Baseball and the Bahamas: A deeper bond than you may realize
The passion for the game continues to grow, thanks to the current generation of Bahamian ballplayers
NASSAU, Bahamas — On any given day at Prince George Wharf, thousands of humans ferry in and out on massive cruise ships and superyachts, ready to enjoy the party and island vibes. Farther west along the coast, past the lighthouse and just before Arawak Cay, sits the container port, where everything that comes in and out of the Bahamas is first processed after a journey across the ocean.
Last month on nearby Paradise Beach, there were batted balls flying out into the waters of the Atlantic as part of the fourth annual Don’t Blink Home Run Derby. The island nation’s most underrated export — baseball — was on full display for a week in New Providence, organized by Todd Isaacs Jr. and Lucius Fox, two Bahamian professional players. The week consisted of a kids baseball clinic on a beach infield, a golf tournament with the players and of course the main event.
There was a certain timelessness to the proceedings. Multiple players forgot what day it was throughout the week, which isn’t difficult when gallivanting on a beachside resort between baseball functions. They brought all their friends, too.
Billy Hamilton. Triston McKenzie. Lewis Brinson. Touki Toussaint. Akil Baddoo. Hunter Greene. The winner: MJ Melendez. All these guys know each other through various baseball connections and teammates since they’ve been in high school, so reconvening for revelry in the name of the game they love comes naturally.
“I know this island is called Paradise Island and it lived up to its name. This whole last four days has been just amazing. It’s my first time in the Bahamas,” New York Mets utility player Dominic Smith said that Saturday. “To have this many big league guys and up-and-coming stars out here, giving back to the community, showing the kids how to properly play the game, and just ultimately being there for the kids. It’s something that’s so amazing. And I’m so proud of them for doing it. It’s just, right now, [this is] I don’t want to say a rare time — because at one point in baseball, African American or just minority, Black players, I don’t want to say dominated the league — but close.”
Whether this particular collection of guys is the next wave of superstars is to be seen, but the camaraderie was infectious. This isn’t a corporate shill event. MLB isn’t even involved. It’s a local product that in its first year garnered nearly 400,000 live viewers, which was a real thrill for everyone involved, including local cable outlet REV.
When we think of island countries and their histories on the diamond, the Bahamians are not the first people who come to mind. The Dominican Republic, Curacao and Cuba are well known for baseball, and while Puerto Rico is American territory — it is certainly its own beisbol nation. Things are a little different, however, for the island most known for having water so blue that astronauts can recognize it from space.
Unlike the island nations where Spanish is the primary native tongue, most Bahamians consider themselves Black folks, which explains why most of the non-natives down there are African American themselves.
The baseball history is there, even if in small doses. Andre Rodgers was the first Bahamian to play Major League Baseball. Debuting in 1957, he played in 854 big league games over 11 seasons. Nothing to sniff at, at all.
In 2021, the country’s most popular player is Miami Marlins rookie shortstop Jazz Chisholm. Née: Jasrado, he brings a flair to the game that is obvious as soon as you see him exactly one time. His swag is undeniable, and he’s one of the most popular and exciting young players in the bigs.
Chisholm made the Marlins out of spring training last year and hit 18 home runs and stole 23 bases. The numbers sound pedestrian until you watch him play. His four triples on the season made him stand out as much as his chains and hair did.
Renaldo Dorsett is a sports reporter at The Tribune in Nassau, and his son was the catcher for the event. He’s known Jazz since childhood.
“The crazy thing about it is I need people to know that this is not an act. This is who this guy was from when he was 12 years old,” he mentioned about the 23-year-old getting all the attention from even younger fans on the day of the derby.
Since 2018, for Fox and Isaacs, both under 30 years old, it was simple: bring friends, hit homers off the beach. What a concept.
“We all feel like the Home Run Derby is something that is good for the game. It’s something that is exciting,” Isaacs said. “It might not be highly recognized around the world yet, but we’re getting there. I think once we get that exposure from the four corners of the world, I think this will become MLB’s second sport. And the one that they do in the All-Star Week is cool. It’s cool, but it’s still not hitting balls into the water.
