The Last Hurrah - Baseball in Saudi Arabia

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Sports  |  House: Booksie Classic

American kids playing an American game on the edges of the Middle East. True story about baseball in Saudi Arabia.

Submitted: June 12, 2018

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Submitted: June 12, 2018



The Last Hurrah

There comes a time when every athlete, regardless of age, begins to reflect upon their own endeavors. One can continue pushing harder to achieve more or momentarily pull back and enjoy what has already been accomplished. One of the more interesting things about youth sports is the sheer uncertainty about what one moment means in the rest of a sporting life. There are literally millions of stories of middle school athletes experiencing their athletic peak on a warm summer afternoon in their twelfth year and an even greater number of parents and coaches still seeking that elusive pinnacle.

Even though he was fast becoming a well-known national athlete in high school, LeBron James was schooled by a wunderkind named Lenny Cooke, who never played a minute of college or NBA basketball. Art “Pinky” Deras threw ten no hitters in little league baseball play one year, yet gave up baseball without ever experiencing the major leagues. Plano East football team came back from a 41-17 deficit with three minutes to go and take the lead in a Texas football high school playoff semifinal, yet gave up a game winning kickoff return at the end. If there is one truism about youth sports, it is that there is neither rhyme nor reason to how things will turn out in the future.

Some may wonder how and why the most prolific team of any Little League World Series (LLWS) baseball team isn’t from Japan, Texas, or the Dominican Republic. The squad from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, immortalized in the movie “The Perfect Game” became the first international winning team, and followed that up with several years of success, yet they ultimately made just a handful of appearances in the LLWS. In terms of appearances, the most successful league team in Little League Baseball World Series history is from the athletic and temperature hotbed of Saudi Arabia.

Huh? What? Saudi Arabia? Yes, the Arabian All-Star Little League (AALL) team from the oil mecca near the Equator has more appearances than any other league team in LLWS history. While teams from California, Canada or Taiwan have represented their respective areas more often, those teams came from different cities, provinces, or leagues, all under a different set of organizing committees. From 1983 through 2011, the Saudi Arabian team from the Aramco Dhahran camp went to the LLWS finals 22 times and their baseball practice facility at Canyon Field saw more youth players take the field in Williamsport, PA than any other home field in the history of youth baseball.

Like current AAU basketball players, every potential Saudi pitcher or home-run hitter in the past 35 years had been scouted out since first picking up a ball. While league coaches and administrators volunteered to help their sons and daughters enjoy their afterschool lives, there was always a deeper belief about the future. There were, at one time, tens of thousands of American expats living in the four main compounds of Saudi Aramco, the American/Saudi oil company, and the ballfields that still exist today tell a story that is quickly being lost as more expats leave as oil sales fall to historic lows.

The eight to twelve Dhahran majors teams all vied for the league championship, as any youth league does, but these semi and championship games often took on a harsher reality as opportunities to shine in the playoffs during the Spring league finals often meant the difference who would be picked to make the travel team. There’s a vast difference in being  able to tell people what kind of baseball player you were when you were a kid versus getting the chance to be on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and later watch the replays on YouTube against some of the world's best baseball players.

It didn’t matter that the Saudi team rarely was in contention once they got to Williamsport. It was just that the American kids playing an American game on imported American grass on the edges of the Middle East could return home for the summer and show their extended families that the adventure in the sand was truly worth it. And if somehow, an off-speed lefty could hold Japan to a close 5-4 game or a powerful first basemen could hit a three run jack and beat the Canadian team - that was just icing on the cake.

Things changed entirely in 2012 when the International Divisions were realigned and Saudi was switched to the more competitive Asia-Pacific/Middle East Division. When they were in the European and African Divisions, Saudi Arabia had won 18 of their final twenty regional championships. Saudi teams had players growing up expecting to go to Williamsport. They still usually won the Kuwait and Dubai International tournaments, but were shocked when they saw the higher level of play from not just the Korean and Taipei teams, but also from Indonesia, Hong Kong, CNMI, Thailand and other sub- continent or island nations. Each of the Saudi teams from these years had the same general talent level as years past, but now got saddled with at least two losses in the initial rounds and none had even made the semi-finals.

In 2016, things definitely hit a low point. A bad string of luck with participation had given the head coach only a couple strong twelve-year olds and more than half of the team was just eleven years old. Out of the dozen teams competing in Seoul, Korea, there were only 15 eleven year olds competing in the whole tournament and Saudi had nearly half of them. There was such an imposing physical difference between twelve and eleven years olds that year that many of the Saudi players were looking level at the underside of the other players’ chins while riding the hotel elevators.

