That ball is back! That ball is way back! That ball is over the
tarmac and the weeds and the tactical truck for a home run!
Only it's not really a baseball. It's an old tennis ball wrapped
in toilet paper and then smothered in duct tape.
And, true, the slugger isn't circling the bases; he's circling
the paper plates left over from chow.
And he isn't using a bat to squeeze the Charmin; he's using a
wooden tent stake. And he's not in spikes; he's in combat boots.
And the outfielders don't have gloves, but they've got something
that Sammy Sosa doesn't have--rifles. "Over here," says Army
specialist Jeremie Johnson, "you just never know."
And this isn't Pro Player Stadium; this is a homemade ballpark in
Tall 'Afar, Iraq, 250 miles north of Baghdad and a million miles
from cold beer and La-Z-Boys and the wife's sweet lips. This
isn't the World Series; it's a pickup game played by a bunch of
American soldiers stuck in a withering kind of hell and boredom
and terror that only politicians can dream up.
And that's why Johnson and his buddies of the 101st Airborne
Division built a little piece of sanity.
They put a diamond on the bubbling-hot tarmac where day after
sunburned day they service the thirsty copters that come whirling
through. If you hit it into the sticky weeds, it was a double;
over the fuel truck, a dinger. And God help you if you slid.
Then 1st Sgt. Randy Lange and his Delta Company Desperados
decided to build a better ballpark in their rare hours off. He
flattened a field of wheat by dragging a metal shower frame
behind a tractor. To put weight on the frame he asked one of his
privates to stand on it, and after each trip around the field the
soldier in back was covered in so much dirt "he looked like a
sugar-coated cookie," Lange says. Somebody put up dugouts--two
cots with camouflage netting for cover--and somebody else found
lime for the baselines. Some guys donated the seat cushions from
their Hummer for bases. Some grunts rigged up a load of plastic
mesh and bamboo poles for an outfield fence.
Then they looked up at the searing sun on a typical 110° day and
wondered, Why not play night games? So they rolled out
maintenance lights and generators. And suddenly there it was, a
slice of America: Field Afar, a Yankee Stadium with real Yankees,
a place as beautiful to these men as Fenway Park is to a
And that's when they realized that they were having something
rarer than a sirloin around there: fun.
Lord knows they could use some. According to The Stars and
Stripes, a third of U.S. troops in Iraq say their morale is low.
Since the war began in March, 10 soldiers have committed suicide
and another 15 deaths are being investigated as possible
Hopelessness comes with this kind of conflict: You can't quite
figure out why it started and can't quite figure out how it can
end, but guys are getting sent home in body bags in between. More
American soldiers have been killed since President Bush declared
an end to major combat operations on May 1 than died in the war
itself. Most of the 101st were supposed to leave Iraq by
September. Now it's looking like January at the earliest.
That's why if you built it, they would come and hang around. Guys
like specialist Ronald Hancock of Alpha Company, who doesn't play
baseball but spends his downtime at the field keeping score. "It
gives me something to do," he says. "It keeps my mind off the
fact that we're never going home."
"It's so fun to fly back to our airfield in the evening and see
the ball field lit up with guys running the bases," says Capt.
Hunter Marshall. "Surreal."
And they don't spend game days at their cribs, kickin' it with
their peeps, then bouncin' to the park in their Escalades. Most
of them spend their day gassing Chinooks and Apaches and Black
Hawks, keeping the trucks rolling and burning out latrines.
They can play only four nights a week, so they always
do--sometimes until 1 a.m. But instead of New York City cops
providing security, they have infantry posted on all sides, which
is what you need in a war with no front lines against an enemy
who doesn't care about saving his own flesh, only splattering
"So far," says Johnson, "we've been lucky enough not to have to
call a game because of an enemy attack."
But don't all those lights make these guys a well-lit bull's-eye?
"It does make us a little nervous," says Capt. Adam Kamann, "but
we're all too engrossed in the game to worry about all the
And that's how much these guys need this field, this game, this
break: getting blown to St. Peter qualifies as a what-if.
Anyway, when Yankee Stadium P.A. announcer Bob Sheppard asks the
crowd before the seventh-inning stretch to remember our
servicemen and women around the globe, at least you know who he's
talking about. Guys like this--homesick, sandsick, deathsick
Americans who would give anything right now just to be waved
If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to
B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
This is Field Afar, a homemade ballpark in Iraq, 250 miles north
of Baghdad and a million miles from cold beer.