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Posted: 9/29/2004 9:00:37 AM EDT
Issue Date: October 04, 2004

Pitching a new pastime
Soldiers introduce Iraqis to baseball

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

Sabir clenched his teeth. The Nawruz team’s pitcher stared back. Parents in the stands wrung their hands and shouted.

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

And what may have been Iraq’s first organized baseball game was over, with the red-shirted Nawruz beating Brusik, 10-7.

The teams of 13- to 17-year-old boys are the only two in Altun Kupri’s new league, and Sept. 15 was opening day.

It was a perfect evening for baseball. Parents crunched pistachios to the ding of aluminum bats. Soldiers from the 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 centerfield.

In most of Iraq, U.S. soldiers would stand little chance of organizing a baseball league. But Altun Kupri, just south of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, lies in a friendly region. American troops have never been attacked here and consider the town safe enough to trade helmets and body armor for T-shirts and ball caps.

Haught, commander of a platoon that occupies a small base in this town 205 miles north of Baghdad, 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 play for the Pirates,” said Haught, a Pittsburgh fan from Harrisville, W.Va.

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

“We’d like to welcome you to the first Iraqi baseball game,” 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.”

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