SI Vault
War Games
Rick Reilly
October 27, 2003
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!
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October 27, 2003

War Games

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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 Dorchester dentist.

And that's when they realized that they were having something rarer than a sirloin around there: fun.

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