CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Marines in Iraq are slugging for home runs, thanks to a little help from the Seattle Mariners.
Seattle Mariners General Manager Bill Bavasi sent several sets of professional baseball gloves, bats, balls and even ball caps to Marines at Regimental Combat Team 5 here recently. The donation is giving Marines their own seventh-inning stretch from near-constant operations in the War on Terror in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Marines here, though, had a key man with access to the club’s front office. Maj. Michael F. McNamara, a senior watch officer for the regiment, just happened to be lifelong friends with Bavasi. The idea had its roots in a chance discovery two years ago when McNamara was deployed to Camp Blue Diamond.
“I found a baseball near one of the hooches there,” McNamara said. “It was a just a little league baseball, but everyone would come by my desk and they’d grab it just to feel that leather in their hands.”
That prompted McNamara to send a note to Bavasi, with whom he used to be college roommates.
“I asked him to send me a dozen baseballs,” McNamara said. “I’ve got this tourist attraction. He sent me three dozen baseballs, t-shirts and hats.”
Fast-forward to 2006 and McNamara was deployed once again to Iraq. Bavasi offered to send baseball gear for Marines. McNamara never expected top-shelf gear, though. Bavasi ended up sending two-dozen professional quality gloves, three dozen baseballs and another two-dozen baseball bats, the same bats Major Leaguers use when they’re up at that plate.
“Marines have never seen this kind of equipment,” McNamara said. “They didn’t have this gear in high school or college. I told them, ‘Well, you’re in the varsity now.’”
Bavasi said all the credit doesn’t go to just the Mariners. He said a good friend Jim Hughes at Rawlings and Seattle Mariners’ Equipment Manager Ted Walsh helped him round up the gear. Bavasi said this wasn’t an official gesture on behalf of the ballclub, but a personal one.
“Because of my relationship with Mike, I arranged for the shipment,” Bavasi said in an e-mail exchange. “Many of us have friends of relatives over there and do things like this on a personal basis. There are plenty of individual connections with members of our armed forces within every ballclub. Front offices, coaches players … there are plenty of individual connections.”
McNamara explained that aside from offering Marines gear to play, Bavasi gave Marines a chance to put aside the daily pressures of life in a combat zone.
“The coolest part is every Sunday, these guys get to go play baseball,” he said. “For two and a half hours, they’re not in Fallujah. They’re back on their high school field. They’re back in Little League. There’s not that many gifts you can give that can do that.”
“For people to come along like that who care is so important,” McNamara added.
Staff Sgt. John L Heine, a 28-year-old from Buffalo, N.Y., is one of those Marines who reverts to his glory days. He played baseball as a kid for Little League and continued through high school and a year in college. He even had a tryout with the Portland Braves’ Minor Leagues a few years back.
He’s a pitcher and still plays in adult city leagues when he gets the chance.
“It was exciting to think the general manager of the Seattle Mariners took the time out of his schedule to collect up the gear and send it,” Heine said. “That was the most special thing. It’s very important, especially here in Iraq. It’s something that takes our minds off of everything else.”
Sgt. Jonathan K. McNatt, another 28-year-old from Mt. Pleasant, Texas, started his days on the diamond playing T-ball and continued through high school as a short stop. It’s the best position, he said. He’s playing there once again because of the gear Bavasi sent.
“Everybody dreams as a kid of playing in the big leagues,” McNatt explained. “Now, we’re using the same gear, only it’s in Iraq and I’m a kid again trying to kill a home run.”
McNatt said he was awed that folks in Major League Baseball took the time to think of Marines deployed to Iraq.
“It’s great,” he said. “It shows a lot of support for the troops in Iraq. It means a lot to the guys that we get that support.”