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Marines find diamond in the rough on Camp Fallujah

15 Sep 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

Marines with Regimental Combat Team 5 found themselves a diamond in the rough on an empty dirt lot here.

Several Marines meet weekly to play pick-up baseball games. They’re nothing fancy. The baseball diamond doesn’t even have a blade of grass on the infield. But for these boys of summer, it’s their field of dreams, and it takes them away from Iraq and back to their glory days when they could have been swatting away at the next walk-off homer.

“Everybody goes back to their past when they get out here,” said Staff Sgt. John L. Heine, a  28-year-old from Buffalo, N.Y. “The stories come out and we’re all trying to play at that level again, even though the skills have faded away.”

Every Sunday, they gather at the baseball field roughed out from the desert floor. It’s humble as far as fields go. There’s no chalk for baselines, just white engineer tape. The fence is a small plastic kind that could be found on a construction site, and the backstop is a mesh net. The field is anything but level— it is gouged and pockmarked with the occasional helicopter passing low, interrupting games.

This is sandlot baseball at its best.

Most days, there’s hardly enough Marines to field a proper team, so they rotate. Each team provides their own catcher. Pitches are slow to give every slugger a chance to park one over the fence.  That’s only a couple hundred feet away too.

Rules are subject to interpretation. Two strikes keep the innings going faster. Ground-rule doubles are called when the ball hops over the low fence, and plays at the plate are usually decided by who spouts out the best trash talk. 

It’s reminiscent of the days when they played for the love of the game and wood bats meant you were playing with the big boys.  For about two hours each week, these Marines aren’t in Fallujah. They’re in their back yards or high school fields, sending a ball sailing so far it might need a postage stamp to land.

“It takes me back to when I was a kid in high school,” said Lance Cpl. Juan F. Escalara, a 19-year-old from Laredo, Texas. “It’s similar to how I played there, except we had a little grass on the field. But it’s just like when I was a kid, going to the park to play a sandlot game.”

Escalara started playing ball when he was 10-years-old and ended up at second base during his high school years. Now, he’s cranking them out and playing whatever position is open in a combat zone.

“It reduces a lot of stress,” said Cpl. Omar A Floreslemus, a 22-year-old from Redwood City, Calif. “It feels like I’m not in Iraq for a couple hours. All I think about is I’m about to smack this ball.”

Floreslemus said he never played organized games, just street ball. Instead of dodging cars now, he’s pausing for helicopters so pop-ups aren’t bouncing off of their low-flying frames. 

Sgt. Jonathan K. McNatt, a 28-year-old from Mt. Pleasant, Texas, played on the high-school fields in his hometown. Now, he’s cranking homers on Camp Fallujah’s sandlot with his fellow Marines.

“It brings you back to your childhood,” McNatt explained about the ball games. “I play out here every chance I get. If I could play every day, I’d be happy.”

This isn’t the sort of crowd that’s here to show off. There are plenty of missed throws to first base, and rounding third for a sprint in combat boots just isn’t the same as it was with a set of spikes.

But that’s the point for these Marines.  Even though they’re playing camouflaged uniforms with M-16’s lined up with the bats, they’re just having fun.  They’re able to leave the war at the makeshift dugouts and step onto the field without a care in the world.

“It’s like there’s a dome over the field,” Heine explained. “It’s just a fence, some dirt and a few bases, but it takes my mind off everything.  For a while, I’m not in Iraq.”