This is our house: Haiti little league bringing hope to broken place

How Haiti’s first little league is bringing hope to a broken place.

By Dan Robson in Port-au-Prince   Photography by Roger Lemoyne

White light invades the dark of Wilson Izidor’s one room home – the morning sun reflecting off the tin siding of a neighbour’s house a metre away. A rooster crows. The slum is busy with life. Wilson is late. He climbs out of the bed he shares with his mother and three-year-old brother and dresses quickly, pulling on his favourite aqua-coloured pants, blue basketball jersey and green plaid button-up. He grabs a grey Tabarre Tigers T-shirt and pushes through the swinging doors. Dirt crunches beneath his black-and-white high-tops as he turns a narrow corner in this winding shantytown in northwest Port-au-Prince. “Are you ready yet for baseball?” the 15-year-old shouts in English through a half-opened wooden door, walled in by grey USAID tarps hung upside down. “Jayson, let’s go.”

Sleepy-eyed Jayson Fortine ties his green Converse sneakers and neatly cuffs his skinny jeans. He takes two chomps of a hotdog bun and swigs water from a large metal mug.

“Fast, fast, fast, man,” Wilson says. “Jayson, let’s go. Let’s go-oh.”

The truck is a 20-minute hike away. Wilson still has another dozen friends to collect in this labyrinth of tin, tarp and cinder block. Jayson clanks the mug down, stretches his arms wide, yawns and rubs his hands together. He pulls his Tigers T-shirt over his white one.

One by one, the boys of Tabarre 41 come together, forming a pack of adolescent clichés. Jayson wears a scowl but sings Justin Bieber songs. (“I have the CD,” he shrugs.) Jackson is the best rapper in the group, but also the most bashful (he fell into a four-foot hole playing catch the previous evening, biting his tongue as his friends took joy in the tumble). Jackie is the talker, an unyielding source of commentary and instruction. (“That’s cow s–t man,” he informs a guest about a pile on the ground. “That’s not donkey s–t. I know cow s–t.”) Wilson is a man of style. He’s the kind of kid who changes into his baseball gear at the diamond and wears big black shades when he bats. He strums a guitar coolly in his Facebook profile picture; a disproportionate number of his Facebook friends are girls. Wilson is smooth.

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The boys joke with each other in a mix of Creole and broken English, shoving and kicking and laughing as they hike past the barbed-wire walls of a UN camp and take a shortcut around the U.S. Embassy. Wilson prods them on: “Marche, Marche!”

They arrive at the Operation Blessing head office, where another group of kids is waiting. They all hop on the back of the NGO’s blue flatbed truck and cling to it as it sways and dips along the broken streets of Port-au-Prince like a dinghy in the ocean. They arrive at a white gate with big blue writing: “Byen Vini Nan Teren Jen Baseball Ayiti.” “Welcome to Haiti’s youth baseball field”—the only known diamond on this side of Hispaniola.

Despite sharing an island and a 200-km border with the Dominican Republic, the largest producer of major league players outside the U.S., baseball is a foreign sport in Haiti. Drive through the mountainous interior of the country, and you’ll find Haitians crowding around red-clay soccer pitches, rooting wildly. But you won’t find kids running bases. This truckload of boys, aged seven to 18, are the only regular players among the 10 million people who live here. Few of them could name a major league player; they might be able to name a team. Until three years ago, they’d never swung a bat or caught a ball with a glove. But Haiti does have a history with the game. For two decades, this country was the world’s largest manufacturer of baseballs. Every memorable major-league moment in the ’70s and ’80s started with the cotton and yarn wound around a small rubber core in Port-au-Prince factories. Catch a Reggie Jackson foul ball? Get Nolan Ryan’s autograph? That ball on your mantle was born here.

None of the kids on this field were alive when the last baseball factory was closed in the early ’90s. But they play for hours every day. Haiti’s first little league began with a few boys learning to throw a ball and swing a bat while living in a tent camp after the January 2010 earthquake levelled the nation. Three years and four teams later, the Haitian Baseball Association has its sights set on a distant goal, a new export to the major leagues: superstars.

It began with ruins. Wilson was making charcoal with his mother and baby brother when the tectonic plates shifted on Jan. 12, 2010, at 4:53 p.m. He managed to climb inside a garbage can with his brother as the ground tossed them around. He thought Jesus had come. His family’s cinder-block home was a pile of rubble. But they were lucky. Later, Wilson found out his 12-year-old cousin had been crushed.

