Bringing America's game to Iraq

Baseball: A Hampstead teen joins forces with a National Guardsman to send bats, balls and other gear to children in the war-torn nation.

August 28, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Colin Valentine, 14, is pitching diplomacy by sharing his passion for baseball with children who know little of the sport, lack even rudimentary equipment and have few opportunities to indulge in the American pastime.

The Hampstead youth rallied his community into a campaign for gently used baseball equipment.

Students, recreation leagues and coaches joined the drive that resulted in a shipment of nearly 500 pounds worth of bats, balls and all things baseball to Iraq.

"Who knows?" said the teenager. "Maybe baseball can improve relations between our two countries.

"I want to show Iraqi kids another side of America," he said. "They have seen what our soldiers can do, but they sure haven't seen everything about America."

Colin, who plays outfield on a rec ball team, said he knows the friendships that team play can build, regardless of individual skill.

"I am not so good, so they stick me out there and hope balls don't come my way," he said.

"I still love baseball."

In addition to baseball, Colin loves computers. That's how he found Spc. Tommy Jones, a Texas Army National Guardsman stationed in Iraq. Jones has offered to disburse the donations and, as time permits, offer lessons in the game.

"Gently used American equipment is brand-new to these [Iraqi] kids," said Jones, who was home in Dalhart, Texas, on a two-week leave that ends today. "It will be jaw-dropping to them."

Jones, a 33-year-old husband and father of two children, who joined the National Guard 17 months ago, cannot discuss his mission in the southern area of Iraq.

But he will discuss baseball, which has been his sport since he was a boy growing up in Dalhart. He also has coached Little League and high school baseball in his hometown.

"I am excited to introduce this sport," Jones said. "It will be neat to teach baseball, which is so American. We have a school where we can distribute the equipment, and we are hoping we can play for at least a day to teach them the game."

Colin organized the equipment drive, just before school let out for the summer. He circulated fliers at Shiloh Middle School, where he starts eighth grade tomorrow, and throughout the Hampstead Little League.

"Please help Iraqi children enjoy this great American pastime," he wrote.

His flier listed what he needed - balls, bats, mitts, gloves and freshly laundered uniforms. He rejected used baseball caps as irredeemable.

His dad, Perry Valentine, league vice president, found supplies in storage that teams no longer use and added them to the collection.

Colin's three younger siblings and his mother, Pat, helped compile the gear.

Within a month, he had filled the family's two-car garage.

Then Colin tackled the next hurdle in his plan - a $1,500 shipping fee.

He sent letters soliciting donations from the Baltimore Orioles and the Cal Ripken Sr. Baseball Foundation.

The Orioles rejected his plea "due to the frequency and quantity of such requests," the organization replied. The Ripken foundation was considering a response when SEKO Worldwide donated the entire cost at the request of Kelly Knight, a Hampstead Little League coach who works for the shipping company.

The shipment left Baltimore in mid-July and should be waiting for Jones when he returns to Iraq.

Colin and Jones have corresponded through e-mail and letters. Jones sent the teenager a thank-you gift, a hat signed by everyone in his platoon.

During Jones' leave, the two have spoken several times. Each calls the other a hero.

"He says that I am a great person, but I don't think I did that much," Colin said. "What he is doing is great. He joined a year ago, knowing full well he would be deployed to Iraq.

"This is not about me. The focus should be on him. He is doing so much more."

Jones said, "People are always calling soldiers heroes. It is good to know there are heroes at home, too."

Jones said he always wanted a stint in the military. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said, he felt he had to enlist.

"I always told my boys not to drop out of school and to make something of their lives," he said, referring to the Little League and high school players he coached. "I joined the service and took basic training at 32. I did it for them and for my own children."

The soldier has promised the Little Leaguer that he will keep in touch, and that he will e-mail photos of Iraqi children playing ball.

"Colin does not realize how much he has helped," Jones said.

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