Nicaraguan league provided just the boost Syracuse's Mark Minicozzi needed

Minor league baseball players have travel stories that flight attendants wouldn't wish on their worst enemies.

Long rides on uncomfortable buses. Cheap motels in remote locations. Meals delivered in a sack.

Syracuse Chiefs infielder Mark Minicozzi survived bus rides without air conditioning while temperatures hovered in the mid-90s. He took post-game showers without hot water. On two occasions, he returned to his hotel to find that the housekeeping crew had stolen his belongings.

“Every article — like my laptop, cell phone, anything they could sell — was stolen from the room,” Minicozzi said. “It was at that point I knew I wasn’t in the United States anymore.”

Minicozzi is one of the few baseball players born in the continental U.S. who can say they’ve played ball in the Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League. If it weren’t for his girlfriend’s grandmother, one of the best experiences he’s ever never would have happened.

Minicozzi, 32, has played in 12 different leagues in the minors since being drafted in the 17th round by the San Francisco Giants in 2005. He’s played Class A ball in the Northwest League, AA in the Eastern League and AAA in Pacific Coast League. There have been diverse locales like Hawaii and Winnipeg.

But it was a teammate on Minicozzi’s Canadian-American Association team, the Worcester (Mass.) Tornadoes, who told him about playing in Nicaragua. The Tigres del Chinandega were Minicozzi’s squad in winter 2011.

“It was sort of a perfect storm, totally coincidental” Minicozzi said. “My girlfriend at the time, her grandmother was actually from Chinandega. If grandma wasn’t from there (my girlfriend) would have probably never let us go. Her grandma told stories (of what it was like) growing up there as a small child. It made going there a lot easier. It was like a three month vacation for (my girlfriend). It was a chance for her to see her heritage.”

For Minicozzi, it was a chance to get some much need reps.

“I was coming back from three consecutive seasons from injuries,” Minicozzi said. “It was a chance to keep playing and to keep getting at bats.”

Injuries have been a large part of the reason why the Wayne, Pa., native has bounced from league to league. Minicozzi missed the entire 2008 season because of Tommy John surgery. He’s also had surgeries on his wrist, back and labrum.

When the Chinandega Tigers weren’t on the road traveling in sweltering school buses, Minicozzi traveled to and from his home ballpark, Estadio Efrain Tijerino, on his motorcycle. The views from the two-wheeler painted a stark reality.

“There is so much poverty there,” Minicozzi said. “People were living in small, one bedroom houses. The houses had no doors, no windows. Cattle and goats were walking in the middle of the street.”

An admitted Starbucks addict, Minicozzi spent the three months in Nicaragua without a sip of the trendy java drink. He was fortunate enough just to have coffee.

“(Americans) are so use to having different selections of what we want,” Minicozzi said. “In Nicaragua, there is only one type of item if you’re lucky enough to find that item.”

The three-month stay in Chinandega got the ball rolling for Minicozzi. Since then he has worked his way up from Class A to AAA.

“Playing there helped me more with the mental aspect of the game more than anything else,” said Minicozzi. “As an American, you are expected to perform. You get paid a lot more than the other guys (on the team). You have to do well or you’ll go home. Being able to deal with that kind of pressure made me play better.”

Above: Time spent in the Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League helped Mark Minicozzi move up to Class AAA.  (Photo courtesy Rick Nelson)

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