On the road… again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Softball Overseas Part I
They say that when you go overseas you should plan for downtime by developing hobbies. Softball was not exactly a hobby, but a sport that enjoyed wide popularity around the world and one that did not require too much in the way of equipment or even in a suitable place to play. It was popular enough that the Footloose Forester got to play softball in several countries and against teams that more or less represented their countries. You might say that we played in the International League.
There were so few players to choose from that our teams were not very good, or did we ever expect ourselves to be good. The attraction and the joy were in the playing, not in the winning. The Footloose Forester was often the oldest player but seldom had to cede his position to anyone younger because there were never enough players to make up full teams.
In Cape Verde the Footloose Forester played on the side of the contractors who had personal services contracts with the US Department of Agriculture to carry our various foreign assistance projects. We called ourselves the Contractor Scum. The other side, the government guys, we labeled the Lifers. After more than two years playing on a very restricted and narrow beach on the island of Sao Tiago in the Cape Verde archipelago, our small group attracted the attention of a cadre of Cape Verdean athletes who had all been sent to Cuba and trained as physical education instructors. They all were required to learn coaching and playing skills in different sports, but they all had a passion for playing softball, the one sport that both Cubans and Cape Verdeans competed in, as opponents.
Since the returned coaches had influence in the government departments that had invested in their educations, part of that influence translated into gaining admission into the national stadium in Praia, the national capital. At that time, the government Lifers and the Contractor Scum joined forces to create the American national team that we dubbed the Malaguetas, (the hot chili peppers).
It was wonderful playing defense on a packed, level surface that you could usually trust to give you routine bounces. There was room enough to hit a legitimate home run to any field, without having a tree or a bank or a restricted property line delimiting the dimensions of the field. The Footloose Forester recalls being the one who hit the deepest drive to dead center field. The ball carried to the edge of the bleachers but was just a long out because the center fielder, Ken Hill, was the best fielder we had. He not only had good range, but he was tall and fast and knew the hitters well enough to play them in likely territories. Making an out to center field might not be expected to qualify as an item in one’s memoirs, but this one did. The bat met the ball in the sweet spot and the swing felt like swatting a tennis ball.
The sporting association with the Cape Verdeans blossomed in other ways. We talked about getting standard-size bases so that it would be easier to play to a base, run to a base and throw to a base that we could see. We also talked about getting T-shirts with our own logo. So, one of the guys who was planning to go back to the States on vacation agreed to arrange for the purchase of standard-size cardboard profile bases. He also took back with him the T-shirt design logo for the Malaguetas.
The Malaquetas, Cape Verde in December 1984
Footloose Forester had only one T-shirt but wore it on and off for years after we returned from Cape Verde. In the meantime, while our teammate was preparing his trip, the Footloose Forester arranged to go to a grain storage section of the Port of Praia where shipments of American maize were unloaded as part of our Food for Work program. They had an industrial bagger-sewing machine there, and one of the people who worked at the port was on the Cape Verdean softball team.
Footloose Forester remembers gathering together several empty maize sacks and double bagging a full set of them with packed sand. We doubled-stitched the bags (the bases) to the exact official dimensions of a major league base, including the thickness. Footloose Forester was proud to make softball a more respected effort, and we used the bases regularly each time we played in the stadium. We even had a place to store them in a sports equipment shed. The bases of official size (length, width, and thickness) were never again used when the heavy-duty cardboard sliders arrived.
Another memory about softball in Cape Verde was the fact that the young and athletic Cape Verdean coaches never defeated the Americans a single time. The scores were never even close. Footloose Forester remembers scores like 23-5, 21-2, and 28-6. The closest contest he remembers had a score something like 18 -4.
The passion to play ball wormed its way into the work and travel plans of the Footloose Forester. One year it took the form of scheduling the training of a Cape Verdean counterpart in Senegal. The counterpart’s assignment was to assist in the mapping exercises that were included in the soil conservation aspects of our Watershed Management Project.
The scheduling part of it definitely coincided with a linkage with softball, the annual WAIST (West African Invitational Softball Tournament) that circulated among various countries. We had obtained approval for the counterpart’s training by invitation from Senegalese contacts; so the planning for softball merely required that attendance at the WAIST tournament was on our own time. The Footloose Forester attended those games, on Saturday, Sunday, and a legal American holiday, all days when he was not required to work. Some colleagues never accepted that very convenient schedule, but then it was Footloose Forester who designed the schedule and obtained permission months in advance. Their effrontery and hidden hostility toward the Footloose Forester would have another chapter: another WAIST tournament at another time, in another country.
The following year the Footloose Forester applied for vacation time to attend the WAIST tournament in Burkina Faso, once known as Upper Volta. He also sought permission to visit the United Nations-sponsored facility utilizing remote sensing technology to monitor land management in West Africa. Cape Verde was part of that multi-nation consortium and Footloose Forester was associated with mapping, monitoring, and soil conservation aspects of the regional, broad-based program. So, to get to the point, he knew that he could both participate in sponsored job-related activities and play softball on the weekend. Planning, and knowing the rules! His colleagues still deprecated him for his actions. But he always looked for ways to make his assignments meaningful. His sojourns were not frivolous ones, or just about softball.
One of his US Embassy, Cape Verde friends traveled with him to Burkina Faso for the WAIST tournament. In fact, we had both responded to a cable recruiting ballplayers for the Burkina Faso team that was hosting the tournament that year. One of their teams just didn’t have enough players, so they made a promise that if we were accepted as players on their team, we would play in the tournament. T.D. Reece and the Footloose Forester were accepted on the team. T.D. (Touchdown) Reece played second base and the old man played right field and then third base for the Bobo Dialaso team who called themselves the Bobo Chiefs. As a team, we were not very good, and were eliminated after the second game in a double-elimination format. Nevertheless, the episode will always be a cherished memory by the Footloose Forester and by Touchdown Reece.
About the author
My partner she has been to Hatti and Africa for other reasons and when I hear her stories and yours it helps me appreciate where I live more and more. The game of softball sounds like the perfect match in your story.