Sunday, October 24, 2004
By Ashraf Khali, Times Staff Writer
BAGHDAD — Yasser Abdel Hussein tugs his cap and unwinds with the smooth sidearm delivery that's made him the ace of the pitching staff. He looks like a prospect. At home plate, however, Mohammed Khaled seems like he's still on chilly terms with his bat as he crouches, resplendent in a red (yes, red) New York Yankees hat, FUBU muscle shirt and tight bicycle shorts. "It's a game of speed and concentration," Khaled says after widely missing most of Abdel Hussein's pitches. He connected just twice, and then only by abandoning all technique and swinging one-handed. The 20 young men gathered on a patchy grass field behind Baghdad University's College of Sports Education may not look like much now. But organizers of Iraq's fledgling national baseball team have high hopes.
As they work to introduce the sport to Iraqis who've never heard the phrase "home run," they're struggling with financial hardship, bare-bones equipment and a mortal fear that their fondness for this most American game will draw the wrath of the country's insurgency. Ismail Khalil Ismail, the founder of the 10-team league from which the national squad players are drawn, treads carefully to avoid the perception that his creation is a seed of cultural imperialism.
He dreads the thought of local newspapers "writing that we're playing an American game. But what game isn't American or British — basketball, soccer, boxing?" Ismail started his league last year with a few bags of donated equipment. He's desperate for material and financial support, but doesn't dare approach the U.S. Embassy or military. A U.S. Army unit recently invited the team to play against soldiers inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. "But we refused," said Bashar Salah, a muscular 24-year-old in a pinstriped jersey. "Not because of extremism, but to protect our lives."
Ismail first proposed the idea of bringing baseball to Iraq in 1996. The burly former national judo champion floated the idea to friends on the Iraqi Olympic Committee — then run by Saddam Hussein's son Uday. They quietly advised him to drop it, "because it was an American game and the Americans are our enemies." He revived the concept after the fall of the Hussein regime in April 2003. A friend from what Ismail would only describe as "an international charitable organization in Baghdad" arranged for a donation of a few balls, bats and gloves.
From there, Ismail started organizing on college campuses and at sports clubs. He held his first practice last October, and secured the support of the new Iraqi Olympic Committee this year. By summer, he had enough interest to organize a 10-team Baghdad championship tournament. Coaches then picked the best players to form the national squad. All receive a symbolic stipend of as much as $20 a month. For the players, the game is an intriguing novelty whose appeal transcends politics. "I was attracted by its newness — not because it's American, but because it's a new idea," Salah said. For now they practice regularly, and dream of traveling abroad to hone their skills.
Alaa Awad, a member of the baseball league's board of directors, said they didn't have the funding to consider trips to play against other national squads. "The only way we could accept an invitation was if the host country paid for us," he said. And "we can't really invite anyone to come here." There's also a shortage of regional competition.
In the Middle East, only Turkey, Iran, Morocco and Tunisia have national baseball teams. Officials from the Iraqi team wrote to counterpart organizations in Morocco and Tunis but haven't heard back. On a recent afternoon, the group — most of whom were abstaining from food and water during daylight hours for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — gathered to run through hitting and pitching drills. Players took turns on the mound and at the plate, while assistant coach Ali Abdel Wahid stood behind the catcher and called out balls and strikes. The rest gathered haphazardly in the outfield, struggling to snare pop-ups and ground balls. Several players wore their batting helmets in the field. One wore his glove on his head.
Most of the players were obviously natural athletes, and the roster boasted several youth soccer stars and two members of the national team handball squad. But it was clear that picking up baseball skills would take time. When quizzed on their knowledge of the major league baseball playoffs, players could name only one team: the Yankees. Nobody could recall the name of a single player. "The hardest thing is teaching them while I'm learning myself," said Abdel Wahid, the assistant coach. He spends three hours a night researching rules and techniques online, and is translating the rule book, downloaded from the Major League Baseball website.
Once his players have the basics down, he looks forward to teaching them "to work together on the doubles play." Ismail acknowledges that he understood little about the game before launching his initiative. Mostly he just wanted to introduce a new sport to Iraq. "It was either [baseball] or rugby — I thought that would be good because Iraqis like violent sports like boxing or wrestling." But rugby would have required building goal posts, he said, whereas baseball can be played with a few bags of donated equipment.
Fearful of causing a backlash by advertising a Western connection, Ismail claims not to remember who sent the bats, balls and gloves. Some of the balls bear the name of the donor, but they're all too worn and smudged to make out much. On two balls, however, "Ogden, Utah" is legible. (Dano Jauregui, the baseball coach at Ogden-based Weber State University, said he had no idea about any kind of equipment donation to Iraq. Dave Baggott, the co-owner of the Ogden Raptors minor league baseball team, said he vaguely recalled some sort of equipment drive organized last year by a local civic group.)
From these humble beginnings, Ismail claims the sport's appeal is spreading. Teams have sprung up in the northern cities of Kirkuk, Irbil and Mosul. In Ramadi — in the fiercely anti-U.S. province of Al Anbar west of Baghdad — players practice with homemade bats and modified tennis balls, Ismail said. Inspired by the Iraqi soccer team's improbable fourth-place showing at the Athens Olympics, Ismail has high hopes. "We want to make this a success," he said. "We want to shock the world."