This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Aug. 1, 2003.

Flagstaff soldiers play ball in Iraq

By Ed Odeven

Baseball may be America’s pastime. But for a group of Flagstaff soldiers deployed in Iraq, playing softball is a way to pass time while feeling connected to their hometown.

Arizona Army National Guard soldiers from the 220th Transportation Co., including Staff Sgt. Armando Gonzalez, Spc. Lorenzo Apodaca, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Casados and Staff Sgt. Rudy Almendarez, play in the Iraqi Softball League, which was formed in May by the Flagstaff residents.

The first game was held May 3 between Team Arizona and Puerto Rico. The Arizonans were victorious, 15-5. The league features six teams: two Arizona teams from the 220th Co. and national guard squads from Puerto Rico, Alabama, Nebraska and Kentucky. According to Gonzalez, who sent a letter to the Daily Sun sports department from the City of Ur, Tallil Airbase in Iraq, the Republic of Korea also planned to field a team.

So, you’re probably wondering how did this league get established?

“It started one afternoon in late April when a solider from the 220th Transportation Co. from Flagstaff went to the 456 Quartermaster Company from Puerto Rico to pick up supplies,” Gonzalez wrote. “While there he noticed that there was some softball equipment lying around. He asked the Puerto Rican solider if they play softball and the Puerto Rican responded: ‘Do you know anybody who thinks that they could play? Let us know.’

“At that point, it was on.”

After all, playing softball is in their blood. It’s what these guys do every year. Or as Gonzalez wrote, “For soldiers like SSG Gonzalez, SSG Almendarez and SFC Casados, it would have been the first season (in the Flagstaff Parks and Rec Softball League) they would have missed in 20 years.”

Here’s where a little ingenuity paid off.

After finding an empty field near their company quarters, Casados, who works for the city of Flagstaff Engineering Department, made contact with the 92nd Engineers Battalion. That battalion cleared the field under the watchful eye of Casados. Almendarez, a city of Flagstaff Environmental Services Department employee, Gonzalez went to an old Iraqi junkyard to locate items to clear and get the ballfield ready.

What followed was a task that required much caution.

“When constructing the field a lot of care had to be taken because it was previously a site that had been bombed by the U.S. bombers,” Gonzalez wrote. “Nearby there was a bunker that had been hit by a Bunker bust bomb. Luckily, there was no ordinance found on the field.

“They then filled sandbags to use for bases. Within days they had a field constructed. After the field was completed, it was named Iraqi One Ballpark.”

Casados is a well-known name in the Flagstaff Softball A-League. His father Danny Casados coaches an American Legion softball team. His brother Joe Casados plays on an American Legion squad.

“Being able to play ball has made time away from home faster,” Daniel Casados said in the letter. “It’s been great to play with friends that I have played with and against.”

Almendarez, meanwhile, regretted that he didn’t bring his glove, bat and other equipment overseas.

“I should have known that going anywhere with Daniel and Armando, that we were going to find a softball game,” Almendarez said. “I just didn’t think that being deployed in Iraq that we would have found a team to play.”

Gonzalez, an Arizona Department of Corrections parole officer who plans to devote more time to his grandchildren after returning to Flagstaff, said the 220th Co. delivers supplies throughout Southern Iraq for 6 1/2 days each week.

Thus, the soldiers truly treasure their leisure time.

“For one-half day a week, all the players make an attempt to make it back to the base camp so they could participate in the softball game,” Gonzalez wrote. “I would rather be playing in the city league where it’s cooler; here sometimes it gets to (be) 120 degrees. But we have to make do with what we got.”