BAGHDAD — They've only got a five year-old softball bat, a threadbare cap, three scuffed balls and nine second-hand gloves from a flea market. They train on a college soccer field. And there's not a uniform among them. However, they love America's pastime as much as Crash Davis of "Bull Durham" ever did.
Meet Iraq's national baseball team.
The venture was the brainchild of three young Iraqi men from the U.S. They played ball at their American high school schools, came to Baghdad on a visit five years ago and left behind a curiosity and interest about a sport that, unlike soccer, didn't involve yellow cards, flops or nets.
"We were a group of physical education students," recalls Ysir Abdul Hasan, 23, the assistant coach. "We loved it because it's a new and strange game for our society." The Iraqis were also struck with the challenge, he adds, "especially for the striker who plays against the whole other team."
Striker or batter, coach Hamza Madlool, 26, formed the current team after an earlier team had to be disbanded at the height of the country's civil unrest. Players on that club and the baseball federation president, Isma'eel Khallel, got e-mail and telephone threats from Sunni insurgents linked to al Qaida Iraq. The insurgents accused them of playing "an occupation game."
However, it was lack of money, not death threats, that sent the earlier team to the showers.
Even so, Madlool says he loves the game "because it is more enthusiastic than any other." His family was delighted with his new sport and encouraged him to go on. Eventually, he wound up coaching a women's softball team, which won a championship. "I felt as if I were the No. 1 man in the world," he beams.
The reincarnated ball club still faces money problems today. Ali Abdul Hussein, the general secretary of the baseball federation, said there are many talented Iraqi players, but they lack gear and a place to play. "The Iraqi Olympic Committee didn't allocate a budget for our federation because it's new," he explained. "This year they gave us only 100 million dinars (about $84,500) as a donation."
Some 60 percent of that goes for organizing local championships, fees to join Asian and other international baseball associations and other costs. Besides the Baghdad squad, teams have been formed in four other Iraqi cities.
Both coaches receive the equivalent of $106 a month. None of the players makes a dinar — an amateur status the NCAA would endorse. The real problem is equipment. One time the federation gave them a Chinese-made aluminum bat, but it bent after the first batter connected. Assistant coach Hasan scoured a book fair at Baghdad University for a baseball rulebook, but struck out.
Bashar, 28, is the only non-student on the team. The physical education teacher is captain and asked that his last name not be used because he still fears Sunni retaliation. "Shiite people don't have a problem with playing any kind of game, whether it's American or not," he says.
To watch a major league game, he has to go to the home of a friend who has subscription-only channels. He likes the Los Angeles baseball team, though he's not sure of its name. (Probably the Dodgers, but it could be the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, according to Angels owner Arte Moreno.)
"There is one player on the L.A. team that made me love the whole team," Bashar says. "I don't even know his full name. I think his name is James." So it's not Manny just being Manny.
At one practice last week, the players — most of whom had just finished university exams — spent their time on drills. The sandstorm that had hung over Baghdad for days had cleared off. Under blue skies, in 110 degree heat, they ran laps around the field, then tossed their three balls back and forth in an Arabic version of a pepper warm-up.
None of the players owns a pair of spikes, so they all wear Chinese-made, off-the-rack running shoes.
Before a game, the team gathers in a circle, clasps hands, chants a verse from the Koran and shouts "Baghdad!"
Last month, the team heard exciting news. They were invited to a tournament in Afghanistan in September. They're still trying to rustle up the money to travel to the other war zone, but they're already talking about their opponents.
"I'm afraid the Afghan national team will use grenades instead of balls," said one player, laughing. "And their bats will be RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) launchers."
Ilaab! Play ball!
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Mike Tharp of the Merced Sun-Star contributed to this article from Baghdad).
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