As I sit here at 10:20pm writing this, I am still reeling as a result of what can only be described at the BEST. DAY. EVER!
Nothing went exactly according to plan . I guess you cannot call it a perfect day per se, but then again, nothing went wrong either. In fact, every new event led to something even better. I guess while serving here in Azerbaijan, ‘perfection’ has become this entirely subjective word that pops its little head out when you least expect it. In that sense of the word then, I must admit, today was perfect!
So, the Balakan Dragons had their first official game today. Yes, they chose dragons as a team name. It was not my first choice. It was a toss-up. I particularly liked the Balakan Bandits, the Balakan Ballers, and my personal favorite, derived from my Montreal Expos hat which I wear to every practice only to have my little buddy Resul wear it, the Balakan Young Expos. Regardless, they chose to be the dragons. The Dragons were set to play Danichi today, a small village about an hour south where my good friend Jane is working. Trey and I usually bring our equipment down there every Thursday to play with her kids until they get their own gear. They are another great group and we were excited to play an actual game. So, we got permission slips signed, raised the money, packed our lunches, and hit the road at about noon today! It is a national holiday so the school was to be empty and we’d have the field to ourselves.
The kids were pumped. They all showed up on time, most toting their packed lunches and wearing baseball caps! After about a half hour of doing attendance, picking positions, and choosing a team name, we were off. We arrived on time and the sun was shining! Unfortunately, the other team did not arrive and the school was very much not closed. It was filled with older, some not-so-polite students, who were very confused as to why a group of strangers had showed up at their school with this strange sports equipment. At first, I expected the worst. Most of our kids are small and young, and I thought they would immediately be intimidated by the heckling of the older locals. NO SIR!
Most of them immediately grabbed the equipment and started warming up, going through the warm up routine that we had discussed. The older boys and girls continued to mock and yell, and were slowly encroaching upon our space. That was until they realized that our kids knew what they were doing. Once our girls started smashing the crap out of the ball, and our boys began throwing lasers at one another and catching them with the greatest of ease, the heckling started to die down. The loud yelling and laughing turned into soft murmurs and whispering. The quickly shrinking field was suddenly all ours, and this whole time, our kids seemed completely oblivious, indifferent to the jokes, focused on the game, loving the sport! I couldn’t have been more proud.
The other team never showed. That’s how things work here. It’s hard to get things going, and even harder to keep them going. Kids are busy, parents are skeptical, and it takes a lot to set a solid, consistent foundation. Even alone in a very isolated village, Jane is doing a remarkable job. Some of her best students did show up. We decided to stay and play anyway. I think our kids were enjoying the attention. By this time, we had quite the audience. Jane’s kids joined ours and we had a scrimmage. Plays were met with Oohs and Awes from the crowd, as homeruns were hit, seemingly impossible catches were made, and the unnecessary slide into first was taken! We finished after about an hour and a half of scrimmaging, the final score: 16-15 Red team.
I can say with complete confidence that baseball is now going to take off in Danichi. The interest was already there, Jane has a talented little team! Now, however, after seeing us play, I know Jane is going to have more than a few requests to play over the coming weeks. I look forward to our next game!
And, to the credit of our team, despite fronting the money to come and play a real game, only to have an intrasquad scrimmage like we do every Wednesday and Sunday back in Balakan, they never complained. They never asked to go home. They just played, soaked up the attention, and had a good time.
So, after such a successful day, we had to celebrate somehow. The kids all wanted to stop at the Heydar Park in Zaqatala on the way home. Zaqatala is the larger region (Zaqatala also the name of the city) just south of Balakan. Every rayon and city has a Heydar Park. They are usually filled with museums, beautiful trees and fountains, music, and carnival rides. They are the place to go in the summer time! The one in Zaqatala is particularly beautiful. Our driver was hesitant, wanting to get home, but our kids were persuasive and he gave in, allotting the kids 30 minutes to walk around and take photos (he wound up being a pretty big softy and let us stay for about an hour). We all made a bee line for the ice cream/cotton candy/popcorn stand, followed by a ride on the spinning swings. At first, only Trey, Stephanie, me, and our friend from Zaqatala Mike went on, with all the kids acting as if they were too cool for school. After our ride, they all wanted to go, so we took pictures and cheered them on. We finished our stop with a team photo at the fountain.
The ride back was equally as entertaining, as we all goofed around and talked about what the rest of the week had in store. As we got home, Trey and Stephanie came over to unwind and reflect upon the day. First of all, we didn’t lose anyone! Victory #1. Second of all, we didn’t lose (ignoring the fact that there was not actually a game). Literal Victory #2! Everything in between, well, it’s just so hard to put into words. There was just this incredible sense of pure joy throughout the day, this whirlwind of exuberance and happiness, and it never subsided, not even for a moment. Despite the fact that nothing really went according to plan, there were no worries, no problems. Despite the fact that 3 Americans took a group of young Azerbaijanis to play a game of baseball in a small village, there were no differences, no misunderstandings. There was just unadulterated fun and excitement, from start to finish.
If you enjoyed this post and are interested in donating to the continuation of this league nation-wide, please click on the following link: Azerbaijan Youth Softball League Donations
Thank you in advance!