“Baseball doesn’t have a second sport. Soccer does. They have beach soccer. Volleyball does. They have beach volleyball. I think as we continue to grow, different countries, different areas around the world are going to be interested in, ‘How can we bring this here? How can we do this here? How can we add a high school division? How can we add college division? How can we really franchise it to really grow the game?’ ”
Ironically, the idea of gathering folks on the sand to hear the crack of the bat alongside waves crashing into the shore didn’t begin in the British colony that gained its independence in 1973. It began in a landlocked American state nowhere close to the tropics: Kentucky.
In 2017, the Bowling Green Hot Rods were facing off against the Lake County Captains, both high-A teams, for the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Guardians, respectively. Isaacs, a member of the Captains, had sustained a head injury and wasn’t playing but did travel with the team to see his buddy Fox, who played for the Hot Rods.
“He just got called up to high-A. And the Home Run Derby actually came to me in a dream. Came to me in a dream,” Isaacs explained. “So I called Lou, I was like, ‘Yo, what you think about this?’ Because at that point, we were brainstorming different things, what we could do in the offseason back home. Being in pro baseball, we wanted to do things in the community, try to just be in the community, be around kids, be around everyone in the community, give them hope, do something for the sport to push the sport out there. So I told him about the idea and he was like, ‘Yo, that sounds crazy. I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but let’s do it!’ ”
The two had established their friendship not just back home in the Bahamas, but in the legendary Freedom Farm Baseball League. When they were preteens, they took the path that most Bahamians with baseball dreams do, because the facilities on the island aren’t the best. For a little bit there, the best ballpark facility in Nassau was at the local prison. Seriously. So, typically, kids play travel tournaments in the States, then get noticed by a high school coach and go from there.
“When you’re coming from the Bahamas, you don’t really have guys in high school that have full-out beards and stuff, like, 10th, 11th, 12th grade. So for us, it’s like, ‘Damn, bro. These adults! We still kids.’ So we had a lot of catching up to do, but the best part about it, we were never scared to work,” said Isaacs, who’s not sure where in the pros he’ll play next.
Isaacs and Fox took a path that a couple of generations of guys had taken, including Antoan Richardson, who’s now the first-base coach for the San Francisco Giants. The school that started the pipeline was American Heritage in Delray Beach, Florida. Chisholm went there, too, and although there were ups and downs, ultimately it was the only way many of them had a real shot.
“We were the first to go to American Heritage. And Todd, Lucius are much younger than I am, so they came down the line after. So every year it was about four or five guys that went to American Heritage or a high school in America, just for the fact to play baseball and to continue education,” said Geron Sands, director of baseball operations at the International Elite Sports Academy in Nassau. “Now the older ones, I guess, which was us, me in particular, always. … It was the time with the Rafael Furcals and those guys coming up from the Dominican, and I was like: ‘Hold up. We’re the same age. We’re the same age, so how come they’re in the big leagues and we’re in high school, college?’
“So it kind of played with my mind. Let’s try to get our own kids from the Bahamas, from our soil, to play professional baseball or to get a college scholarship. Now, there is a little problem with the scholarships in college, that’s why we continuously send kids to high school. We have no leagues to help kids be ready for college from the Bahamas.”
Which is why Isaacs and Fox were ready to give back to a country that only plays fast-pitch softball at the high school level. The experience was wild but taught them a ton about what they could do back home.
“We just realized that, man, we play away. So I’m away from my family basically the whole year,” Fox pointed out regarding the lament that first occurred to him and his high school buddy in 2017. “So I leave here, we go to spring training, and I don’t return until like, September, October, then I go back again because I train in Miami. But we just wanted to do something for our people here. We played so many games away, and we just never were able to play any baseball games in the Bahamas.
