From Pulungmasle to Portland

There is one place at least in the country where 11-year-old girls are not being groomed to become “guest relations officers” or GROs for DOMs and pedophiles.  It’s softball they are being bred for, and the place is called Pulungmasle, a farming village in the periphery of the town of Guagua, province of Pampanga.

Hardly anyone has noticed that in the last 3 years, this barrio has been sending its finest players to compete in the Little League World Series for pre-teen girls’ softball in Portland Oregon — to represent the whole Far East.   They were eliminated quite early in the tournament the first time they competed in 1994.  But the following year, they landed fifth – not bad at all for these newcomers from across the Pacific.  This year, 1996, they vowed to be the champion, but had to settle for second place when they lost a crucial re-match with Florida, the team they trounced just a few days before.

Softball is a classic American community sport, and young kids all over the US don their uniforms and take the bat almost like a rite of passage into early adolescence.   There was a time too when softball enjoyed immense popularity in the Philippine countryside.  I grew up in Pampanga in the 1950s, believing that softball, not basketball,  was the national sport.  I never understood, however, why it was always the kids who lived near the sugar cane fields who took to the game as if it was invented for them.

Now it makes sense.  I have recently learned that baseball and its variation, softball, were introduced by the American managers of  the sugar mills  during the colonial period.   One such mill was the Pampanga Sugar Mill or Pasumil in Floridablanca, separated only by a river from Pulungmasle.  The girls we have been sending to Portland every year are effectively the descendants of those hardy workers from the sugar mills who were taught baseball by their American employers.

The game lost its luster however when basketball became ascendant. Unlike softball, in which young girls could play equally with the boys, basketball turned girls into cheering squads and adoring spectators.

With the advent of basketball, Pampanga completely forgot baseball or softball.  Only a few could still remember how to lay out a diamond on the province’s level cane fields.  Yet everywhere, little children could be seen hitting worn-out tennis balls with improvised bats, in graceful mimicry of a sport that once lived in their parents’ limbs.

In 1986, Eric Thompson, an ex-US Navy married his Filipino pen pal from Pulungmasle.  Thompson loved baseball, and the first thing he noticed about his wife’s village is how its fields drained well even after a heavy downpour, making them a perfect site for baseball playing fields.  He volunteered to form a boys baseball team that could compete in the Little League Baseball World Series.  And his enthusiasm found resonance in the classrooms of Pulungmasle Elementary School, in teachers like Ms. Naomi Sicat who must have played softball when they were young.

For some reason, the boys team could not be sufficiently motivated.

Maybe they preferred basketball.  And it did not help that in 1992, Little League baseball got mired in a scandal from which it could not recover.  It was thus decided in 1994 that girls teams should instead be formed.  Three such teams were organized in 3 sitios of Barrio Pulungmasle, and from this pool of 11-12 year-olds, the first selection of 14 softbelles was formed. That team won the Philippine championship the same year.

Pulungmasle has sent a world-class team to Portland for 3 successive years now, with airfare provided by the Philippine Sports Commission. Already, the selection process for 1997 has begun.  This time, the softbelles of Pulungmasle won’t settle for less than the world championship.  Guagua’s popular mayor, Manuel Santiago, has suggested however that the field of recruitment be widened to include other barrios.   A softball fever has swept Guagua as a result, and has given this town, that lives dangerously in Mt. Pinatubo’s shadow, a much-needed morale boost in its seasonal encounter with lahar.

The girls train under the watchful eye of coach Isaac Bacarisas, and live together in the make-shift quarters put up and maintained by the Guagua Sports Foundation and the municipal government.  Neighbors keep the girls supplied with eggs, chickens, and vegetables — to build up what their Filipino-American hosts in Portland have come to call “sinigang power”.

Their speed and their technique on the field have made these underequipped but well-trained Pinays a sensation in the USA, the country which produces most of the World Series teams and players. The American teams they have beaten admire them and have not raised any question about their ages.  This year, local US teams graciously lent them bats and helmets because the ones they brought from home had become sub-standard from overuse.

When the Pulungmasle softbelles came home last September, President Ramos received them in Malacanang for a photo session. But that was it – nothing remotely approximating the reception and the rewards that awaited Olympic silver medalist Mansueto Velasco.  Not even a token promise of scholarships.  Softball is just not an item in the Filipino sports consciousness.  None of the girls I talked to imagined a career in professional sports.  But, mercifully, no one was thinking either of going into showbiz or so-called “modelling”.  Almost everyone wanted to be a teacher.


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