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Baseball game forged friendships

By STEVE WILSONExecutive Editor

Watching the Major League All-Star Game last week, I was impressed by the many tributes paid to retiring New York Yankee great Derek Jeter.

Could I recall another game that gave rise to such good feelings? Yes, and I played in it more than 40 summers ago on a small island in the far western Pacific.

A little background:

I joined the Peace Corps fresh out of college and was sent to the Palau Islands, a part of Micronesia. My group of about 30 volunteers docked on the island of Peleliu to train as English teachers and community organizers and learn Palauan.

Peleliu had been the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. The Japanese lost at least 10,000 soldiers. More than 1,500 American soldiers and Marines were killed and some 6,700 wounded. The casualty rate of 40 percent was the highest of any amphibious assault in U.S. military history. An unknown number of islanders also died.

We were the first sizable group of Americans to come to Peleliu since the war, so our arrival was a pretty big deal.

The 30 of us were assigned to live with different families to help adapt to the new culture. For all its natural beauty, Peleliu didn't have a lot materially. There was no electricity or running water. The corrugated tin houses were propped up to keep rats from gaining entry; lizards and mosquitos had no difficulty. Sleeping on the wood floor in the tropical heat was a test.

Despite the language barrier, we got along well with the kids and elders from the start. The teenagers and young men were a different story.

They saw us with suspicious eyes, not sure whether we had come to take over their island or otherwise disrupt their lives. We were seen as rich, privileged Americans, and in 1944 our predecessors ripped their island apart. They kept their distance, tensions built and threats were heard.

Then someone suggested a baseball game.

We agreed but had no idea if the Palauans knew anything about baseball. Before the game, our director urged us not to be ugly Americans. Most of the people on the island would come out to watch, he said, and trouncing our hosts would be poor form.

As we warmed up, I sensed we wouldn't have to worry about that. We looked light on talent, while on the other side of the diamond, the Palauans were throwing the ball around like pros.

The game quickly became a rout. When they didn't get a hit, we made an error. They stole bases routinely. Our pitcher wasn't bad, but his specialty was the curveball, and under their rules, that was an illegal pitch.

Their pitcher wasn't the greatest, but we made him look that way. I did nothing to help our cause. After eight innings, we were losing, 20-0.

Then they delivered the ultimate insult. When we came to bat the final inning, their outfielders all sat down.

"No balls all day," one said, correctly. "Nobody can hit. Americans don't know how to play baseball."

At this point, our hapless play stopped being amusing. It was one thing to get clobbered at our own game; it was another to be taunted.

When I came up, I wanted a big hit more than any time in my life. Please, I said to myself, knock it far enough to get those guys off their butts.

Happily, I drove a pitch deep. The centerfielder might have caught it if he hadn't been sitting, but it flew over him, and without an outfield fence, the ball rolled and rolled. One home run didn't change the outcome, but it put a little salve on our wounded egos.

After the final out, we shared a case of warm Japanese beer with the winners. We learned baseball words in each other's language. They said they were sorry about running up the score. We said we appreciated the lesson in playing America's game. They invited us to go spearfishing with them (which turned out to be a blast).

As a monsoon swept in, we stayed on the field talking and laughing in the rain. It was as if a light switch had flipped; the game brought people together who had been oceans apart. We were no longer Americans and Palauans, uneasy with each other. We were all ball players, and from that day on, we were friends.

If you or someone you know has interest in the Peace Corps, now is a great time to apply. The agency wants to increase the number of volunteers and has just streamlined its online application process. Applicants can select the country (among 65 currently) and program that best fits their goals. Information is at www.peacecorps.gov.

Since its creation in 1961, the Peace Corps has done a tremendous amount of good around the world. It reflects well on our nation and our willingness to reach out to help others. It also has enriched the lives of the 215,000 Americans who have served abroad.

I count myself lucky to be among them.

Steve Wilson is executive editor of The Paducah Sun. You can reach him at

swilson@paducahsun.com.

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