Ripken Baseball hosts teens, coaches from Iraq

Iraqis, in U.S. to learn more about baseball, to take clinic from Ken Griffey Jr.

May 05, 2010|By Michael Catalini, The Baltimore Sun

They flew 6,139 miles from Iraq to learn how to throw a baseball 60 feet 6 inches.

A handful of teenagers and seven Iraqi coaches — including the Iraqi equivalent to the head of USA Baseball — came to Aberdeen, the home of Orioles legend and U.S. state department public diplomacy envoy Cal Ripken Jr., to receive instruction at his baseball academy.

For the Iraqi teens and their coaches, more likely to be sporting soccer shorts with an FC Barcelona logo like 15-year-old Ali Falah Hasan than an Orioles cap, Wednesday was a day of firsts: First trip to the United States, first time on an actual baseball diamond, first time playing with enough gloves to go around and more than one ball and one bat.

It was their first time learning the proper rules of the game as well.

"We invented our own rules, where if the ball is caught in the infield it wasn't an out," said a chorus of Iraqis, laughing, through a translator.

Playing baseball and softball in war-torn Iraq has not been easy because of poor field conditions and an equipment shortage. But physical education instructors like Ahmed Hanoon Khanjar Al-Saedi, who teaches at a university south of Baghdad, are mixing baseball into their curriculums, and Major League Baseball donated 27 boxes of bats, helmets, balls and other equipment last month.

"I'm really optimistic about baseball because we have almost everything we need now," Hasan said through an interpretor after a morning of catching, hitting and throwing drills.

Baseball in Iraq can only get better, not worse, said Laith Hammoodi, a sports writer from Baghdad who was also translating.

"The most important thing is we haven't had a good place to practice, and there's been a lack of equipment until now," said Hammoodi, a sports writer from Baghdad who was also translating.

Ali Abdulhuessein Jasim Al-Baldawi, head of the Iraqi Baseball Federation, scribbled down the field's dimensions and converted the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate, 60 feet 6 inches, to meters. He tucked his notes into a black briefcase to take back to Iraq with him.

"We have the rules of baseball, but our resources aren't really trustworthy. It's been difficult for us to get the right [translated] information," he said.

While Al-Baldawi scribbled, Hasan, concentrating to remember where on the ball's seams to place his fingers, was putting some heat on a ball during a game of catch in the outfield.

Later he said his throwing technique was the biggest thing he improved.

"I learned the game and how to fully control the ball," said Hasan, who lives in Baghdad and has been playing baseball for nine months.

Baseball and softball are relatively new in Iraq. Al-Saedi and Al-Baldawi have been playing since 2004, and Hammoodi estimates the sport has been around in Iraq for less than 10 years. Al-Baldawi's goal is for the Iraqi National Team to be competitive on a global stage.

For now, Iraq's international baseball aspirations aside, the possible future players on those teams are focused on the fundamentals.

"I will be happy to learn anything that I can because we haven't had the experience," said 18-year-old Farah Mohammad, who plays third base for her high school softball team in Qadisiyah.

In one exercise, lined up in pairs about 30 feet apart, Mohammad and the other players tossed balls back and forth, focusing on their accuracy. The goal: target your partner's head or chest; earn one point for the chest, two for the head. The first person to reach 21 wins the game. Mohammad didn't keep score.

"I didn't think I was good enough to keep score. I just can't believe I'm here. It's been a dream to be here," she said.

Mohammad, who comes from a family of athletes — her five sisters are boxers and wrestlers — has some time to improve before she and the other players and coaches travel back to Iraq next Thursday. Seattle Mariners designated hitter and All-Star Ken Griffey Jr. will teach a baseball clinic Tuesday at Camden Yards before the Orioles play the Mariners at 7:05 p.m.

The exercises were not about keeping score, or even winning for Tim Deyesu, general manager of the baseball academy.

"Their enthusiasm is huge. They have the willingness to learn," said Deyesu, who is from Fallston and played catcher and outfielder at Fallston and Mary Washington.

"Even though there's a language barrier, you can read their body language, and the lightbulb is still going on," he said.

Ripken Baseball has worked with the State Department before. Ripken, who was named a public diplomacy special envoy by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2007, took baseball instruction trips to China in 2007 and to Nicaragua in 2008.

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