In the desperate months after the quake, Wilson saw opportunity in the UN soldiers, doctors and aid workers who came to Port-au-Prince. It helped that he had learned English in an orphanage he lived in for five years. (His father was murdered the same day he was born, and Wilson’s time at the orphanage took some financial burden off his underemployed mother.) On the streets between the UN walls and NGO offices, Wilson introduced himself to the foreigners, getting their names and returning a short while later with personalized bracelets he made with plastic and thread.

Among the many aid workers Wilson and his friends met were David Darg and Bryn Mooser, two Americans who were working for different NGOs—Operation Blessing and Artists for Peace and Justice—but shared a mutual connection with the rowdy, aggressive boys of Tabarre. They learned their names, brought them food and hung out with them on the streets between the crumbled remains of their homes.

Looking to give the kids some semblance of relief from the constant devastation and a break from peddling bracelets, begging for food and throwing rocks at trucks, Darg and Mooser arranged a game of soccer on the field next to the tent camp. The game lasted 10 minutes. “They were too tired to play,” says Darg. “They weren’t getting enough nourishment. They were getting one meal a day, max. It was a weird thing to see, these kids who should be healthy and going crazy over a soccer ball, just giving up.”

At the time, goods were coming into Haiti from all over the world. Crates arrived at the hospital warehouse where Mooser and Darg were working, filled with medicine and food and other supplies. Someone had sent a baseball bat, some frayed balls and a couple of worn mitts. Baseball required much less endurance than soccer, so it seemed like the perfect sport for a group of malnourished kids. One night they asked the boys if they wanted to play ball.

They took a group out to a field next to the hospital, chasing away grazing cows and navigating the mounds of manure left behind. They grabbed some sandbags used to stop flooding from a nearby site and spray-painted them white. None of the boys knew how to hold a bat. One of them was blind. The field was uneven, and the balls kept getting lost in the tall grass. They swung until they hit the ball. And almost every hit was a home run. The boys loved it. “The crack of that bat was the first really satisfying thing they’d felt in a while. Then everyone is yelling ‘Go! Go! Go!’ It was uplifting for all of us,” Darg says. “It took your mind away. The moment the bat cracks, you’re not thinking about how the whole city is in turmoil.”

They met several times a week that summer. Volunteer doctors started packing army bags full of gear from home. A school in Los Angeles collected an entire bin of gloves and bats. One team sent a box of old jerseys.

No one quite remembers where the Tigers name came from, but the boys agreed that they were a team, and a team needs a name. An identity. “That was part of the pride of it all. For the first time in a long time, they belonged to something,” says Darg. “They were part of something that was different from themselves.”

They weren’t the first team in Haiti, though the history is hazy. Haiti was occupied from 1915 to 1934 by the U.S., which brought baseball with it. Some locals learned the game from the soldiers, though unlike other Caribbean nations that had an American presence—namely the Dominican Republic and Cuba—baseball mostly disappeared with the occupiers. But by 1970, the sport had returned, thanks to cheap labour and close proximity to the United States.

More than 90 percent of the world’s baseballs were manufactured in Haiti. Rawlings did the most business there, employing about 2,000 Haitians through the 1970s and 1980s. Their Port-au-Prince factory was the largest supplier of baseballs to the States, holding contracts with Little League and college teams, and providing more than 500,000 balls to the major leagues every year. But it was just one of several baseball factories in Port-au-Prince—Spalding, Wilson, Worth and MacGregor all set up shop in Haiti, each producing as many as 4.8 million balls a year.

Unions were crushed and dissenters intimidated as the country suffered under dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier and the subsequent regime of his son, “Baby Doc,” who was ousted in 1986. Later, when a violent military coup overthrew then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, the U.S. imposed harsh economic sanctions on Haiti. Trade between the two countries fell from $338 million in 1990 to $107 million in 1992. The baseball producers lost a fortune and left the country in the early ’90s amid the chaos. Rawlings moved its production of MLB balls to their plant in Turrialba, Costa Rica, in 1990.

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That plant still calls Marc Peyan when its balls have too much pop. He became known as “Mr. Baseball” during his years running the weaving operations for Rawlings in Port-au-Prince. Today he is 74, his still-dark hair streaked with white, and he wears a matching moustache. Leaning back in a plastic chair on the patio of the Cap Lamandou Hotel in the Haitian coastal town of Jacmel, Peyan crosses his legs and ashes his cigarette over a railing. He speaks with his entire body, rocking back and forth, shifting side to side, showing how he manoeuvred the weaving machines to perfect each of a ball’s four layers of cotton and yarn. It took him five years to master the art. It was serious business. “I used to study baseballs,” he says. “For the major leagues, it’s not a game.”

