Ballplayers in Iran Root for the Red Sox

Red Sox nation even extends to the Islamic republic.

February 18, 2009, 8:12 PM

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 28, 2007 — -- Mehrdad Hajian calls himself a member of the Red Sox nation, cheering as the team cruises through the World Series.

"I even got a part-time job at Fenway Park just to see them," Hajian said. "For four years, I watched as many games as I could."

But that was 16 years ago. These days he lives 6,000 miles from Fenway Park. As a coach, he's the heart and soul of his baseball league -- the Iranian baseball league.

There are 11 baseball teams across the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is a small but dedicated league with humble beginnings.

"When I moved back from the U.S. ... there were four or five people," Hajian remembered. "We were playing with tennis balls -- no bats, no equipment, nothing.

"But I knew the game," he said, "so we started just learning the rules."

Watch the "World News" Webcast Monday on for a video report on the Iranian baseball league.

Today, the Iranian Baseball Federation has 1,000 players and even a softball league for women. In a Muslim society that often keeps men and women apart, female softball players take pointers from a male coach but must run bases in a hijab.

"If there's one thing I love to do ... it's sport, especially softball," said player Sonya Shahamati.

Shahamati and her teammates had to get used to playing the game while wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf.

"On one hand, maybe it's difficult," she said, wearing a hijab under her baseball cap. "But in Iran we have to, and we don't have any problem."

Amir Heidari plays second base for Hajian's team. His house is a Red Sox shrine, with baseball cards papering the walls.

"The cards were birthday presents," he said. "The commemorative Boston Red Sox balls, I know they are very valuable for Mehrdad -- but ... one year for my birthday he gave to me."

Heidari's wife, Negar, is a pitcher on the women's softball team. The couple used to practice batting and fielding at home. Amir is his wife's coach.

Off the field, Amir Heidari and Hajian turn to computers for more baseball action, playing video games and fantasy baseball. Hajian is a commissioner of his fantasy league on Yahoo Sports.

"We have a league with 20 teams," Hajian said. "There are Americans in it and Iranians in it."

Hajian and Amir Heidari's teammates also log onto the Internet, managing their fantasy teams, checking the latest Major League Baseball news and picking out their favorite franchise.

"My favorite team is St. Louis Cardinals," said Alborz Gharib. "I like Albert Pujols."

"I like the organizations of the Anaheim Angels and the Atlanta Braves," said Kashif Rana, "because they bring up new talent in their team and they're good players."

In Iran, baseball gets less attention and, as a result, less funding than more popular sports like soccer and wrestling. The players are in constant need of equipment but manage in the meantime. Hajian's Tehran team has won 14 out of 15 Iranian championship cups.

Steve Devoss, a American consultant with Global Sports, has been to Iran 10 times as a visiting coach for the Iranian league.

"[Baseball] is new in the country, and so they're developing," Devoss told ABC News.

"But there are some individuals who have good talent," he added. "And overall, some teams would be comparable to some good high school teams in the U.S."

All the Iranian players, male and female, say they'd like to play in the United States or with visiting American teams.

Wishful thinkers might see potential for sports-centered détente, reminiscent of so-called "ping-pong diplomacy" of the 1970s. At that time, a series of table tennis match-ups between the United States and China foreshadowed a visit by President Richard Nixon to the People's Republic.

"By having a championship ... playing teams together it [would be] very good for the two countries," said Fereshteh Zolfagharian, a software engineer and player on a softball team.

In 1998, Tehran hosted an American wrestling team competing for the Takhti Cup. The trip was partially advertised as a way to improve relations between the United States and Iran. Americans have participated yearly -- as recently as January 2007 -- even as the diplomatic climate between their countries steadily worsened.

Recently, diplomatic relations turned a shade darker, as the State Department designated Iran's Revolutionary Guards and more than 20 banks and institutions as supporters of international terrorism.

But even as political tensions rise, Hajian and his team play on.

Theodore May contributed to this report.

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