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Philippine Sluggers work to represent OFW community in Hong Kong

Reyzelyn Villanueva looks at the vastness of the Wo Yi Hop Sports field and remembers her own journey in Hong Kong. Three years ago, she came to this unfamiliar place driven by her need to work and feed her three children in Laguna. A few months into her job as a domestic worker, Villanueva had to file a criminal case against her employer but lost. While she had all the reasons to get bitter about life, Villanueva persevered.

Today, this Laguna-born single mom is the pride of the Philippine Sluggers – the first all-Filipina and non-Chinese team that joined the Hong Kong Women’s Baseball League. They were only formed in 2009 but the Philippine Sluggers are currently making waves in Hong Kong and giving every Chinese team trouble at the field. The Sluggers are all domestic workers and most of them played amateur baseball in provincial high schools.

A former member of the Philippine national baseball team that competed and won the championship in Singapore in 1998, Villanueva grabbed last year’s most valuable player for the Asia Insurance Phoenix Cup. She was the single non-Chinese player picked by the Hong Kong Baseball Association to join the Hong Kong team for the tournament.

The Phoenix Cup is a yearly tournament where belles from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taipei, United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Korea compete in the former British territory. The idea for the tournament was born after baseball had been removed from the Olympic Games after the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

“Para akong lumilipad, sarap ng feeling! Hindi nga ako dapat pupunta sa awarding,” recalls the 32-year-old Villanueva on the day that she accepted her trophy and medal as MVP. She knew that her perseverance despite her bad experience had paid off.

Just as impressive as Villanueva’s humble rise in baseball was the Philippine Sluggers’ emancipation from domestic work to their field of dreams. The Filipina team has just qualified for this season’s semifinals after catching up with their opponent’s score and rendering Chinese team Hato scoreless in the last inning during Sunday’s game.

The Morrisons

It all started with an invitation by the Hong Kong Baseball Association. The HKBA approached the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong and invited it to form a women’s baseball team to compete for the coming season. An announcement was made and 11 Filipina domestic workers signed up. One of them was Villanueva.

The HKBA offered to train the Filipinas for 10 days for only HK$12. Poorly equipped, the girls showed up in sport shirts, jogging pants and rubber shoes — not to mention empty stomachs for the tryout. After finishing the training they started practicing by themselves with a lone glove donated by Vice Consul Lorena Joy Banagodos who also appealed to Filipino companies to help the team. A Filipina community leader paid their HK$4,500 HKBA registration fee.

Lady luck started smiling at the Sluggers when a family of baseball aficionados read their story from a Filipino community paper and offered to help the team. Jessica Morrison, a Filipina, and her husband John, shipped their baseball equipment from the Philippines to support the girls.

Unlike their well-financed and well-geared Chinese counterparts, the Sluggers were practicing with a lone pitcher’s glove, a couple of golf balls, and a borrowed kid’s baseball bat at a public park where they were always chased by security. Jessica being the only non-domestic worker in the group, offered to do the legwork for the team taking care of their registration and attending meetings called by the HKBA.

While John was very supportive of his wife’s love for baseball and even bought the team some equipment in the United States, he didn’t start coaching them until he saw them play. He gave up playing basketball to coach the team after seeing their potential. John wore a Sluggers’ jersey with the name “Big Dog” and drove the team to victory finishing third during their first season. All three home runs made during that season came from the Sluggers.

Some sponsors also started coming in as the team gets media exposure from local Filipino papers. Another baseball aficionado, Australian John Rostagno, joined the team as assistant coach. The players paid for their uniforms and shoes as they were not receiving enough sponsors. The uniforms were all made in Manila and brought to Hong Kong. Some individuals, including other domestic workers, came in and pitched in money.

With three former national team players alongside Villanueva at the time, the Philippine Sluggers swung their way from one victory to another against their younger and more trained Chinese counterparts. Slowly they were noticed by Chinese teams especially Villanueva whose strong pitches sent disappointed opponents back to base. Villanueva also amazed the crowd and her team with her stunts, often diving for the ball and ripping her uniform at times.

But the victories didn’t come without great sacrifices. All the girls, being domestic workers, can only practice and play on Sundays, their day off. They were winning straight during their first season when the games were timed after lunch, but started losing when the games were switched in the morning. Most players sleep late on a Saturday as their employers go out and enjoy the weekend. Some employers also did not know that their workers were baseball players.

Cecil Elleran, the team’s president and one of its pioneers, has been calling for a volunteer nurse to help them attend to injuries during games. Without a medic by their side, Elleran took the responsibility of attending to injured teammates, armed only by a small first aid kit she brings during games. At least two players were rushed to the hospital after being hit by a ball on the face.

There were also issues against the umpires’ bad calls, problems in their work and at home, and issues among the players themselves that the team had to deal with while representing the country in a game that is not too popular among Filipinos. By the time the Morrisons left the team to go back to the US, the Sluggers rose from 11 players to more than 30 giving them an instant cheering squad to the amazement of their more reserved Chinese opponents.

Their number has now trimmed down to 23 after some of the players had finished their employment contracts and went back to the Philippines for good. Unlike other migrants, foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are just given 14 days to find a new employer after finishing their contracts or return home.

Elleran said the Sluggers have come a long way after three years in the league. They now practice in a baseball field without being chased away by security. The players are now more focused and personal issues ironed out.

“Kulang man ang suporta nakatayo pa rin kami. May recognition na rin mula sa community, may mga fans na kami. Ito ang tunay na istorya ng OFWs hindi yung nakikipag-inuman lang dyan sa tabi,” says Elleran in reference to some workers spending their weekends on Hong Kong’s footbridges and benches.

Some players also felt their self-esteem improve after joining the Sluggers. Eva Mendez, 43 and the oldest in the team, said playing baseball improved her health. With baseball experience in high school, Mendez is known to run faster than some of the younger Chinese players.

Elleran said they now plan to create a team that will join the Phoenix Cup this year and “import” some of their teammates that had returned to the Philippines. The Sluggers players will be asking their employers for leave to play during the tournament which is held on weekdays. They will also need more sponsors to be able to field a team.

Hopefully, the country will be able to see their team of Sluggers that positively represent overseas workers in the international baseball tilt. Hopefully, they find the support to make it happen.

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