U.S. comes through: Iraqi baseball team gets new gear

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 12, 2009 

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi national baseball team's only bat, an aluminum Louisville Slugger, finally can take a rest after four years of daily swings.

McClatchy and MSNBC delivered a batch of new equipment Wednesday donated by CTG Athletics, a New York-based sporting goods company. Star USA, an Ohio firm, provided the shipping.

The new goods provide the team's 16 players with professional mitts, cleats, bats and a bucket of springy white baseballs. Uniforms are on the way.

The players laughed Wednesday as they gripped the fresh gear, swinging bats into the air and stretching their toes into their spikes in a field behind Baghdad University.

"They never looked happy and active like this before," said coach Hamza Madlool, 26. "You can see them trying to get used to the bats and all the new shoes. I'm sure they will never mind training all day in spite of the hot weather."

Madlool and his teammates learned the game from Iraqi nationals who'd lived in America and spent time in the Middle East after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. They play against seven other teams, but their league hasn't gained much traction because it's an American pastime in a country obsessed with soccer.

That's one reason the players kept using balls that were missing chunks of leather; Rawlings doesn't exactly have a market in Iraq.

McClatchy published a story in July about the team's needs. It gathered steam when MSNBC's Rachel Maddow dubbed it "Operation Iraqi Baseball" and sent out an appeal to provide the players with better gear.

Madlool is grateful for the response, and hopeful that it will inspire his league to build a proper field with a red-dirt infield and well-trimmed grass in the outfield. Today, his team plays in shaggy soccer fields, dropping rubber mats to stand in for bases. Don't even think about a pitcher's mound.

"Good American people who do not know us ran quickly to help us as soon as they knew about our miserable situation," he said. "I hope these donations will force us to do more."

The reaction to McClatchy's and MSNBC's reports surprised Bashar Salah, the team's top hitter.

"We've gotten dozens of promises from different people during the last four years, but nothing happened. We got frustrated," he said. "When I met McClatchy during the first story, I believed it would be only a story and nothing would happen."

Yasir Abdul Hasan, the team's assistant coach, is looking forward to swinging the new ash bats. He has a special plan for the team's old Louisville Slugger.

"I will fix it to the wall of my room as a remembrance of the hard days we faced. This bat deserves to be respected, because it supported us during the hard times," he said.

(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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