Over winter break, 11 players and one assistant coach from the SVSU baseball program spent 10 days in Masaya, Nicaragua, taking part in a combination of baseball games, instructional camps and service work.
The trip was organized by Jeff Dice, father of SVSU baseball player Camden Dice. Jeff has been to the country over 60 times through his associate pastor role at Brown Corners Church in Clare. Brown Corners also took care of fundraising a large portion of the trip.
“There’s a lot of things that make a trip like this special,” Jeff said. “It’s a fantastic time to get to know each other. For me as a dad, just spending time with young men is fun for me. To combine some things that I love, baseball, my own kid and serving others, makes it a really special trip.”
To set up the trip, Jeff used the connections he has made in Nicaragua over the years to create a schedule and organize the logistics of the travel. This was the fifth baseball-related program he has led.
When discussing the possible itinerary, he asked the group what they wanted to do during their time abroad.
“They all wanted to do a project, they all wanted to work with kids and they all wanted to play some baseball,” Jeff said. “From there, I communicate back and forth with my contact in the Masaya government, and we set up a schedule that looks good, and then we go with it.”
The trip was organized with three different initiatives in mind: a handful of games against Nicaraguan minor-league-equivalent teams, a series of youth camps the players instructed at and a service piece, in which the group assisted in building a home for a citizen of Masaya.
“We moved about 100-pound bricks and then we moved probably 1,000 regular cinder blocks and made cement,” Camden said. “We did a lot. It would’ve taken them weeks to do it by themselves, and we were able to do it all in a couple hours.”
For Z Westley, a transfer from Delta College who will redshirt this year, simply seeing a different way of life was beneficial.
“It kind of shows you that they just don’t have a ton of resources down there,” he said. “We had to make cement by ourselves and then move the blocks. All the houses are made of cinder block with a tin roof.”
On several of the mornings, the team instructed at local youth baseball camps. Attendees ranged from 8 to 12 years old. One of the camps was also instructed by the Nicaraguan national baseball team.
Despite there being a language barrier between the group and the local players, Westley complimented the youth on their listening and desire to learn. The team used translators to communicate and instruct the young players.
“These kids can play, they can really play,” Westley said. “Their skill is way up there because they’re always playing in the street. They’re not on their iPhones and stuff like that. They’re out playing on the streets and getting better that way.”
The group also played three games against Nicaraguan minor-league-equivalent teams. Camden and Westley agreed that the hitting and fielding of their competition was top notch, but that pitching was where the SVSU players set themselves apart. SVSU pitching coach Clay VanderLaan, who also made the trip, assisted a handful of the Nicaraguan pitchers throughout the games.
The group also played in a softball game against the local mayor’s office.
In addition to the service- and baseball-related activities, the players also made cultural excursions, including a trip to the Masaya Volcano, a zip-lining trip and also spent a day at a beach.
On two of the evenings, the group played basketball against local teams, one of which included two Nicaraguan national basketball team members. When word got around the area about the pick-up games, a huge number of locals attended.
“The first team we played was way better in my opinion than the second team, but we got smoked by the second team because they had played together all the time,” Camden said.
Camden and Westley, though they are both redshirting this year, are confident that the rewards of participating in the trip will continue this spring through improved cohesion and chemistry team-wide.
“It was a dream,” Westley said. “I’ve always wanted to do mission work, but to complement it with baseball, with how much I love the sport and growing up playing it, it was a dream come true.”
Camden added that being able to attend the trip with his college teammates created an additional dynamic not present on his previous trips to the country.
“It was way more fun,” he said. “On previous trips, I was always the younger guy. With this team, now that we’re back, we have all these inside jokes, and everyone’s so much closer.”
Upon return, the trip generated significant interest from other members of the program who did not attend this year. Discussion of another trip next year has already begun, with perhaps even more players attending in January 2019.
“My dad and I are already talking and we’re planning a trip for next January too,” Camden said. “We have a break similar in length to this one. We’ll probably have a lot more guys this time.”