While local tournament and league wins piled up, it was clear there just wasn’t enough workhorses of year’s past to take command of the mound and there simply wasn’t any hitter able to get a base hit on demand; The 2016 team lost every game, including a 21 - 0 shellacking by Chinese Taipei and a painful 2-1 loss to a mainland China team, which had just started playing in a competitive league the year before. Eight of the twelve players of 2016 had a total of three hits. The combined team hit less than the weight of even their median player. One parent was overheard saying, “Congratulations,you have now become the worst Saudi team ever.”

The 2017 team though was shaping up to be a suitable response to the failures of the years before. The head coach, Kenny Williams, was an Aramco brat who came back and had been working there for over a decade. He had reached out to the other camps and had been planning for that year’s travel squad for the previous five years. There were six players returning from the previous team and each had viewed the disappointment of losing those 2016 games as an opportunity to work on what had gone wrong. There were a number of parents actively jockeying for a spot on the head coach’s staff and there was even a hint that people believed that this was the year when they would awaken and return to the American Promised Land.

The prospective squad had a deep pitching staff. Coach Williams’ son, Jake, was one of the hardest throwing pitchers anywhere within 2000 miles. While not fast running around the field, Jake’s arm had opposing players backing up out of the box before the ball left his strong right hand. Aashish, Torin, Danny, Zach, James, and Judah were all kids who threw hard and could pitch deep into a game. Those players also would form the backbone of a hitting lineup that wouldn’t have any easy outs. Jason, Jephthah, Justin, Brendan, Zeb, Zeke, Lincoln and a few others could hit, field and make the team a formidable opponent. The fall season went according to plan with the stronger pitchers neutralizing the weaker batters in the league and the returning all-star batters being the only ones who could catch up to Jake, Aashish or Torin’s fastballs.

The positive vibe changed though with a cryptic email from head coach Williams in December. Oil prices had been in a five year decline and the coach had heard rumors of layoffs. A midweek meeting proved the rumors true and he had been surplussed. Even with positive recommendations, Williams would not find another position within the company and had to move his family to nearby Bahrain to a more lucrative position financially, but one that did not offer the opportunity to continue coaching or his son playing baseball with the team.

The next coach up had a grand plan, but family and friends got him spooked about traveling to South Korea. North Korea had been making waves in the media and the new coach’s extended family got him worried about the North attacking the baseball fields just south of Seoul and he pulled the plug. Several players who were never going to make the team said they were not going to travel as well and now there was talk that Saudi wasn’t even going to have a team competing.

Several families stepped up to the plate and said they were going to make the trip and that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The family of Zach Foster, who had been one of the few bright spots from the previous year, was very clear in saying that the Saudi Highway connecting the two main baseball camps was more dangerous than any talk threatening to disrupt the games. The family of Judah Bouma stressed to others how much hard work the players had put into baseball and how close they were to an unbelievable experience. Kwadjo Adusei-Poku, whose son Danny was the main catcher. also had an older son who had been on a squad which made the trip to Williamsport previously, volunteered to coach. But the team needed a full squad or no one would be able to play.

With seven committed players, things were looking up, but then there was talk of a friendlier tournament in Disneyland, Florida. A few parents couldn’t deal with any more conflict, so now with just a couple days to commit - things were looking dire. After a series of emails, the families of two younger players who were already planning on traveling to Seoul committed and there were now nine players ready to travel. A team of nine players meant no subs; no pinch hitters; no pinch runners - no room for injuries or late arriving flights or taxis.

On the travel day to Seoul, the temperature was an oppressive 120 degrees in Dhahran. In Seoul, it was a friendly 80 degrees, but monsoon season was coming up quickly. After seeing nothing but dry, 100 plus Fahrenheit days for months, the Saudi players thought a bit of rain wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Checking into the new five star hotel in Hwaseong Province proved to be a big upgrade over the previous couple of years where dorm rooms smelled like a mixture of college parties and 12 year old athlete body odor.

Players and coaches decided to rent a minivan and see the newly built complex. The 45 minute drive was fairly mundane until people in the front row saw the cross of light towers crest over the top of the last hill. As the mini-van descended to the ballpark, the $200 million stadium complex showed its muscle. Each of the four turf fields were so symmetrically perfect, so clean, so efficient that some players began dreaming they must have already become professional players. The morning of the opening ceremony was inspiring. Every team from Korea, China, Taipei, India, Thailand, CNMI, Guam, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Saudi all had their uniforms crisp and ready for their introductions. Local dignitaries, judo experts, translators and professional baseball players all added to the pomp and circumstance of the day.

That first night, Saudi would face Guam in the opening game for both teams. Saudi coaches found out Guam had a ringer, who averaged a home run per regular season game, but loved to chase high fastballs. The Saudi starting pitcher, Torin Braun, was a holdover from the year before. The first inning went according to plan. One walk, a strikeout of the Guam star with a high fastball and no runs after the right fielder Judah Bouma made a sliding catch on a blooper to end the first. The second inning didn’t go according to plan. The Korean early summer rains started slow but came down hard and unmerciful.

