WASHINGTON — The players on Iraq's premier national baseball team saw a baseball stadium for the first time on a recent 10-day visit to the United States, courtesy of the State Department.
It was also the first time they had an appreciation of why the game is considered America's pastime.
"We had this idea that (Americans) loved baseball, but not to this extent," said Ali, a 15-year-old from Baghdad who, like all the players quoted in this story, didn't want his full name used for fear of retribution back home. "We thought we were coming here to learn the basic rules of the game."
Ali had just finished hobnobbing with Ivan Rodriguez, the Washington Nationals' catcher, who's considered one of baseball's best defensive players, over home plate at Nationals Park. The State Department had arranged the outing to make sure the Iraqi team, which is co-ed, got a star-studded feel for the American game.
The Iraqi players had taken positions in the outfield and at first, second and third bases and at home plate to welcome the starting lineup as the pros took the field for a game. They were overwhelmed by the thousands of fans who cheered them on, the jumbo television screen behind them and the announcer booming their names.
As they scurried off the field, the players shared their giddy excitement. Hemallah, 15, of Quadisiya, said she'd been so excited that she forgot the little English she knew, but then she'd remembered how to say "Nice to meet you."
Ali said he had the same problem, but he finally sputtered out a hello to Rodriguez.
Farah, 17, said simply: "Did you see us? I want to play professionally one day, or at least learn the game better."
The trip was the culmination of a yearlong effort that began when McClatchy published a story about Iraqis who'd visited America and wanted to take baseball back to Iraq. Prompted by the story and the publicity that MSNBC's Rachel Maddow gave it on her evening program, private companies stepped in to donate equipment to the nascent team, most of whose members were recruited by word of mouth.
Then came the idea of bringing 14 of the players and coaches to the U.S. to see how the game is played in the country where it's the national pastime.
The players said they hadn't lost their love of soccer, Iraq's national obsession, but that there were things about baseball they'd never seen before: a game of fast sprints after much waiting, of the lone batter against nine people in the field.
"The most interesting thing is facing the whole team. It's one against nine," said Farah, who's petite and soft-spoken but knows something about taking the road less traveled: She's also a wrestler.
Still, Iraq wasn't far away. There was the business about wanting to keep their names out of the paper, in case someone back in Iraq took offense at their being in the United States.
There also were complaints about the rampant corruption that's plaguing the country. The players allege that Iraq's baseball federation is hoarding the donated bats and balls, forcing them to beg for equipment in a nation where they can't hope to buy their own. During their trip, the players bought gloves for themselves so they wouldn't have to ask the federation anymore.
The coach, Bashir, said the visit to Nationals Park, which opened two years ago, was bittersweet.
"I understand this is for professionals," he said, taking in the lush grass and rows and rows of seats. "But playing on a rock filled with rocks causes lots of injuries. We are a rich enough country to have something better, but because of the officials and corruption, we will never have it."
The team visited a training camp sponsored by Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr., and met Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners. Often, the names were lost on the Iraqis, many of whom had heard only of the New York Yankees.
The trip also included some non-big-league venues. They met the baseball team at Fairmont Heights High School in Seat Pleasant, Md., attended their first prom and took in Washington's monuments.
State Department officials said the trip was sport serving as public diplomacy. The hope is that the team will speak wistfully of baseball and the United States back in Iraq.
Based on the interviews here, they probably will. Ali said he was surprised by Americans' commitment to law and order. Farah said she was surprised at how easily Americans lived.
"What is not to like here?" she asked. Americans "live their lives. They don't need anything because they have it all."
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