Their equipment was dilapidated and they had only a fuzzy grasp of the rules, but under the watchful tutelage of US trainers on a makeshift field in Baghdad a few dozen Iraqis took a swing at that quintessentially American passion: softball.
The eight-day course, culminating on July 4, American Independence Day, was a bid to widen a foothold for a sport that, eight years since it was introduced to Iraq, has struggled to expand in a football-mad country.
And indeed it was on a converted football pitch at Baghdad Sports College that around 25 men and 15 women, mostly in their 20s, undertook eight hours of training under gruelling temperatures in the piping-hot Baghdad summer.
“We told the Iraqi Olympic Committee that we need experts from foreign countries to develop the game in Iraq,” said Ali al-Baldawi, secretary general of the Iraqi Baseball and Softball Federation (IBSF).
“It’s a new game, and it is not enough to depend on skills that we learn ourselves,” said the 45-year-old, who worked for six months to organise the training camp with Global Sports Partners, an amateur-sports development organisation based in the US state of Oklahoma.
Softball, a variation of baseball, differs from its more popular cousin in that the field is typically smaller, the balls are larger and pitches are thrown underhand rather than overhand.
The principle, however, remains the same — hit the leather ball as far as possible, then circle the bases before the opposing team can tag you out.
In the United States, softball is mainly played by women, and for the moment, that is also true in Iraq, though Baldawi says the IBSF is hoping to change that.
Baseball and softball first gained a footing in Iraq in 2004, a year after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, when local physical education students gleaned information on the game from the Internet and began playing.
But while the national women’s softball team took part in a tournament in Taiwan last year, there are still only a total of 14 registered baseball and softball teams covering seven of Iraq’s 18 provinces, Baldawi said.
“Softball is an American sport,” said Deb Packwood, head coach of the four-member US training team sent by Global Sports Partners.
But the Iraqi players “are open”, she added. “They want softball, so we bring it to them.”
Packwood said she did not believe security was much of an issue for the American coaches, though Baghdad and Iraq remain dangerous by international norms.
But she was concerned that Iraqi players could come under threat as a result of their interaction with Americans.
And though organisers trumpeted the training camp as a success, it was not easy: from ageing equipment to Baghdad’s temperatures, which were so high that gardeners used hoses to spray down exhausted players.
Iraqi players also struggled with the terminology, much of which does not easily translate from English into Arabic.
“There are some idioms in softball, like ‘steal a base’, and we don’t have a term for it in Arabic, so I have to explain to the players what it means,” said Adil al-Jaafar, the training team’s interpreter.
“They have terms like curveball, which doesn’t exist in Arabic. What is a curveball? That is hard to explain.”
Yasser Abdul Hassan, a pitcher and assistant coach with the Iraqi national baseball team, himself admitted that baseball and softball remained “a mystery to us”.
“But I can see that the players have started to understand it and like it, and it has become easy,” he said.
For Rose Abbas, a pioneer of the sport in Iraq who usually spends her days examining DNA samples at Baghdad’s Forensic Institute, softball offers a rare opportunity for women to assert their status in a male-dominated society.
“I usually do not like team sports,” the 25-year-old Baghdad native said.
“But in baseball and softball, you can play alone but, at the same time, you are on a team — you can show your personal skills.
“I love that film with Madonna — ‘A League of Their Own’,” she joked, referring to the 1992 film about a female professional baseball team starring Madonna, Geena Davis and Tom Hanks.
“It’s like Iraq. I feel like Madonna,” Abbas said. “In the film, when they are beginning to put women in the game, there are jokes about women on a field.
“But she stands firm. Me also.”