Baseball at 13,000 feet

By Christine Torrison Mackay

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My brother in law Mark O’Neil is a baseball fan- true and blue. He played the game throughout his youth and now, as a father of two boys, he coaches as well. He has also been instrumental in creating the baseball field the kids use playing catch at machu pichuin West Seattle. It is his church. After a long day of crunching numbers as an investment broker, he heads to his field of dreams and coaches each of his son’s teams. After he has spoken to his assistant coaches, parents and everyone else who needs a piece of his ear and everyone has left, Mark stays late and mows, waters and cares for his field. It’s his time to relax and reflect.

So when my sister suggested to Mark it would be a good idea to take their eldest son Riley –age 13 to Peru for a change of life trip-these two baseball fans would bring a particularly interesting travel item hidden in their suit case. The first sneak preview of the above mentioned items made their appearance at Machu Pichu. When we arrived at the citadel in the jungle perched on top of steep green mountains, Mark and Riley got out their baseball mitts and a ball and wanted me to film them playing catch with the incredible Inca ruins behind them. I had to laugh and so did others who saw them. It made for a great shot.

Fast forward two days and our small family group are now at the small Andean village of Usmabamba at over 13,000 feet. We were there to participate in a few of Crooked Trails’ village projects including the cow project we had begun over 2 years before as well as the new kitchen project where we are building inexpensive and practical kitchens which provide hot running water and a smokeless stove which heats the home an additional 20 degrees in the freezing winters.

some of the village playersAt the end of the day Mark and Riley brought out their baseball bat, 6 balls and several mitts. All the village kids were arriving home from school at the nearby village. I handed out tootsie pops and we gathered a nice group of 30 kids- a mix of boys and girls. None of them had ever seen a baseball bat or mitt, let alone a baseball, and had no idea what we were trying to do. Mark has coached literally hundreds of kids over the past 8 years and even though these kids didn’t know a word of English and Mark didn’t know a word of Spanish or Quechua the first lesson began.

Mark and Riley laid out the diamond, got kids on base and got the others lined up to bat. “How do you say hit”? he asked.. ‘Gopiar’ my brother Russ replied who had come on the family trip. Mark would yell “gopiar” at the kids and toss the ball to them. It wasn’t long before kids here hitting, running, throwing and catching. A few of those kids slammed some balls way out in the field over the roaming cows and sheep. And a few of the girls had tremendous arms and astonishing accuracy. The game went on for over 2 hours. Although the kids didn’t quite understand the concept of “out” when the ball got to the base before they did, they sure got the concept of “fun with baseball”.

After an hour or so Mark said “OK Ri-Man get up there and show them how it’s done.” Riley got up to bat and sent a few balls screaming over the kid’s heads to sound of cheers. ‘Ah ha!’ you could see them thinking.. ‘That is how it’s done’. Then Mark tossed a ball to himself and slammed it out of the field over the drainage ditches and sent the kids cheering with glee. 
Seeing that ball fly so high and far made everyone smile.

batter up

As I watched this whole game unfold I couldn’t help but smile. Never in my wildest dreams would I have brought a baseball and bat to Peru- never. Yet baseball is near and dear to Mark and Riley and it is what they wanted to share. And that is the beauty of travel-it’s individual. We all bring our own loves and interests to travel and if we are open- we share those interests with those we encounter and the ensuing relationship is what travel is all about. I will never forget the sound of Mark O’Neil (who has never travelled to a developing country) yelling ‘Gopiar’ and then ‘corre’ to the young Peruvian village children as they hit the ball and ran to first base.  Nor will I forget the excited faces of the kids as they learned a new game and especially when Mark and Riley gifted all the equipment to the kids when we left. Mark wants to send down bases in September and more mitts as well. I can imagine 20 years in the future when the first professional Peruvian baseball player is asked where he learned to play ball in a country of soccer, and he replies, “well.. some American guy brought the game to my village when I was just a kid….long time ago”.

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