Growing up in the mountains outside Jacmel, Peyan only witnessed baseball once—as a boy on a class trip to Port-au-Prince, passing a soccer field near the presidential palace. In nearly two decades as a Rawlings employee, he went to just one major league game. The bosses at Rawlings in St. Louis had him attend a Cardinals game. He takes a sip of his Johnnie Walker Black Label and stands up to tell the story.

“Now Marc, in Haiti you have voodoo, yes?” he says, mimicking one of the team’s execs, with whom he sat in a luxury box at Busch Stadium some time in the early ’80s. “Can you help us win this game?”

“Okay, I’m going to do something for you,” Payen replied. “Give me a few seconds.”

Peyan starts bobbing around in circles on the hotel patio, recreating the voodoo chant he conjured for the St. Louis suits. When the Cardinals came from behind to win the game, one exec—a big, tall guy, Peyan recalls—lifted him off the ground with a hug. “I didn’t do s–t!” Peyan laughs, clapping his thigh. He sits down and lights another cigarette.

Peyan spent nearly two decades at the old Rawlings plant, down the road from the airport in Port-au-Prince. Today, it’s home to a Taiwanese garment company that specializes in making jerseys for a Chicago sportswear company. Maxim Conde was general manager of the factory for five years in the 1970s. Inside, he points out where the weaving, sewing and labelling stations once stood. The entire back wall fell down during the earthquake, but the factory avoided any more significant damage. A factory down the road collapsed, killing 300 workers.

Like Peyan, Conde didn’t play or watch baseball growing up in Haiti. “I know a lot about the ball. I don’t know a lot about baseball,” he says. “It never appealed to me. They had games, they had leagues, but it never stayed,” he says. “Maybe it was a rejection.”

There are many theories as to why baseball never took off in Haiti. On one level, soccer is just more popular. Deeper than that, though, is the idea of a people chafing against the nation that controlled them. After the Haitian Revolution in 1804 freed the country from France, the United States became the next empire to seek influence in Haiti, and baseball came to be seen as the game of the occupiers. Meanwhile, in Cuba the game was already popular by the late 19th century. Brought to the island by American merchants, it was seen as a way of refusing Spanish power, says Laurent Dubois, a professor of Caribbean studies at Duke University. When America’s dominance of Cuba began at the start of the 20th century, Cuba had already developed its own identity as a baseball-loving nation, so the sport stuck. In Haiti, the nation’s links to Europe became a bulwark against American cultural imperialism, Dubois says. Hence soccer over baseball.

But the fact that baseball has never thrived here doesn’t mean it never will.

“Now I hear there is some little league being played here,” Conde says. He pauses for a moment to consider the idea. “I’m watching,” he says. “I’m watching to see how long it will last.”

The eight-man infield is a strategy unique to Haitian baseball. Who’s on first depends on who you ask. There is a lower first baseman, standing slightly ahead of the bag, and an upper first baseman standing behind it. Second base is defended by a three-man line—call it westerly second, central second and easterly second. The Tigers are in the field, and the Ti Krabs (Li’l Crabs) are up to bat. The two teams scrimmage after a morning of batting and fielding practice. Wilson, who’s kicked off his high-tops and is barefoot, plays central second. His best friend Jackson is on upper first. His other best friend Jayson plays second-short, which is closer to second base than first-short, which is closer to third. Wilson’s last best friend Jackie is the sole man on the final bag.

Joseph Alvins is on the mound. He’s the star of the original Tigers team—a few years older than Wilson and his crew. He helps instruct the younger players from each of the four teams that come to the Haitian Baseball Association ballpark every day. He’s taller than the other kids, with sharp cheekbones and a laid-back, seen-it-all demeanour. Joseph tosses a ratty brown ball that is inscribed with faded blue ink: “NO HITTER, ARBOR ACRES, MATTHEWS FORD, JUNE 12, 1964,” which is more of an epitaph than an omen.

