Marvin Benard: Bringing Opportunity Back to Nicaragua

Marvin Benard stood on King Street outside of AT&T Park in San Francisco and admired his bronze likeness now hanging in the San Francisco Giant’s Wall of Fame. His plaque lauded his nine-year career with the Giants, his catalyzing presence at the top of their batting order, and his contributions to multiple playoff teams. For Benard, the moment was another addition to a long list of highlights from a career that easily could have never taken place.

In the 1992 Amateur Draft, 1390 players were selected before Marvin Benard’s name was called by the San Francisco Giants in the 50th and final round of the draft. In baseball history, the number of players drafted in the 50th round who have gone on to play in the majors can be counted on one hand.  However, the long odds didn’t faze Benard. Simply being drafted was a greater opportunity than he could have imagined he would ever have in baseball.

“As a child, I didn’t have many opportunities in baseball. Not enough to think of it as something I could do in the future.”

Benard grew up in Bluefields, Nicaragua, a port city on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. He remembers the close-knit community he grew up in and his childhood in Nicaragua fondly.

“My childhood in Nicaragua was great. As kids, we ran around town, and everyone knew everyone. We didn’t have much, but as kids, you don’t need much.”

Although he has warm memories of his youth in Bluefields, he also recalls having very limited opportunities to play baseball.

“I only played in a local league for about a year around age ten, and that was only a once-a-week thing. There was never a time that I can remember where we didn’t have to share equipment. That was just the norm. It was particularly difficult for me being left-handed; those gloves were scare.”

Benard’s baseball career didn’t become a possibility until his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 12 years old. In the United States, he had the opportunity to play consistently in organized leagues and became a prep standout at Bell High School. He attended Lewis-Clark State College, an NAIA powerhouse in Idaho, and caught the eye of the San Francisco Giants by hitting .373 and stealing 24 bases for Lewis-Clark’s 1992 National Championship team.

Benard credits his family’s move to the United States for making his later successes in baseball possible. However, many players in Nicaragua never get the same opportunity, and many of the same problems that limited Benard’s youth baseball career continue to make it difficult for players from his home country to find success in baseball today.

“There is a lack of money and resources. Many children can’t play because their families can’t afford it. Teams of all levels struggle to afford basic equipment, let alone good equipment. Good coaching is limited because coaches are paid so little, so players develop a limited understanding of the game. These problems perpetuate each other.”

To help alleviate these problems, Benard has returned to Nicaragua to coach the country’s national baseball team and lead clinics for children.

“I was interested in coaching in Nicaragua for several reasons. It was a great opportunity for me career-wise to gain managing experience. After playing and then coaching, managing seemed like the next step, and I loved the challenge. I feel like I have so much baseball experience and knowledge and have the desire to share it. Nicaragua was the perfect place for me to do this because not only do I love the game, I also love Nicaragua. I want to see players from my country succeed.”

Like Benard, many of Nicaragua’s baseball stars have returned to their home country during or following their playing careers. Dennis Martinez, the country’s most notable star, owns and operates a baseball academy to train young players in the country. Cheslor Cuthbert, currently a member of the Kansas City Royals organization, returned home this offseason following the Royals’ World Series victory to play an exhibition series in the country’s capital Managua. Everth Cabrera, an All-Star shortstop for the San Diego Padres in 2013, is currently playing in Nicaragua’s professional league.

“When successful players return to Nicaragua, people get excited.  They pay attention to baseball more.  It fills kids with hope that that could be them someday because there is living, breathing proof that it’s possible. It gives kids hope, especially if their family is struggling, and hope is motivating.”

Today, Benard fondly remembers many memorable moments from his career: his major-league debut, his first hit, his first home run, playoff appearances, his walk-off home run against the Dodgers on Sunday Night Baseball. Through his coaching, he hopes to help other Nicaraguan players experience their own memorable moments in baseball.

“Baseball has the potential to be life-changing here.”

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