Tuesday, September 21, 2004

ALTUN KUPRI, Iraq — Gray-shirted Brusiks filled the bases in the final inning. The potential winning run — Kamaran Sabir, the team’s 14-year-old slugger — strode to the plate.

Kamaran clenched his teeth. The Nawruz pitcher, Diller Fakhraddin, stared back. Parents in the stands nervously wrung their hands. Diller’s fastball whizzed in, and Kamaran swung.

Strike one. Strike two. Then, “Strike three,” yelled the umpire, U.S. Army Capt. Deron Haught. “You’re out!”

With that, what may have been Iraq’s first organized baseball game was over. The red-shirted Nawruz — the Kurdish word for New Year’s Day — beat Brusik, or Team Lightning, 10-7.

The teams of 13- to 17-year-old boys are the only two in Altun Kupri’s new league. Wednesday was opening day in this village in northern Iraq, a clutch of blocky buildings named for a 16th-century Ottoman bridge that once spanned the Little Zab River here.

It was a perfect evening for baseball. Parents crunched pistachios to the ding of aluminum bats. Soldiers from the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade stood guard at the soccer field-turned-baseball diamond, with a Humvee parked at each outfield foul pole and another sitting just beyond the center field fence.

The children — Kurds, Turkomen and one Arab — belted line drives, scooped up grounders — and booted a few, too. Parents cheered as their boys chased down fly balls and hurled them home, where overzealous runners were tagged out.

In most of Iraq, U.S. soldiers would stand little chance of organizing a baseball league, let alone setting up a public address system and staging a game on a town’s soccer field. But Altun Kupri, just south of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, lies in a friendly area. U.S. troops have never been attacked there and consider the town safe enough to trade in their helmets and body armor for T-shirts and ball caps.

Capt. Haught commands a platoon that occupies a small base in this town 205 miles north of Baghdad. He said the soldiers hope America’s favorite pastime catches on in Iraq.

“I’d like to see one of them get a scholarship at West Virginia University and then go and play for the Pirates,” said Capt. Haught, 37, a Pittsburgh fan from Harrisville, W.Va.

It’s not an impossible dream. Baseball has thrived in some countries where U.S. troops have deployed, including Cuba, Panama and the Dominican Republic.

“We’d like to welcome you to the first Iraqi baseball game,” Capt. Haught told the curious crowd just before the town’s mayor tossed out the first pitch. “This game has been played in America for over a hundred years, and we want to share it with Altun Kupri and with this country.”

The game proved a mystery to most.

“We’ve never seen this before, except on TV,” said Ahso Abu Bakr, 50, watching his two sons — one on each team. “Hopefully we’ll get used to this game and start learning it.”

The idea for the league arose after Capt. Haught’s soldiers began playing baseball among themselves. They made a ball from wadded paper wrapped in duct tape. An aluminum cot leg was the bat.

Haught said he mentioned the games to his sister in West Virginia. “She felt bad. We were over here serving our country, and we were playing baseball with a tape ball and a cot leg,” he said. “So she started ‘Operation Home Run.’”

Packages began arriving filled with baseballs, bats and gloves.

At the same time, the platoon was trying — and failing — to unify Altun Kupri’s sports clubs, which are grouped, like the town, into Turkomen and Kurdish camps. So the soldiers started their own sports club and made it a baseball league. In July, Capt. Haught persuaded the City Council to send over a few dozen youngsters.

He wasn’t sure it would work. Iraqis play soccer and volleyball, sports that don’t involve catching or throwing. But the youths picked up the basics.

The soldiers trained the best athletes as pitchers and catchers. Teaching hitting and fielding was easy. Baseball’s rules proved tougher.

“Like, when you’re on first, you have to run, but you can’t outrun the guy ahead of you,” Capt. Haught said.

With the final out on opening day, Diller, the winning pitcher, and his teammates ran off the field, their arms in the air, shouting “Nawruz, Nawruz!”

“I like this game. It’s better than soccer,” he said.

Then the window of baseball-inspired magic closed. The soldiers strapped on their body armor, and Humvee engines roared to life. Soccer balls appeared, and players began preparing the field for the evening game.

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