The last three batters have hit groundball home runs. Loud declarations of “Aaa-out!” followed plays at the plate that weren’t even close to being out. The eight-man infield is a work in progress. A weakness has been exposed between easterly second and upper/lower first. The gap at second-short and westerly second is also vulnerable. A daydreaming outfield—standard left, centre and right—has aided the Ti Krabs’ gleeful onslaught. A boy named Commander was the first to crush a home run. He carries himself with swagger, wearing a white Michael Jackson–style glove and white unlaced Air Jordans. After crossing the plate, he embarks on a three-minute celebration that crescendos—after the two subsequent batters have also hit home runs—with a double-arm flex and a loud declaration: “Commander!” he shouts. “Home run!”

Before getting a park of their own, the boys played in any empty lot they could find across the Tabarre region. Each time a landowner caught on, guards would come and boot them off or look for a bribe from the Operation Blessing coaches.

But despite the transient nature of the Haitian Baseball Association through its formative years, the league has drawn attention from celebs-turned-aid-workers. The kids have played ball with Ben Stiller, Sean Penn and Olivia Wilde, among others. When Jays Care, the Toronto Blue Jays’ philanthropic foundation, learned about the program a couple of years ago, Joseph was invited to Toronto to throw the first pitch at a game. He met Jose Bautista, but had no idea who he was. Later, he looked him up on the Internet at the Operation Blessing office. “I felt lucky,” he says. Bautista gave Joseph his bat, which Joseph keeps beside his bed.

But even with the baseball gear and visits from American stars, life for the Tabarre Tigers remained rooted in harsh, unavoidable realities. Of the original 18 players who formed the Tigers back in 2010, two are dead.

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Cliff was the first. He was older, about 17. He’d often beg aggressively outside a UN base. One day, he was rushed to hospital after being found beaten outside the base gates. He said the soldiers did it, but the accusation didn’t go anywhere. Cliff had surgery on his broken leg, but came to baseball practice in a wheelchair and pushed himself around the bases. A few months later, he was hit and killed by a car in the same place he’d been beaten.

Richlet was a close friend of Wilson, Jayson, Jackie and the other boys from the Tabarre 41 shantytown. He was small with a big personality. “He was a really great kid with a killer arm,” Darg says. “A skinny little wimp who could throw like crazy.” In a video on YouTube, Richlet bobs his head and Wilson taps chopsticks on a table while Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born hip-hop artist who attempted to run for the presidency after the earthquake, strums a guitar and sings to them. “So you want to be a baseball star? And you want to go far? Let me tell you who you are,” he sings. “You’re a ghetto superstar.”

There is a discrepancy over what the 12-year-old was doing in the deep, narrow drainage ditch outside the hospital. It happened about a year ago. Wilson says he was bathing. Darg heard he was trying to catch small fish. Either way, Richlet’s friends didn’t realize he was still in the water when they left. He got caught in a passageway beneath the road that leads into the hospital. They found his body the next day.

Death doesn’t shock in Haiti. Each of these boys knows it well. More than 300,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the 2010 earthquake, though the real number is impossible to know. Months after the quake, a cholera outbreak hit. The strain is believed to have originated in sewage from a UN camp, which flowed into one of the country’s largest rivers. In less than three years, cholera has killed more than 8,000 people in Haiti. Joseph’s mother, Marie-Claude, was one of them. She died shortly after he returned from Toronto.

In many ways, Darg says, the league is a microcosm of Haiti. “All these players have issues that represent the issues of the nation,” he says. “Can you imagine that happening to a Little League team in the U.S.? A team with 18 players and two of them die?”

But the Tigers kept playing, and the league kept growing. The game was the boys’ escape from the reality of life and death in Port-au-Prince. It gave them structure and brought them food. It gave them something to do, and it was fun. There’s a plan to create a girls’ league. And to set up a program for disabled players. To have teams spread across the country, and to one day beat the Dominican Republic. One day…

But today, Operation Blessing workers are just getting fencing up around the backstop. Posts for the dugouts are being put in place. The diamond is laid out to Little League specifications, with groomed dirt along the basepaths. The pitcher’s mound is raised to exact standards. It’s being built on rented land, made possible by a $50,000 grant from the Jays Care foundation. (The Toronto Blue Jays and this magazine are both owned by Rogers but operate separately). The money pays for the annual $7,000 rent on the land and covered the cost of clearing out the trash and levelling a playing field. It also provided the materials to build a backstop and dugouts. It pays the salaries of two Haitian coaches and several cooks who prepare meals for the players every day.

