Bonetto Plays Hardball in Nicaragua

Times Staff Writer

Tom Bonetto stepped through the door and a hush quickly fell over the room. All eyes turned in his direction. Normally, the ability to dominate a social gathering simply by walking into a room would be a dream come true for a single college student.

But this wasn't the lounge at the Hard Rock Cafe. It was a hotel bar in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, and under the circumstances, Bonetto would have preferred to remain anonymous, thank you.

"They told me I looked like a CIA agent," said Bonetto, whose close-cropped hair, jutting chin and aviator sunglasses give him that popular Highway Patrol look. "I really stood out like a sore thumb."

In Nicaragua, the initials CIA are about as popular as the initials IRS are to Leona Helmsley. All of which gave Bonetto serious cause for concern.

But his goal in Nicaragua involved toppling an institution much more ingrained than the Sandinista-led government. Instead of bumping off a politician, Bonetto's mission was to knock off Nicaragua's national baseball team.

It proved to be a mission impossible.

Bonetto, a senior at Occidental College was part of a 22-player delegation representing the United States in last month's Third Stanley Cayasso Memorial Cup baseball tournament. And the U. S. team's Central American policy proved to be about as successful as the CIA's, as it lost four of its five games--beating only Mexico in 10 innings--to finish fifth in a six-team field. The Cuban national team downed Nicaragua to win the title.

"We played really poorly the whole tournament," Bonetto said. "We didn't get much pitching, and when we did get some pitching, we couldn't score any runs."

It would be hard to saddle Bonetto with much of the blame as his participation was limited to two pinch-running assignments and a two-inning stint at second base. After an All-American season at Occidental, in which he batted a conference-leading .434, being forced to watch from the bench could have been tough for Bonetto to take.

But the political science major said he came to Nicaragua more to observe culture than to play baseball.

"I hope I can apply what I learned in class," Bonetto said. "There were only about two people I talked to who didn't like the government. Everyone seemed to like the Sandinistas. The people are really politically aware about everything that is going on in their system.

"They are really astute."

The baseball tournament, which also drew teams from Panama and Colombia, was timed to coincide with celebrations commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Sandinista-led insurrection that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. And like a number of other events that took place during the two weeks of festivities, attendance at the tournament fell far short of expectations.

"I thought that this tournament was going to be the biggest deal in Nicaragua," Bonetto said. "There were obviously some die-hards who were keeping up with everything, but I was surprised that the crowds were not that big."

One reason for the sparse attendance may have been the price of tickets. Box seats for the games in Managua went for 25,000 cordobas, with bleacher seats about a third that price. And while the box-seat price comes to about a dollar in U. S. currency, it's the equivalent of a day's wages for a middle-class Nicaraguan.

Still, Bonetto was impressed with the sophistication of the fans--many who cheered the U. S. team.

"The Nicaraguans cheer big plays, but they want to see big swings and great plays and guys throwing hard," Bonetto said. "I think the fans were more interested in a good game more than anything else. They left halfway through some games if the games weren't any good."

While the Cuban and Nicaraguan teams were national all-star squads, the U. S. was represented by the San Bernardino Indians, a free-lance member of the National Baseball Congress. And although the roster included a couple of players with minor-league experience, the majority of the players were from college and junior college programs. Bonetto says the team's youth and inability to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings contributed to its poor showing.

"Baseball players are used to routine. We're used to getting up at a certain hour and practicing or whatever," Bonetto said. "But when we first arrived in Managua, we didn't know what time our games would be, we didn't have any kind of a practice schedule. . . . We were living hour to hour."

And moving from hotel to hotel. The team spent time in three hotels in less than 12 days in Nicaragua.

"Most of the guys didn't like it at all," Bonetto said. "They were used to having what we consider everyday things. Like good water, decent food. But it's really a poor country. Most of the guys felt they couldn't perform at their best.

"The tournament was not very well-run at all. It didn't seem to be put together very well from the start."

That uncertainly took its toll on more than just the players. Andrew Lieberman, the executive director of Baseball Diplomacy, Inc., the U. S. delegation's sponsor, spent several days in a Mexico City hospital suffering from exhaustion.

But for Bonetto, the trip provided mostly fond memories.

"The people were just really nice and they really went out of their way for you," he said. "They were very careful to make the distinction between the American people and the government. They would say something like, 'Although our governments disagree, we still like American people and American things. That was very, very nice.

"It would have been nice to go to the medal round and win a medal. I would have liked to team to play better. But I wasn't disappointed at all."

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