Photos courtesy of Juan Bustos Sr.
Baseball Without Borders, a South San Francisco-based youth baseball international travel club, took a trip to Central America this summer, where the18-and-under team made friends with San Juan Del Sur during a five-game tournament in Nicaragua.
It was a gesture in the true spirit of Baseball Without Borders.
When Juan Bustos Sr. started Baseball Without Borders — based in South San Francisco — in 1995, he envisioned a mission which united different cultures through the sport of baseball. But when a 10-player team of 13 and 14 year olds bound for Italy in July saw two players back out of the trip, the roster suddenly dwindled to eight players. So instead of cancelling the trip, Bustos called upon Claudio Cipone, an opposing coach from the previous year’s European trip.
An Argentina native who previously coached in Italy before relocating to Spain, Cipone arranged for five Spanish players to join the Baseball Without Borders squad. So, the team swung through Bologna, Italy to pick up the Spanish quintet before traveling to Rimini, Italy to begin a seven-game tournament.
“It was more the experience than the tournament,” Bustos said. “We couldn’t find sufficient players. We only had eight players … so what we did is we reached out to our friends in Spain and brought in five kids.”
The trip marks the third straight year Baseball Without Borders has travelled to Italy. The organization also sent an 18-and-under team to Central America, where they played in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Through its 20-year existence, Baseball Without Borders has donated equipment to 14 countries, including South Africa, Nigeria, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, the Philippines, Ukraine, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
“We saw a lot of kids internationally that had no equipment, so we figured what we’ll do is we’ll bring down equipment and get a flavor for the international game,” Bustos said.
The 13 and 14 year olds got a taste of Italian living through their weeklong trip in July.
Travelling with coach Mychael Urban, the Bay Area media personality, the team enjoyed quite an exquisite voyage. After touching down in Colico, they travelled through the banks of Lake Como, where they took some time out to watch televised matches from the soccer World Cup. From there, they caught a tour of the duomo in Milan, went looking for George Clooney in Bellagio — though they never found him — then swung through Verona and Venice before heading to Bologna to retrieve their new Spanish teammates.
Once in Rimini — a small city north of San Marino on the western Italian coast along the Adriatic Sea — the kids had plenty of distractions. According to Bustos, the beach was a half block in one direction while the baseball diamond was a half block inland.
“Between the baseball experience, the water slides down the block, the beach and the gelatos, it was tough on them,” Bustos said jokingly.
The team ended their Italian tour by sending a good portion of their equipment home with their new Spanish teammates. According to Bustos, the challenge of procuring equipment in Spain is because none of the sporting goods stores stock baseball equipment. And shipping equipment there is costly because of duty taxes at customs. So, bestowing equipment on the Spanish players to take home was too good an opportunity to pass up.
In Central America, however, the organization donates equipment for very different reasons. According to Bustos, there is plenty of baseball equipment available in Nicaragua. Being the poorest country in Central America, however, for an average kid in Nicaragua buying baseball equipment is cost prohibitive.
“It’s not the fact they don’t have the stores. It’s that they don’t have the money to buy it,” Bustos said.
In conjunction with a sponsorship by United Airlines — the company allowed Baseball Without Borders to ship 21 bags of equipment free of charge, according to Bustos — the team, coached by South San Francisco native Brian Pierotti, delivered an array of equipment during their travels to Central America.
They delivered bats, helmets, catcher’s gear, umpire’s gear, 150 baseballs and approximately 40 gloves, according to Bustos.
“Oh my goodness, you should have seen the kids’ eyes,” Bustos said. “It was kind of like Christmas in August. You could see the twinkle in their eyes.”
While in Nicaragua, the Baseball Without Borders 18-and-under team played five games, including two with the Dennis Martinez Baseball Academy. They also travelled to Costa Rica for one game in La Cruz.
Bustos said the first trip Baseball Without Borders ever took was some years ago to Mexicali, Mexico. And it was then he realized how differently the game was distinguished from culture to culture.
“The quality of baseball they play is just phenomenal,” Bustos said. “They are good players all-around. While our kids aren’t playing as much, they’re playing constantly. Mexicali only gets three inches of rain a year and their fields are all dirt. So, their eye-hand coordination is just phenomenal, and very few times do they come up here and make errors on the field. I wanted our kids to see that and experience that. These kids don’t have a whole lot. Our kids have a lot.”
Baseball Without Borders relies on fundraisers to generate the monies to make its breadth of baseball operations possible. In addition to the fundraising norm of crab feeds and coffee sales, the organization raffles off some big-ticket items. Some of its upcoming raffle headliners include Giants tickets, 49ers tickets, seats from Candlestick Park and dinner with Giants pitcher Tim Hudson.
But next year, Baseball Without Borders is planning its first domestic baseball expedition. According to Bustos, the local teams will not travel abroad next summer. Instead, the organization will host teams from around the world — with commitments already from teams in Spain and Argentina — and will look to play tournaments in Northern and Southern California, as well as parlay the baseball tourneys into a trip for all the players to Disneyland.
“If we can pull that off we will have committed a coup, because that would be one awesome tournament,” Bustos said.