BALTIMORE- When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, no one played baseball. A few Iraqis who studied in the United States brought the game back to private clubs in the country, but few felt freedom to play the sport because it is so classically American.
Seven years after the U.S. invasion that deposed the Iraqi dictator, the sport is starting to go cracker jacks, but not because American soldiers are teaching Iraqis the game. Iraqis are learning it themselves from television. Youth leagues have popped up in cities around the country-Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, Nasiriyah, Diwaniyah, Basra, and Amarah. Soccer is still by far the most popular sport in Iraq, but now young Iraqis are coming out in the evenings to play baseball (it's too hot during the day). The nascent Iraqi Baseball and Softball Federation recently held a televised tournament in Kurdistan.
Aseel Layth, 23, is a catcher for the Baghdad softball team that won the country's championship two years ago. She's one of seven Iraqi softball and baseball players who came to the United States in May through a State Department program to train and help them meet U.S. baseball players. Aseel is solidly built like any good catcher, wearing a backwards baseball cap, T-shirt, and athletic capris. Still, in a bow to Iraq's traditional culture, some female players won't allow others to take pictures of them.
Aseel and the other Iraqi players came to the Baltimore Orioles' stadium, Camden Yards, on a Tuesday to hit the field with the Seattle Mariners legend Ken Griffey Jr., but cold rain foiled their plans. So the players were stuck in the sunless "auxiliary clubhouse" of the stadium (the basement), waiting to meet Griffey.
While they waited, they loaded up on signed baseballs, bags of sunflower seeds, and "Big League Chew" gum. And Aseel told me how the war makes practicing and playing difficult-partly because fields where they used to play in the city have been transformed to military bases. Travel outside the city is freighted with delays at checkpoint after checkpoint. "Security is very fragile," affirmed one of the coaches, Ahmed Hanoon Khanjar Al-Saedi, through an interpreter. "If there's an incident, we lose an entire day of training."
The head of the baseball federation which oversees these teams, Ali Abdul Husain Albaldawi, said when the federation started six years ago, they would scour the second-hand markets in Baghdad for baseball gear. "Whenever we saw something related to baseball, we bought it," he said. Though American groups like Major League Baseball have donated gear more recently, the teams never have enough. "If we had the chance to have gear or stadiums, I'm sure [baseball] would be as famous as football [soccer]," Albaldawi added. He said that other cities, like Najaf in the south and Sulaymaniyah in the north, want to join the federation but can't because they don't have the equipment or playing fields.
Then Griffey, the Major League legend and winner of 10 Gold Glove Awards, strolled in, wearing an untucked button-down shirt and jeans. It quickly became apparent that the Iraqis didn't know he was a star. Several of the coaches and players continued talking among themselves as Griffey waited near the front of the room. The State Department handler finally interrupted them: "You need to be quiet now!"
Once attention swiveled to Griffey, one of the players asked him: "What is your name?"
"My whole name?" Griffey responded, perplexed. "George Kenneth Griffey Jr. Now they just call me Junior."
"What's the name of your team?" another asked. "How many times have you hit the ball and had a home run?"
He answered with a smile, "630." The players clapped and cheered. Then they wanted to know what he thought of baseball in Iraq. "You always want your sport to grow," he said. "It's not how big you are, how strong you are, it's how well you play."
Even though the drill with Griffey was rained out, days earlier the players honed their skills at the Cal Ripken Baseball Academy and with local high school teams. There they learned some of the rules of the game for the first time. Before training in the United States, Albaldawi said, Iraqi players thought base runners had to stand exactly on the base-no lead-off. They counted a foul on two strikes as a third strike. And he said pitchers didn't know there was an "art" to throwing the ball. "Now our players know five different kinds of ball throwing, when we used to play one way." They don't have baseball words in Arabic for things like "strike" or "batter," which made the translators' job throughout the trip difficult. Iraqis still "think of [baseball] as an American game," Aseel said. But Albaldawi added, "People have started loving this game."