Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Iraqi National Baseball Team

This month's flannel of the month is not a flannel.

It was an evening at home like any week night. I was getting some dinner ready in the kitchen. The Rachel Maddow Show was on in the background. I heard the word "baseball" and ran into the living room to see what baseball could possibly have to do with the day's political events. Rachel was talking about the Iraqi National Baseball team. Intrigued, I sat down and watched.

It turns out that the game of baseball was introduced to Iraqis by three young Iraqi-American men who had played the game at their high schools in the States. "We loved it because it's a new and strange game for our society", said Ysir Abdul Hasan, "especially for the striker who plays against the whole other team." Their first attempt at organizing a baseball team failed when the players received death threats from Sunni insurgents who accused them of playing "an occupation game". This would have been enough for most folks, but these guys were literally willing to risk death for their new found love of baseball, and soon a new team was formed by coach Hamza Madlool.

The Iraqi Olympic Committee gave recognition and some funding to the fledgling team, but not enough to cover the cost of uniforms or equipment. The only bat - a Chinese-made softball bat - bent after the first contact with horsehide. There were no cleats, no batting helmets, and no uniforms. Enter Roy Gutman of McClatchy News, who picked up on the story, and Rachel Maddow, who followed up the McClatchy piece with a segment on her television show, and an appeal to help what was now dubbed "Operation Iraqi Baseball".

The story of these young players, literally risking life and limb; and facing searing heat, poor equipment and a complete lack of playing fields in order to play "our" game moved me profoundly. I immediately went to my laptop and e-mailed a mutual friend, asking him to tell Rachel that EFF would be honored to make the uniforms. She got back to me within the hour, and we got to work the next day.

Now that Ebbets Field Flannels was Official Uniform Supplier to the Iraqi National Baseball team, what to do? Obviously, wool flannel and 110-degree heat do not go well together, so we chose a lightweight poly mesh jersey. I had design ideas, but a call from Roy Gutman set me straight. The Iraqis knew what they wanted: A blue jersey (apparently someone on the team is a Dodger fan) with the post-Saddam Iraqi flag on the chest and "IRAQ" on the back. We completed the uniform with gray pants, old-school stirrups (my own subtle way to get the Iraqis off to an appropriately traditional start), undershirts, belts and matching blue hats (adjustable, as the concept of cap sizing was, well, foreign).

Iraqi players unpacking their new gear from CTG. Rachel Maddow contributed a rule book and box of baseballs. Star USA donated their shipping services.

Next up was actually getting the uniforms to the team. Easier said than done. First there's the small matter of shipping into a war zone. Fortunately one of the companies that joined "Operation Iraqi Baseball" was a freight carrier with some expertise on getting deliveries into the country. We arranged for the uniforms to be picked up.

The media arrived to watch us pack up the boxes and with great fanfare the uniforms were finally sent off. And then...nothing. Weeks passed. I finally got a call from Roy explaining the situation. Iraqi bureaucracy is legendary. Apparently the uniforms were "appropriated" by someone in the Iraqi Baseball Federation. This individual took it upon himself to "distribute" the uniforms as he saw fit. Alas, a negotiated settlement was reached, and the unis were finally handed over to a delegation of six players. The payoff for us was seeing a photo of a group of Iraqi ballplayers beaming in their new uniforms.

On seeing the players in uniform top hitter Bashar Salah said "Now we're a real team". All I can say to that is "Ilaab!" ("Play ball!")

About the jersey: The Iraq National Team jersey is a lightweight poly mesh shirt with sewn tackle twill letters and numbers. An embroidered Iraqi flag is sewn onto the left chest. The shirt is $99. You may choose the number. Ebbets Field Flannels will donate 10% of the gross sales of all Iraqi jerseys to the Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans Association, a fine organization which helps American veterans from the current conflicts.

Thank you to Roy Gutman, McClatchy News, Rachel Maddow and the other donors (as well as all who offered to donate) for helping the Iraqis plant the seed of our great game in fertile new soil.