Eventually, the walls will be painted white with murals of baseball players and teams and donors who have helped support the league. They hope to put a clubhouse and a kitchen on a grassy area, just beyond where the bleachers will be. “We’ve always dreamed that one day, who knows when, we’ll be watching a Haitian in the major leagues because of this whole thing,” says Darg, who’s based in Virginia and travels to Haiti multiple times a year. “Because he learned how to play ball on a field in Haiti. It’s possible.”

A choir sings Creole songs to Jesus in a blue church just beyond the grey cinder-block wall, over which scattered faces peek as the Ti Krabs and Tigers continue their mid-morning battle. It’s curious activity on what was just a trash-covered lot a couple of months ago. Plastic containers, rotting bags of refuse and used footwear are still piled in the corners. It’s an all-dirt field with small pockets of scorched grass. The dust is unavoidable, carried by a cool breeze that makes the sun bearable.

The inning ends after every player has had a chance to bat. (The three-out system has yet to be implemented, but improvements have been made. When they first started playing, batters had an unlimited number of cuts at the ball. It was a swing-until-you-hit-it policy, which made for incredibly slow play. Eventually, a three-strike rule was adopted.) When all of the Ti Krabs have had a crack at the plate, the Tigers charge in for their chance.

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A new wooden “Home of Haiti Youth Baseball” sign rests against the wall behind where a dugout will go. It will be nailed up and serve as a scoreboard. Wilson reads it as he puts his Converse high-tops back on. “This is our house,” he says.

At the plate, Wilson hits a single that turns into a double when the Ti Krabs’ outfielders are caught out of position. He makes it home when the next batter hits a home run. “I’m batting well today,” he tells Jackie and Jayson in Creole as they wait in line for their chance to bat. Then he chirps an older player who just whiffed at three pitches. “He always strikes out,” he says.

The game ends when food arrives. A van from Operation Blessing brings rice and beans and tilapia. A meal is provided after every game. And there’s a game almost every day. After the meal, the Tigers and Ti Krabs pile back into the blue flatbed truck, dipping up and down as it wobbles onto the narrow road that winds back to the streets that take them home. The Lions and TNT—a group of players mostly from a tent camp in a different region of Tabarre—will arrive soon for the afternoon practice and game.

There are typical boyhood illusions drifting through the minds of those riding in the truck through the streets of Port-au-Prince. There are would-be rappers, of course—young Eminems and 50 Cents, little Lil Waynes, and in a few years, tiny Drakes are sure to arrive in the slums of Tabarre. There are most certainly one-day-Messis and -Balotellis clinging to this shaky ride. And yes, today, there are future ball players, too. There is at least one young man who sleeps next to Jose Bautista’s bat and dreams of slugging a home run out of the Rogers Centre a world away from Haiti. A home run for his mom, perhaps. And another one for Tabarre and its Tigers.

But Joseph Alvins knows it’s just a dream, just as Wilson Izidor knows that he doesn’t really sleep in the clouds, even though he closes his eyes and drifts there every night, high above Haiti, where houses never fall and friends never die. And that’s okay, because dreams never really come true—they expose possibility. Failing a shot at the major leagues, Joseph wants to study development in college and travel the world helping poor nations. If Wilson’s bat doesn’t lead him to millions, he wants to be a doctor and an architect and a president. “And of the United States,” he says. “In Haiti they’ll kill you.”

It’s possible that the Haitian Baseball Association will expand into dozens of teams spread across Port-au-Prince. And that every year, Haiti’s little league world series will take place at the country’s first ballpark. There’ll be a clubhouse and a Hall of Fame with names like Jayson, Jackie, Jackson and Commander in it. The bleachers will be full of fans. And a boy playing central-second will look up at a scoreboard and think: “This is our house.”

But it’s quite possible that Haiti will never reach the baseball heights its Dominican neighbours have. It’s possible Haiti will never even get a chance to face the DR and prove they can play. “If that happened, Haiti would win,” Joseph says after the truck stops at Operation Blessing and the other boys rush off into the busy afternoon. “We can do everything,” he says. “We can.” Maybe not. But maybe, still.

Later, as the sun sinks, a small crowd gathers on the diamond as the construction crew pounds the final nails in the backstop fencing and puts tin roofs on the dugouts. A small group has gathered in the outfield. Some local boys are curious about this new sport being played on their old garbage dump. They’ve been watching all week. A couple of volunteer coaches explain the rules. Two more boys join the group… then one more… then one more, and another. Soon there are 20 huddled in the dusty field, eager for a chance to play. Hammers thud and drills buzz in the infield. Another dugout complete. Another team to fill it. And another pair of eyes peeks through the open gate.