The Washington Post

In Iran, a spark of enthusiasm for America’s national pastime

Down a dirt road in a back corner of a vast Tehran sports complex, several dozen young men recently took part in tryouts for Iran’s national baseball team.

These ballplayers, some of them fasting for the holy month of Ramadan in the scorching July heat, are part of a small but growing number of Iranians taking up America’s pastime despite long odds.

Closer to the “Bad News Bears” than the major leagues, organized baseball has been played here since 1991. Few Iranians beyond the estimated 500 players, coaches and umpires who belong to the national association, however, have even heard of the game.

The lack of exposure means baseball receives almost no funding from Iran’s powerful Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, and players actually have to pay — the equivalent of about $5 per month — to be on a team.

“A lot of people will laugh at me, but I know if I lived in a country where there were more baseball resources, I could have gone far,” Younes Fathizadeh, a burly 26-year-old with a frizzy black ponytail who plays first base for the team, said between innings of an exhibition game during tryouts.

From left to right, Yonesh Fathi, Mohammad Gol Mohammadi and Nima Vaghari pose after their first round of tryouts for Iran’s national baseball team at Azadi stadium in Tehran. (Maryam Rahmanian/For The Washington Post)

Like other players here, Fathizadeh has a regular job, working for an interior design business and part time as a real estate agent.

With the sun setting and the day’s workouts ending, several players dashed into the woods around the capital’s lone baseball diamond to forage for balls that had been fouled off throughout the day.

“This is how most of our practices end,” said Mehrdad Hajian, coach of the national team and a local pioneer of the sport. “Six years ago, I bought a thousand balls. I’ve got about 20 left.”

Although Iranian baseball faces many obstacles, the national team’s global standing is much higher than might be expected.

Of 124 countries currently ranked by the International Baseball Federation, Iran is tied with Chile, Nepal and the tiny Micronesian nation of Palau for 48th in the world, just behind Aruba and Peru and ahead of Guatemala and Bulgaria.

To put that in perspective, Iran’s national soccer team, which receives millions of dollars in annual funding and participated in this year’s World Cup in Brazil under the guidance of one of the world’s best-known coaches, Carlos Queiroz, is 43rd in FIFA’s global rankings.

“Compared to what’s available to us, we’re twice as good as we should be,” said Fathizadeh, the first baseman.

In the early days of Iranian baseball, most players were introduced to it through family links with the United States or other baseball-playing nations, but that is changing. According to Hajian, Iranian baseball now attracts a variety of misfits with the common desire of being on a team.

“No one in his right mind would be playing a sport that doesn’t get any coverage, doesn’t have any money,” he said. “When people hear that you play baseball, they ask, ‘Isn’t that the one where the ball looks like a melon?’ ”

Hajian fell in love with baseball while growing up in Boston in the 1980s and has been involved since he returned to Iran in the early 1990s. In addition to being the coach of the national team and a local Tehran club, he has also become Iran’s de facto supplier of baseball equipment, although economic sanctions imposed on the country have made that endeavor difficult.

Catcher’s mitts and gloves for left-handers are scarce. “We make our own bats, though, but they’re not very good,” Hajian said.

Many of the players here follow major league teams and their stars, keeping track of scores and highlights. The biggest topic recently was the all-star selection of the only player of Iranian origin to ever make it to the major leagues, Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish.

Darvish was born and raised in his mother’s native Japan. His father is Iranian and was an accomplished soccer player.

Officials in Iran’s baseball community say Darvish, who pitched a perfect inning in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Minneapolis, has never been mentioned on Iranian television.

Regardless, players here follow and admire him.

“The fact that Darvish is an Iranian in the major leagues is a huge source of pride for us,” said Hassan Farhadi, 34, a pitcher who does not have much of a fastball but possesses what is considered Iran’s best slider.

While the major leagues remain a distant dream for Iranian baseball players, competing against amateur teams from the United States may be more realistic.

Both Tehran and Washington support sports diplomacy programs as an opportunity for friendly interactions between citizens. And following successful wrestling exchanges this year, the league is pursuing opportunities to host American delegations or send the team to the United States for exhibition games.

“We’re in talks, and hopefully we’ll be able to get a positive answer from both Iran and the United States,” said Alireza Adib, president of Iran’s Baseball Association. “This kind of diplomacy can have a very positive impact on our work.”

Jason Rezaian has been The Post’s correspondent in Tehran since 2012. He was previously a freelance writer based in Tehran.

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