“And that was our biggest thing. Like, ‘Man, how could we do something in the Bahamas that is easy to understand?’ Because you know, a lot of people don’t understand baseball. Some people think it’s too slow. Some people think it’s boring, but we just wanted it to be exciting, and everybody could appreciate a home run, or if that ball was hit far. You know what I mean? That’s unique.”
When you cross Sidney Poitier Bridge on the way to Paradise Island, you pay a toll of $2. On a Wednesday night last month before Christmas, many Bahamian fans were treated to a fun evening of fellowship. Don’t Blink held a celebrity softball game, which proved to be a perfect harbinger for exactly how the rest of the proceedings would go.
Drake’s “Nice for What” is blasting from the DJ speakers while radio personality and comedian Naughty is roasting every single person who comes to the plate to swing, this columnist included. The crowd was thick, and it was less of an actual game, and really just a vibe, with guys standing all over the field and talking trash and having a blast while hitting homers deep into the night, if possible. What’s most palpable in the air, however, is that this event is ostensibly super Black. Like most of the Bahamas.
“People getting interested in the baseball community here in the 242, and how these guys get back home and bring their friends who are actual ballplayers, major leaguers, is absolutely amazing,” Naughty said, exhausted from running back and forth with a microphone. Think AND1 basketball, with similar constant running commentary and crowd interaction, but with softball, on the beach.
“We had baseball players back in the day who made it to the big leagues. We had a few others along the way, and Jazz more recently with the new generation. Those guys were inspired by Todd and Lucius because they were the two guys that kicked open the door, got the attention, and these guys are running through it.”
Hamilton had known about the event for years but had just made it down. The nine-year MLB veteran, who last played for the Chicago White Sox and is known as a speedster, was happy to finally be with so many guys he’s known and seen coming up.
“I have a couple more years on them because I’m older,” Hamilton, 31, said. “But these guys are great at what they do. And I respect every last one of them. I come over here. I see stuff like this right here. Now I have stuff in my mind. I can do stuff like this, back in Mississippi.”
At the clinic, he taught kids the ins and outs of his baserunning strategies, from specific approaches against certain pickoff moves to general mindsets when it comes to swiping bags. He holds the record for most bases stolen in a minor league season with 155. Every player there knows it. He likens his approach to base stealing to staying on point during the MLB’s lockout — beyond fun in the sun.
“I was telling the guys. Like for me, it’s like when the pitcher’s pitching, and he asked me, ‘So, what if you get the red light? Do you do anything different?’ ” he explained. He’s been training in the offseason, obviously, because he knows that as soon as a deal does get struck, it’ll be full speed ahead. “If you do something different, he’s like, ‘Throw [down] here.’ The pitcher knows you’re not stealing. So it’s just like that with the lockout.”
Short version: stay ready.
So, while he showed up for the fun at the softball game, he didn’t plan to play. But the excitement of the night convinced him to field a few fun flips across the diamond at first base for a few frames. “Someone last night was like, ‘If you lose your passport over here, you’re going to be stuck over here.’ I said, ‘This is one of the greatest places to be stuck at. If I’m stuck over here, it’s great.’ ”
But on a Saturday afternoon when a spot storm sent hundreds of people running for cover on the beach, nobody is thinking about that. Kids are everywhere, the players are celebrating and it’s a grand ol’ baseball party.
To call it a success would be an understatement. These guys are here for fun, not sponsor obligations. No one is telling them what to do. Just baseball players having fun with their homies.
“We do make up the largest amount of professional athletes in the Bahamas, but the vast majority of our population doesn’t know that, just because we never play in front of the people. We never do things in front of the people,” Isaacs said hopefully.
Pretty soon, everyone else, not just those on the island, will be watching as well.
“The Bahamian culture, No. 1, I think, is what makes guys want to come down every year,” Isaacs explained. “To being a country that’s made up of majority of Black Africans, just like African Americans, it’s just that our boats stopped here at the Bahamas versus America. So that’s why we relate so much to African Americans, because we share similar heritage, similar pastimes. And we just … everywhere you go, Black people just know to have fun, how to have a good time. You just know how to just show love. And that’s what this whole event is, is just showing love.”