Home runs hit the spot for US expats in Cairo

From oil workers to Coca-Cola employees to aspiring Arabic speakers, the players in a softball league here reflect US interests in Egypt.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's the fifth inning and the General Dynamics team – heavily favored to win the city softball championship – is in a three-run hole. With the bases loaded, Kyle Litsey of Spencerville, Ohio, comes to the plate.

Barrel-chested men pause from slathering mustard over their hotdogs and a little boy takes advantage of his mother's temporary distraction with something else to slather cotton-candy all over his face.

Time slows down and then, bam, Mr. Litsey smashes a three-run triple to deep center, tying up a game that General Dynamics goes on to win in its last at-bat over the plucky but overmatched Coca-Cola team.

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This slow-pitch game – with the floodlights coming on as the spring shadows lengthen, players furiously chewing sunflower seeds in the dugouts and the way it draws every age in the community together – could be taking place in Anywhere, USA.

That is, if you ignore the large mosque just beyond the center-field fence and the brief cacophony of the call to prayer thrown out by dozens of smaller mosques in the neighborhood.

"This is where I come when the little frustrations of living in Cairo start to get to me,'' says Litsey, who when he isn't batting clean-up helps run a General Dynamics' plant assembling M-1 Abrams tanks for the Egyptian army. "It's our little piece of America."

And more than just a little piece. The teams in the league largely reflect the nature of US corporate and diplomatic interests here in Egypt.

Three divisions

In addition to military corporations like General Dynamics and multinationals like Coke, oil companies like Apache also sponsor teams.

Though rosters are rounded out by a motley collection of teachers, USAID contractors, and Arab language students, there's also a large contingent of US servicemen. There's even a team – OMC – sponsored by US Office of Military Cooperation here, which coordinates war games with the Egyptian military.

Most of the teams have three sides that play in A, B, and C divisions.

The Marines who guard the US embassy used to have a team, but the latest crop of devil dogs at the embassy weren't as interested in softball as previous rotations.

A smaller women's league shares many of the same sponsors, though the "Jewels of the Nile" – sponsored by a jewelry store – took home the women's championship this year.

Diamonds, skateboarding, and a jungle-gym

The softball complex in the southern Cairo suburb of Maadi, which has been the city's major expatriate enclave for decades, also acts as an impromptu community center where mostly American families can withdraw from the frenzy of life in Cairo.

In addition to two diamonds surrounded by bleachers and a concession stand, on any given day skinny and somewhat surly American teenagers can be seen in the parking lot practicing kick-flips on their skateboards. Younger kids line up to buy tickets for the small bumper-car ride on site, and the youngest make use of the swings and small jungle-gym behind the first-base line.

'Nothing like this in the Congo or Turkey'

Bobby Bledsoe, a square-jawed oil worker from Linden, Texas, says the weekly games have become a major part of his social life in the city.

"I had no idea there was something like this when I was moving here,'' he says. "They definitely don't have anything like this in the Congo – not even in Turkey,'' he says, mentioning his last two overseas posts.

Mr. Bledsoe's team was eliminated earlier in the competition and he's come out with a few hundred other spectators to enjoy the cookout and catch up with friends, while good-naturedly heckling the finalists.

The stronger players also travel to Gulf States to take on other expatriate teams, and Litsey, who will be league commissioner next year, says he plans to take steps to liven up the competition.

Next year: faster balls

Because bat technology – just like golf club technology – has improved so dramatically in recent years, the league plays with a fairly dead ball, mostly in the interests of the safety of the pitchers.

But next season he's hoping to bring back a livelier ball for the A division.

"These guys should be able to handle it,'' he says.

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