BAGHDAD — Smiles broke out earlier this week as members of the Iraqi national baseball team tore into boxes filled with brand-new uniforms, courtesy of a Seattle-based company that donated the gear after a profile of the fledgling team by McClatchy and a national appeal by MSNBC.
Six of the team members examined every detail of their new Ebbets Field Flannels duds Tuesday: blue caps printed with Iraqi flags, custom-made jerseys with "Iraq" on the backs, gray pants and old-school stirrup socks.
"I never dreamed we'd have something like this," said Bashar al Salah, the team's captain. "Now we're a real baseball team."
The 20 uniforms were part of an outpouring of donations that followed a McClatchy news report July 13 that described the struggles of the start-up team, which at the time shared a single softball bat, a few old balls and some worn-out gloves. Uniforms were only a dream. Since the report, which gained a wider audience when MSNBC's Rachel Maddow picked it up and appealed for help, the team has received cleats, baseballs, gloves, bats, helmets and an official rule book.
While the players, coaches and sports officials were thrilled with the donations, the head of the baseball federation balked at what he called charity and held up the handover of the goods. Players suspect that he was jealous of the attention, which also exposed how ill-prepared Iraqi teams are despite government funds that are meant to equip them.
"We heard that some people from the federation bought baseball uniforms for us, and that's all I know. All we got in four years are words and promises, but nothing real," Salah said. "This is the first time we have real baseball uniforms."
Corruption is rampant in the new Iraq, with millions of dollars siphoned from government ministries with little or no accountability. Players and coaches feared that the donated uniforms would disappear if they were delivered directly to the federation. Once a tentative agreement was reached between the team and the federation, McClatchy handed over the uniforms to a delegation of six players. The team was adamant about making sure the donations reached the right hands.
"On behalf of the whole team, I would like to thank all the donors for everything they've done for the team," coach Hamza Madlool said. "This will have a big effect on the players. They feel like a real baseball team, and this will push them to practice very hard."
The Iraqi national team didn't have formal uniforms because there's no supplier in Iraq and the game is new, imported by two Iraqi-American students who visited relatives here after the fall of the former regime in 2003.
Now, team members said, they just need to build up experience by playing other, more established teams in the region. They'd received an invitation to play in Afghanistan — one player joked that the balls would be hand grenades — but the baseball federation canceled the trip without giving a reason. The players haven't given up hope, however. There's talk of the team competing soon in Qatar and Malaysia.
"I wish we could've worn the new uniforms in Afghanistan, but we'll just have to keep them home until we get an invitation for a new championship," Madlool said.
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Read what McClatchy's Iraq staff has to say at Inside Iraq