With apologies to the National Football League, baseball is still recognized as our national sport. Internationally, however, the bases aren’t fully loaded.
This became clear in 2005, when the International Olympic Committee dropped baseball from the 2012 Olympic program. The International Baseball Federation’s appeal of the decision was denied the following year.
Now Bob Oettinger ’73 is working to move baseball from benchwarmer to batter up. In 2009, the lifelong baseball fan got together with a few businessmen, including lawyer Joseph Ryan and former major league players Reggie Smith, Dave Stewart and Brad Lesley. The group formed the International Baseball Association (IBA) with the mission of promoting baseball around the world by establishing baseball academies to train and educate young players.
Oettinger, who serves as IBA president, and the cohort decided on Central America as the starting point. After meeting with MLB executives to discuss their ambitions, the group was advised to visit the Dominican Republic and study how its numerous major league academies are structured.
“We visited three academies and got a great sense of how the physical layout of our academy should be, but we also learned about some of the pitfalls in the Dominican system,” Oettinger said. “At that point we decided we really needed to incorporate education and life-skills training in our curriculum as well.”
Lights … cameras … reporters!
In all of Central America, two countries call baseball their national sport: Nicaragua and Panama (it is said that the countries once had American military stationed there that introduced the game). In Nicaragua, still recovering from the Sandinista Revolution and regime of the 1980s, economic and industrial development has been slow. There was next to nothing in terms of formalized baseball infrastructure, Oettinger said.
“Panama had more facilities,” he said, “but there was more of a need in Nicaragua.”
In March 2010, Oettinger and IBA partner Ryan flew to Nicaragua on a fact-finding mission.
“We were really overwhelmed at the reception we got,” he recalled. “Everyone was so enthusiastic, and there is a real national pride for baseball down there.
To my amazement, we entered a room with at least 25 media members and TV cameras. Pretty heady — and intimidating.
“News of our arrival had reached Managua thanks to a big story in the major newspaper, La Prensa, and we were met by a television camera crew. Later that afternoon, we were advised that we were to speak at a press conference. To my amazement, we entered a room with at least 25 media members and TV cameras. Pretty heady — and intimidating — for two guys who thought they were making an anonymous fact-finding trip!”
The reporters’ questions made it clear that Nicaragua was excited and eager to welcome the IBA. The enthusiasm sealed the deal for Oettinger. Since that initial visit, he has been to Nicaragua 18 times.
Working on the ground game
From the start, Oettinger realized Nicaragua needed plenty of help with the sport’s organization and infrastructure. There were various small, independent leagues in many different towns, but facilities were almost nonexistent. Often, children played in fields, literally nudging cows aside, and made baseballs from rolled-up socks bound with tape.
“We really felt that we had an opportunity to make an impact,” he explained, “and that was empowering for us.”
Over the past few years, the IBA has collaborated with schools and other organizations to distribute more than three tons of donated baseball equipment to youth teams in Nicaragua. It has also coordinated baseball clinics for players and coaches around the country, geared to improve the quality of coaching and afford IBA an opportunity to scout talent.
Now the IBA is formalizing a partnership with Managua’s Boer Indios, one of four teams in the Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League. They will collaborate on implementing a training program for a select number of young players, with the longer-term goal of constructing an academy.
Let the games begin (almost)
With a board of directors in place and fundraising underway, the future academy will provide intensive training in baseball fundamentals in addition to seminars in sports medicine, nutrition, coaching and umpire training.
Participants will also receive classroom instruction in computers, math, English-language and business skills. While the IBA aims to help young players obtain scholarships to U.S. universities or move into careers in pro baseball, it is also committed to improving the lifestyles of the young people who do not continue in baseball.
We’re focusing on kids 14 to 16 years old, many of whom have already dropped out of school.
“We’re focusing on kids 14 to 16 years old, many of whom have already dropped out of school,” Oettinger said. “In northern Nicaragua, where there are coffee plantations, kids often quit school at 8 or 9 years old because their families need them to work.”
The program also teaches participants valuable skills applicable in the growing tourism industry of Nicaragua. This helps to raise the standard of living of the players as well as the surrounding community. Some staff will be hired from the local labor force, with an emphasis on providing vocational education.
Getting the word out
Oettinger has worked in corporate and nonprofit management, fundraising, planning, public relations and promotions for more than 25 years. At USC Dornsife, Oettinger majored in history and worked as a student assistant in USC’s sports information department. He also served as a reporter and eventually director of a student news bureau sponsored by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and took many public relations classes.
“My training at ’SC has really helped me with marketing and promoting our idea,” said Oettinger, who has two children who also graduated from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “I’ve been able to get the word out pretty well, and we continue to have huge media coverage and press conferences whenever we go down to Nicaragua.”
A growing number of young Nicaraguan athletes are getting to the American minor leagues, he said. For the 2014 season, there are three Nicaraguan players in the major leagues.
“When Reggie [Smith] went down to do a clinic and watched kids hit, he would just tinker with their batting stances and in the course of five minutes you would see the improvement,” Oettinger said. “So you think, if you give these kids a good facility and the proper training, there is a real opportunity for them to play professional baseball, nationally or in the U.S.”