|06-23-2001, 12:13 PM||#1|
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: NetShrine WHQ
Karimpour-mania to come?
Just another reason why baseball will save the world.
Iran Tries to Form Baseball Team
By BRIAN MURPHY
.c The Associated Press
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - The teams scrounge for any castoff equipment from abroad. Players are baffled by the game's intricate slang. The best pitcher is nicknamed ``Easy.''
But hey, at least they're playing baseball. And in Iran, that itself is an accomplishment.
Is the game of the ``Great Satan'' taking root?
``Why not?'' asked Mohammad Bajher Zolfagharian, president of the Baseball Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. ``There is nothing un-Islamic about baseball.''
Quietly - and with the aid of American coaches and advisers - Iran is trying to train a national baseball team and encourage a network of local clubs.
The long-range goal is fielding a competitive team in international tournaments and the Olympics, joining other baseball newcomers such as Greece and Russia.
The more immediate consequence for Iran is off the diamond.
Baseball is another example of the ``cultural exchanges'' promoted by reformist President Mohammad Khatami, re-elected this month by a landslide. Sports have become a non-threatening way to bridge political fissures with the West.
Some compare it with the ``ping-pong diplomacy'' of 1971, when a visit by American table-tennis players to China opened the way to a diplomatic thaw.
In 1998, American wrestlers competed in Iran, and for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution the U.S. flag was displayed with respect instead of being trampled or burned.
A U.S. coach, Gary LeMoine, was hired last year by the federation to help Iran's national team.
But baseball - with its indelible American association - carries an added element of detente.
Zolfagharian, who discovered the game while living in the United States in the 1970s, first proposed introducing baseball to Iran in the early '80s. The ruling clerics flatly rejected the idea.
``Too American,'' he said.
This was shortly after the release of 52 Americans held hostage for nearly 15 months at the U.S. Embassy. Washington severed relations. ``Death to America'' became Iran's mantra.
So Zolfagharian played it low-key. He received approval to begin a sports federation for chogo, a local game with links to cricket. Then the hostility toward the United States began to ease in the 1990s. Baseball won official sanction two years ago.
Zolfagharian now combs the world for equipment and help for the eight teams in a loosely affiliated Iranian league. Tehran is the powerhouse. But there's even some talent out in the provinces, including the holy city of Qom, the spiritual center of Iranian Islam.
``The clerics never come to watch baseball,'' said Zolfagharian, an affable, middle-aged Iranian who studied at Columbia and Long Island universities and lived in Stamford, Conn. ``Yes, they'll watch cricket. But it's British.''
Even more curious than baseball in Iran is the crew of Americans brought over to drill the players: retired umpires, college coaches, some ex-major leaguers such as veteran utility infielder Mike Brumley - and Glenn Johnson, a Christian missionary in a country where trying to convert Muslims is punishable by death.
Johnson, a former baseball coach at Grace College in Indiana, is an associate at the missionary group Unlimited Potential Inc. Their motto is: ``Serving Christ Through Baseball,'' but it is not used in Iran.
``We obviously kept it strictly to baseball,'' he said.
The 64-year-old American spent four weeks in late spring trying to hone the skills of about 75 players for a game with unique rules such as only one stolen base per inning to keep the scores from skyrocketing.
``This is about a raw as you can get,'' said Johnson, who also has worked with teams in Tunisia and Uganda.
Instruction began with the basics: properly swinging the bat, fielding grounders and relaying the ball from the outfield. The closest anyone has come to seeing a major league game was a pirated videotape or snippets of foreign broadcasts caught by illegal satellite dishes.
Not only were the nuances of the game lost on the players, so was Johnson's colorful baseball jargon.
``I'd say something like, `He couldn't hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle,''' said Johnson, of Warsaw, Ind. ``They'd look at me strange and finally say, `What, coach?'''
But something is sinking in. By the end of his coaching stint on a makeshift diamond in a Tehran soccer stadium, Johnson was encouraged by a big decrease in wild pitches - and even some double plays.
``They have heart. I'll give them that,'' he said.
The most feared pitcher in Iran, Sasan ``Easy'' Karimpour, has decorated his bedroom with baseball equipment and balls signed by the Americans who have come to coach.
Karimpour, so nicknamed because his first name is close to the Farsi word for ``easy,'' follows the Atlanta Braves on the Internet. He refuses to wash his Braves T-shirt in case the colors run.
The 21-year-old player first learned of baseball six years ago through Iranian-American friends. His fastball hits 65 mph - about two-thirds the velocity of the hardest-throwing major leaguers. He's desperate to learn to throw a curve.
``Baseball has become my life. It's my dream and my love,'' he said. ``I can't stop thinking about it.''
He'd jump at the opportunity to play in the United States. Any team. Any league.
``Maybe some people in Iran think it's an American game,'' he said. ``But I think sport is sport. It has nothing to do with nationality and countries.''
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