Of all sports/games the game of Baseball is both the most quintessentially American and yet now the most ''international'' of all. So I merely typed ''baseball iraq'' into Google and this NYT article
BAGHDAD, Iraq - The opening pitch of the Northern Regional Junior Baseball Tournament last March was a slow ball that struck the dirt an inch behind home plate, bounced into the catcher's face mask and knocked him to the ground.
Ismael Khalil Ismael, in red shirt, brought baseball to Baghdad in 2003. Using donated equipment, Iraq now has 26 teams in 18 provinces.
For anyone focusing on details, like skill, it may have seemed an inauspicious start. But to the players and the two dozen spectators, most of whom did not know the difference between a ball and a strike, the moment underscored something far more important: Baseball had come to Iraq.
Founded in the fall of 2003 by Ismael Khalil Ismael, a shop owner in Baghdad, the national league has grown to 26 full-fledged baseball teams in 18 provinces stretching from Nineveh in the north to Basra in the south. Using hand-me-down gloves and other cast-off equipment, much of it donated from the United States, the teams play on sandy lots, rutted pastures and soccer pitches.
"I'm doing it for the history of Iraq," he declared.
If this were the full outline of the league's narrative, it would be a rare, happy story for this troubled country. But like Iraq since the American invasion, the league, after less than two years in existence, has itself been torn by political infighting and charges of malfeasance that have cast its future into doubt.
And as if that were not enough, Mr. Ismael said he had been menaced by people who have who accused him of supporting an American cultural export.
"I'm under huge pressure," he said. "There is no freedom and democracy here. There is only plotting and conspiracy."
Mr. Ismael, 40, a former member of the national judo team, said he first heard of baseball when he was a child. His father had been working with an American contracting company building a dam near the northern city of Sulaimaniya, and the American workers would play.
The sport had also popped up at some private grade schools around the country, he said, though it never extended beyond physical education class.
In 1994, a cousin working at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, sent him a supply of bats, balls and gloves - "enough for a team," recalled Mr. Ismael, whose physique these days is less outfielder and more home plate umpire.
But fearful that his interest in a decidedly American sport would antagonize Saddam Hussein, he shelved the idea. "My friends advised me not to fulfill my dream because I might be interrogated or put in prison," he recalled on a recent afternoon while sitting in one of four clothes and gift shops he owns in the lobby of the Babylon Hotel.
After the fall of Mr. Hussein's government, Mr. Ismael felt free to start the baseball league. In visits to sports clubs and college campuses, he mustered interest in the new sport, and held his first practice in November 2003.
In July 2004, the National Olympic Committee of Iraq admitted the league as a member and since then has budgeted more than $50,000 to support it. Called the Iraqi Baseball and Softball Federation, the league also includes 15 women's softball teams and a national baseball team, which has yet to play an international game.
The Olympic committee's contribution, Mr. Ismael said, helps to pay for equipment, salaries for himself ($150 per month) and his vice president ($60 per month), a $25 per month honorarium for each player on the national team, team travel and clinics for players, coaches and umpires.
Mr. Ismael said the amount was not enough to cover all the league's expenses and he says he has contributed thousands of dollars of his own to keep the organization alive. The scarcity of resources is so bad, he said, that teams in Baghdad need to practice on alternate days because there is not enough equipment to go around.
League officials have been particularly conflicted about whether they should approach the most obvious source of financing - the American authorities here - and how they might go about it.
On one hand, Mr. Ismael points out, he desperately needs help, both financial and instructional. But on the other hand, he does not want to appear to be supported by the Americans, thereby inspiring attacks by insurgents.
He has already received menacing cellphone calls and two e-mail notes from strangers questioning his devotion to what one writer, a Saudi man, bitterly called "an imported sport."
That opposition - and the threat of something worse - has put Mr. Ismael in an unfortunate dilemma: a higher profile could invite more problems, yet without promotion the league can not grow.
"I've said this more than once: We are not bringing weapons of mass destruction to Iraq," he sighed. "We're only playing a simple game."
In spite of the threats, he has had surprisingly little trouble finding players. More than 200 people have attended his seminars and clinics, which he offers without charge.
"I like it because it's a new game in Iraq and it's exciting" said Yassir Abdullah, 21, a muscular second baseman on Baghdad's Salam, or Peace, team and a third-year student at the College of Athletic Education at Baghdad University. Like many players, he has caught only glimpses of American baseball in the background of movies.
The league took a bad turn in July when 15 players filed a complaint with the Olympic committee accusing Mr. Ismael of using the league's minibus for personal business and of providing them with substandard food and lodging during a road trip to Sulaimaniya. The committee has opened an investigation into the allegations.
A high-ranking committee official, Salman Abdul Hamza, suggested that the details of the league had probably overwhelmed Mr. Ismael. "He's a hard worker; he's doing a good job," Mr. Hamza said. "But some people may do good things in their job but administratively are not successful."
Mr. Ismael denies the charges and says they are part of an attempted power grab by people envious of his successes. At the same time, he has accused the president of the Olympic committee, Ahmed Assamarai, of underfinancing the sport in retribution for his refusal to allow Mr. Assamarai's son to run the league.
The spokesman for the Olympic committee denied that Mr. Assamarai had ever insisted that his son be put in charge of the league. Mr. Assamarai's son, the spokesman pointed out, lives in Britain.
The new season is supposed to begin sometime in September when the weather begins to cool down - Mr. Ismael said there was no particular opening day. The summer heat has made any regular practices absolutely unbearable, though on a recent afternoon, Mr. Ismael assembled a squad, including several players from the south, to put on a demonstration for a visiting reporter.
The players laid out the bases at the edge of a fallow soccer pitch, where the grass had grown to shin height and was full of dust from sand storms. A herd of cows and sheep grazed nearby. The players drew from a communal stockpile of gloves - most do not own their own - and took turns batting and running the bases.
There were a lot of wild throws, and few hits made it out of the infield. The shortstop was out of position, playing nearly on top of second base, and for some reason everyone referred to the catcher as "the umpire." Many players in the league said they had never seen the sport played by non-Iraqis; even Mr. Ismael has only seen college or professional players from abroad on instructional DVD's and videos.
But there was no shortage of enthusiasm. Ali Muhsen, the 27-year-old captain of the national team, said afterward that he dreamed of one day traveling to the United States with the Iraqi national team and playing the Americans.
Asked if beating the Americans was also part of the plan, he smiled bashfully and shook his head no.
The conversation went on but Mr. Muhsen remained silent, apparently reconsidering his answer.
"Inshallah," he finally said. "I hope."
Now it would be a wound to my pride as an American if an Iraqi Baseball team beat an American baseball team on the field, by standard rules, in an honest game.
To be blunt about it, I ALWAYS get ticked off when a non-American team beats an American team. My attitude is ''*&^%$#@! we should have fielded a better team!!!'', but I'd grumble and accept the loss. As I said to a Peurto Rican friend of mine when during the 2004 Olympics: ''Team Peurto Rico beat Team USA in Basketball
?!?! Now if it were Baseball I wouldn't even be suprised, but Basketball
When it comes to Baseball, I would not bet on ''Team USA (a MLB all-star team)'' vs. ''Team [insert country name here] (that country's all-star team)''...
posted by YIH @ 12:29 AM on