nicaragua.

The tournament began with an Olympic-style ceremony that was meant to set the tone for what everyone hoped would be a dignified event. Each team, in full uniform and carrying its national flag, marched in from the center-field fence and lined up around home plate. But the solemnity of the ceremony was marred when a local minor league official appeared at the plate with a handheld microphone and began hawking souvenirs to the 300 or so fans present. From that moment on the dignity of the occasion began to fade. By the conclusion of the 12-day tournament, it seemed that the stated goal of fostering brotherhood among nations had been revised to inspiring animosity. Groups of foreign delegates huddled in the shadows of the nearly deserted stands and accused their hosts of promoting the tournament as if it were a convention of international spies who wished to conduct their affairs in secrecy. As examples of inhospitality they could point to the Dominican team being asked to leave its motel and the failure of the organizers to provide off-field diversions for the athletes.

The object of much of this discontent was the overseer of the event, William P. (Dutch) Fehring, director of intramural sports at Stanford University and president of the World Amateur Baseball Federation. Fehring, a tall, stooped, gaunt man whose misfortune it is to resemble Ebenezer Scrooge, was an infrequent spectator at the games. On those occasions when he did appear at Al Lang Field, it was usually to openly cheer on the U.S. team.

On the playing field itself there were two near riots, each quelled only by the arrival of five police squad cars. Both disturbances were precipitated by an umpire's decision, followed by threats to "kill the umpire" (in Spanish), which were taken to heart by one of the American officials who understood Spanish.

On another occasion the Taiwanese threatened to lodge a protest when one of their players stroked a triple and, while standing on third base, was called out by an umpire for using a colored bat. The Taiwanese accused the U.S. umpires of taking advantage of them because of the language barrier. Coming on the heels of their recent banishment by the U.S. Little League organization, the Taiwanese could be excused for being slightly paranoid in their dealings with anybody in U.S. baseball, and after a second run-in with the U.S. officials they held a meeting to decide whether to withdraw. Because they had spent so much money just coming to the U.S., most of the players voted to finish out the tournament, but only after such a hotly debated team meeting that their play on the field suffered. A heavily favored entry, the Taiwanese were able to win only three games in eight tries. Three of their losses were by one run.

Finally, there was the claim by the Nicaraguans that they actually had won the tournament but had been cheated out of their victory by an arbitrary ruling by Fehring. According to the Nicaraguans, the winner of the round-robin event should have been the team with the best won-lost record. Since both the U.S. and Nicaragua had finished with identical 7-0-1 records, and since their only meeting had resulted in a 6-6 tie in a game called because of darkness after nine innings (it was the only game of the tournament to be played at an unlighted ball park in Bradenton), the Nicaraguans claimed that according to international rules that game should be replayed in its entirety, with the winner being crowned world champion. At a meeting in the St. Petersburg Hilton, Fehring negated that argument. With Glen Tuckett, the U.S. baseball coach, beside him, and the Nicaraguans facing him across the conference table, Fehring said, "That game just evaporated into the darkness in Bradenton, that's all." Then he instituted a best two-of-three series between the two teams, apparently in the hope that it would generate some more money, which the financially troubled tournament badly needed to pay off debts in St. Petersburg.

The Nicaraguans' insistence that they won the championship was based on their subsequent opening-game victory—the winners slapped line drives to every part of the outfield against American fastball pitching—in the best-of-three series with the collegians. That game, they asserted, constituted the replaying of their 6-6 tie with the U.S., and it gave them an overall record of 8-0-1 to 7-1-1 for the Americans. But Fehring stuck to his playoff decision and the two teams met again that night in the second game of the series.

Baffling the free-swinging U.S. hitters with an assortment of soft curveballs that seemed barely to reach the plate, Nicaragua's Julio Juarez was protecting a 3-2 lead going into the ninth inning. The Nicaraguan fans, about 20 of them, joined by most of the other South American and Puerto Rican delegates, began to surge around the home-plate screen anticipating final victory and a wild celebration. They cheered Juarez' every pitch in the ninth inning and were not daunted when he walked the first batter he faced. Then, with two outs and two strikes on the batter, Doug Coon, a Brigham Young University senior, Juarez gave up a single. Ron Hassey, a 6'2" third baseman from Arizona, followed with a game-tying single, and Jim Willis of the University of Oregon hit a routine ground ball to short that was booted to send in the winning run. The Latin fans and players were stunned.

The following morning the Nicaraguans were unable to shake their despondency and the collegians battered three pitchers for 15 hits and a 9-2 victory in the deciding game. Steve Kemp, a Southern California outfielder, settled the issue in the third inning with a towering two-run home run. Kemp's Southern Cal teammate, George Milke, scattered nine hits to win his third victory of the tournament. Milke, although never particularly sharp, was smart enough not to challenge the Nicaraguans with his fastball, relying instead on an excellent curve and a straight changeup.

When the game was over, the teams shook hands at home plate and traded baseball caps in one final gesture of friendship. During the postgame ceremonies at the plate, Nicaraguan players received three special awards: for hitting (Julio Cuarezma), pitching (Porfirio Altomirano) and designated hitting (Pablo Juarez). Discussing those awards, Fehring said, "These people are striving to become proud, and if they can take home two or three individual trophies to Nicaragua, well, it'll be some solace for not winning the championship."