About the Author: Gavin Sundwall is the Press Officer at American Embassy Panama.
Remember the old “Baseball Fever – Catch It!” commercial? Baseball Diplomacy Fever recently caught hold in Panama. Smiles adorned the faces of young and old alike thanks to the April 22 – 30 visit of Major League Baseball Special Envoy Elias Sosa and the Southern Command (SouthCom) All Star Baseball Team as part of our “Baseball Friendship Tour 2008.”
The fun started in Panama’s dry and dusty Azuero Peninsula (the “Texas” of Panama). Elias, a former major-league pitcher sponsored by the State Department’s Office of Sports Diplomacy, inspired coaches, parents, and happy youngsters by promoting baseball as a fun sport that gives children the positive grounding they need to enjoy and get the most out of life. The distinct “pop” of hard-thrown baseballs against the leather of many a glove took the place of words as youngsters hit the fields, guided by Elias’ encouragement. We had great public and private sector partners. The Panamanian National Sports’ Institute and Lions Clubs of Panama helped organize the clinics. Major League Baseball International and the Pitch In For Baseball foundation provided “team kits” – enough new equipment to field a team, from bats, balls, and gloves down to bases – for us to donate to underserved communities. Baseball caps displaying our Embassy’s “Estamos Unidos” (“We Are United!”) logo were also in high demand.
The SouthCom All Stars arrived to Panama eager to get going. They immediately connected with Panamanians when they met local hero Michael Ibarra, a talented ten-year-old pitcher recovering from an operation that may restore seventy percent of his previously-atrophied left arm’s use. The operation was made possible by local doctors, the baseball NGO of Panamanian former World Series Champion Omar Moreno, Embassy Panama, and the U.S. Hospital Ship Comfort that toured Latin America during summer 2007 as part of President Bush’s Initiative for the Hemisphere. Michael’s courage to overcome his disability inspired the SouthCom All Stars to a 7-0 victory over a Panamanian police team in a well-attended afternoon game.
A sunny afternoon the following day promised great things. The team and Elias Sosa put on a clinic for more than 500 appreciative young Panamanian ballplayers, all of whom left smiling with a commemorative baseball. An early-evening exhibition at Panama's Rod Carew National Stadium, broadcasted live by Panama’s top-rated radio station, brought the Panama chapter of the 2008 Baseball Friendship Tour to a big finish. Cheered on by some 8,000 home fans by game’s end, a selection of Panama’s top players routed the visiting All Stars 16-3, but the biggest winner was the strengthened friendship between our two peoples thanks to our shared love of baseball.
Editor’s Note: Partnering with Major League Baseball (MLB), the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) sent former MLB player Elias Sosa to our U.S. embassies in Panama and Nicaragua to join the U.S. Department of Defense’s SouthCom All Star Baseball Team on their Friendship Baseball Tour. ECA is home to SportsUnited, a sports programming initiative designed to help start a dialogue at the grass roots level with non-elite youth, boys and girls, ages 7-17. The exchanges aid the youth in discovering how success in athletics can be translated into the development of life skills and achievement in the classroom. The program provides the foreign participant an opportunity to establish linkages with U.S. sports professionals and exposure to American life and culture.