The rains made the ball hard to grip and Saudi pitcher Braun lost control of his pitches. He issued several walks and needed to be pulled at 35 pitches, so he could pitch again in later games. He left with the score 0-0, but with runners on base. Subsequent pitchers also had control issues and Saudi ending up losing 10-2. Other than a Zach Foster home run, there was very little positive to mention.

The next day was a day off, but the coaches wanted to have the kids hit and work on defensive assignments. Assistant coaches Braun and Bouma wanted to work on hitting, while Head Coach Adusei-Poku wanted more infield work. The continued rains made the disagreement a semi-moot point as every time the kids got on the field, the rains came back and most of the time was spent in the dugout waiting for the rains to stop. The mood was getting a bit ugly.

The next morning, players from all teams had a big breakfast in the downstairs hall. No mention of the loss two days before, as they were more focused on pork sausage and what items to add to their omelets. The coaches though were each trying to figure out where to put the players defensively and who would get the starting pitching assignment. The opponent, CNMI, had hit well in a 10-6 opening game loss to Thailand, but held their pitching ace to go against Saudi.

Since the previous rain game had been two days prior and each Saudi pitcher had been pulled at the 35 pitch count, any of the Saudi Nine players could have been named starting pitcher. While there was no disagreement that this game was a must win, there was no consensus about who should start on the mound. Go with the most experienced, highest strike percentage or hardest throwing - those were some of the scenarios discussed on the bus ride to the fields. It wasn’t until the crest of the last hill that Coach Kwadjo emphatically proclaimed that the player who pitched best in the previous rain game should get the start - Judah Bouma.

Bouma, who had given up baseball to concentrate on grades and drama the year before, retired all four batters he faced against Guam in the rain game on just fourteen pitches. Judah was one of the biggest players on the team with a hard fastball that tailed away from right handed batters. The year off from baseball though, gave him occasional bouts of wildness.

The plan with the coaches was that Judah would go 50 pitches and then get pulled, so he could pitch in the later games. Saudi was the visiting team and their first two batters were retired quickly, but Zach Foster got a walk and stole second on the first pitch to clean-up hitter Bouma. On the 1-0 pitch, Bouma poked a clean single through the infield and the speedy Foster easily beat the throw to give Saudi the lead. The next Saudi batter struck out and Bouma was then tasked with holding that lead. The first inning saw the CNMI get the first runner on, but Bouma struck out the next three batters. Saudi went down 1, 2, 3 in the top of the second and while Bouma gave up another bunt single, he was able to get out of the second inning unharmed.

The third inning went down just as the second for Saudi, and CNMI also went down without getting a runner on base. Halfway through, both pitchers had given up just one hit, but Saudi held a tight 1-0 lead. After sending just three batters to the plate in the fourth, Saudi was again retired quickly. In the bottom of the inning, Saudi needed to make a backstop change, so catcher Adusei-Poku would be able to come in and relieve Bouma if needed. A-P went out to second and Braun went in behind the plate.

Coaches Bouma and Braun nervously watched their battery-mate kids warm up. It was something that both had hoped for, years before when they initially met each other a lifetime ago when their respective families worked together in Shenzhen, China. Their kids had been teammates ever since they both started in the Ras Tanura coach pitch league five years prior. Now on the biggest stage, both would be pivotal in one of the biggest moments.

In the bottom of the fourth, the CNMI leadoff batter grounded out, but the second batter ripped a clean single up the middle. On the following pitch, the CNMI runner took off to steal second, but the strong-armed Braun gunned the ball to second and the ump made the easy out call. Now with two outs and no one on, the CNMI cleanup hitter cracked a shot over the outfielder’s heads for double. Had the previous runner not been thrown out trying to steal, the score would have been tied. With two outs though, Bouma buckled down and struck out the next batter for the third out of the inning, giving him eight strikeouts and, more importantly, no runs scored against.

The earlier determined game plan of having Bouma throw just fifty pitches was long out the window as the opportunity for a win now trumped flexibility later. In the fifth, Saudi again went down without a runner and Bouma struck out the CNMI side on just 12 pitches. Saudi put a runner on in the sixth, but again failed to score. Going into the bottom of the final sixth inning, Saudi was leading 1-0, with just one base hit for their kingdom.

Since the team only brought nine players, all players were on the field leaving only the jittery coaches to pace back and forth in the dugout. Thankfully, the anxious feelings in the dugout were not translated onto the players as Bouma got the leadoff batter on a swinging strike. Their second batter made another bunt attempt, but this time, got it down the line and the Saudi third basemen didn’t even get off a throw. The runner was able to steal second on a low bobbled pitch. CNMI’s next batter hit a couple foul balls, but went down on a called third strike for out number two. With only one out to go, a new concern popped up. Bouma was at eighty pitches, just five away from being a mandatory pull at 85. Only five pitches remaining in the tank.

