MANILA: Teenager Piolo Perez swings his bat on a baseball field built atop the Philippines’ most notorious trash heap, sending home run balls crashing through the shanties mushrooming on the outfield.
Inspired by a Hollywood film starring Kevin Costner about a farmer who builds a baseball diamond on his cornfield, Manila’s huge landfill nicknamed Smokey Mountain has its own “Field of Dreams” to stop its youth going astray.
“If it weren’t for baseball, I’d still be picking trash,” Perez, a scrawny 15-year-old catcher, told AFP in between swinging at pitches in Sunday training.
Like his 60-plus teammates, Perez, used to collect recyclable materials from the truckloads of rubbish from around the nation’s capital of 12 million people that is dumped on the seafront district.
But he now has a sporting scholarship thanks to a baseball and softball programme, run by a charity group and local business people.
Poverty is widespread in the Philippines, with one in four Filipinos earning a mere $1.30 a day, but the conditions at the Smokey Mountain squatter colony are especially dire.
Smokey Mountain, which got its name because of the acrid smoke that rose from decomposing waste at the rubbish dump, was officially ‘closed’ by the government 20 years ago. It cleared some of the land to build five-storey apartment buildings for the 15,000 ‘garbage gleaners’ that lived and worked there.
But authorities left much of the rubbish behind, and the dumping continued illegally. New shanties sprouted and the whole area came to be known as Smokey Mountain.
Now the original grass-overgrown 20-hectare (49-acre) dump rises like a parody of the Boston Red Sox’s “Green Monster” wall off third base.
The cramped and bumpy field, the size of three basketball courts, is ringed by rapidly spreading squatter shanties. Close by is a murky open sewer that empties into Manila Bay.
A home run almost always entails losing the ball to the foul-smelling water or sending it crashing through the ramshackle houses.
Baseball team instead of gangs
Many Smokey Mountain residents still depend on gleaning trash to make a living despite efforts by the government and civic groups to wean them away from the activity.
Baseball — and softball for girls — has proved a successful option for youths aged 7-18, said Marvin Navarro, community development director for the Manila branch of Junior Chamber International, a key sponsor.
“It’s also a way to get them out of the negative aspects of the community such as drugs, gangs and stealing,” Navarro told Agence France-Presse.
Though overshadowed by basketball, baseball has deep roots in the Asian country, a US colony for nearly 50 years before winning independence in 1946.
The programs began when civic groups looking to help out slum residents found children playing rudimentary baseball at the old dump using improvised bats and gloves fashioned out of rubber sandals and cartons.
“It was just flat land which was full of garbage, not really conducive for the sports, so talks were made… to really convert this lot into a proper sports field,” Navarro said.
A government agency let the team use the lot for free, and corporate sponsors including US firms operating in the Philippines cleared the field and provided uniforms and playing equipment.
Retired baseball superstars from Japan’s major league are also brought in at least once a year for free clinics to the team and its coaches, Navarro said.
Perez, the son of a tricycle driver, learned to play baseball at the lot when he was eight.
He was also going to school but it was a precarious existence, as he had to spend hours each day collecting plastic water bottles to raise enough money for the study fees of 50 pesos [just over a dollar]a day.
The boy, who idolises the Miami Marlins’ Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, a batting and base-stealing champion, stopped collecting garbage after earning a high school sports scholarship at the Timoteo Paez Integrated School nearby.
Garry Riparip, the community’s head coach, said the main challenge was convincing parents to let their children play and go to school, instead of forcing them to collect trash.
“We’re trying to change their mindset, so that they will put more importance to education than earning a living from garbage. If they graduate many more opportunities will open up for them,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Another issue for the children is overcoming diffidence to compete against well-heeled opponents with slick uniforms and top-of-the-line equipment.
“It’s intimidating at times playing against teams from wealthy schools. Our team has to share the gloves,” said Rica Lacorte, 13, who plays third base for the girls’ team.
Despite the odds, Smokey Mountain teams compete in the country’s little league tournaments, and many of them have excelled, Riparip, 48, said.
Their under-15 girls team went to the Junior League Softball World Series in the United States in 2014.
Though they still live in the slum, 15 boys are also currently on playing scholarships with three prestigious Manila universities, he added.
Lacorte, the daughter of a taxi driver who lives at one of the tenement units, told AFP she and her parents wanted her to follow the same path.
“My parents support my softball activities. They want me to meet more friends and perhaps win a scholarship,” she said.