First ball bunt attempt, but a called strike. Second pitch was outside. Third pitch was a swinging strike. A 1-2 count with all the hopes of the team resting on his tired right shoulder and Bouma unleashed his hardest throw yet, but the CNMI player didn’t have a chance - Strike Three and Saudi Wins! The players all immediately ran to the mound, but were beaten there by the suddenly spry coaches who went out to hug their respective children first.

Saudi had won their game, like previous years when the expectations were high, but this was an unexpected gift from the heavens. This team, which had barely even fielded the minimum number of players, was just happy to be playing. Now that they had the taste of victory and were ready for more and maybe, just maybe, an opportunity to face Korea for the chance to get back to Williamsport. While the next game against Thailand saw their bats come alive, the pitching and fielding were not there and the Saudi team was soundly beaten. Torin Braun hit his first ever homerun over the left center wall in the new stadium and his younger brother TJ crawled through the nettles behind the fence to get that important memento. While that souvenir would look attractive in a trophy case, the opportunity to go to back to Williamsport had probably fallen by the wayside.

The fourth and final game was against undefeated Hong Kong. With no pressure and the respective end of most of the players little league careers on the line, the Saudi bats really came out of their doldrums. The three youngest players - JK, Jett and Jephthah all got on base and scored. Another Zach Foster home run and a clutch pitching performance from Jason Arukhe gave Saudi a relatively easy victory over Hong Kong 17 - 9. With smiles from everyone at lunch, the players received an unexpected jolt that the Guam team which was expected to win easily in their last game had been upset and now had the same record in the round robin rounds as Saudi. It looked like Saudi might win a tiebreaker and go on to face Korea in the semi-finals. Run-differential meant that Saudi wasn’t going to get that chance, but just having the team get to that point, going what they went through, was a victory in itself.

That night, Saudi and the Chinese National team went out to Nexen Stadium to watch a game between two of the top Korean professional teams. Several players in the domed stadium had made names for themselves a decade before when they had made the Korean Little League National team. They had reached the peak of being the best youth players in their country and had kept pushing themselves harder andwere now playing professional baseball. Each of the Saudi Nine had gotten a batting practice ball and several had gotten a second one which they shared with some of the Chinese players who were a bit shy and hadn’t brought their gloves.

Two days later, Korea and Chinese Taipei met in the finals with the winner getting an all expense paid trip to the Howard J. Lamade Field in Williamsport. ESPN and their affiliates would cover this game and all subsequent games live. From the very first pitch, it was clear that these two teams were the most disciplined and had two of the top programs in the world. With multiple strikeouts on both teams, it was also clear that their batters chased tailing fastballs. Korea won the game 6 - 1 as the clouds overhead began to release their rainfall.

That night, the home crowd cheered for the Korean players who accepted their official bid to the LLWS. The other teams were acknowledged for their participation at the banquet hall as well. The Saudi moms put together a video highlight of the tournament over the soundtrack of At the Ballpark, which was a bit hit with the crowd. While the video showed a young team growing and begin to gel, there was a silent acknowledgement that this would be the last time that all these special players would be on the same team.

While most players from the Saudi Nine are not focused on making a major league roster, all players were able to experience their baseball moment in the sun. Each returning player from the winless 2016 team improved immensely. Zach Foster and Torin Braun both had a batting average over .500 and hit towering home runs.Aashish Suresh and Jason Arukhe improved immensely from their 2016 performance, both at the plate and on the mound. The five newcomers all got on base and scored. A player hitting their first ever homerun and watching himself running the bases live on a Jumbo Tron is not something accomplished easily. Pitchers pitching a 14 strikeout shutout in their only career complete game is something that might have had divine intervention. Victories over some of the top baseball teams in the region are just not given out freely. The memories of this tournament will always be a special moment for those involved.

A year later, and several of the players moved away to boarding schools or gave up baseball entirely to concentrate on playing other middle school sports. Several of the players kept playing in the Dhahran Seniors league and improving their game before going on to high school ball. The Saudi regular league again had hundreds of youth players from tball through the older competitive leagues. In 2018, the AALL ended their competitive 35 year run and decided not to send a team to Seoul to represent Saudi in the LLWS regionals. Despite the success of the Saudi Nine, there were not enough parents willing to commit to a team that was not predetermined to make the finals. The declining participation of players had reduced the most successful team in Little League World Series history to a footnote. The 2017 Saudi Nine would be viewed as the last hurrah for baseball in the region.

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