January 26th – Kuwait (John Baker)

The first full day in Kuwait will be a tough day to beat.

 

My morning started with a light breakfast in the executive lounge at our hotel, I had some fruit and yogurt along with a double espresso in hopes that it would trick me into thinking it was really 7:30 in the morning and that I had actually gotten a six hours of sleep.

 

We met in the lobby at 0830 hours (I think writing/saying the time this way sounds way cooler than “8:30 AM”) and after a brief stop at a Kuwaiti Starbucks headed to camp Arifjan. Now I am sure someone will correct me on what I am about to write, but I did not take notes, so everything I am putting to cyber paper is strictly from memory.

 

Camp Arifjan is the largest US Military Base in Kuwait. After Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Kuwait quickly realized that they could not adequately defend themselves from their hostile neighbors without the help of a large military power. Kuwait is a small country that sits on a large reserve of oil. Kuwait is roughly the size of New Jersey but is the tenth highest producer of oil. It is also a large seaport located in the perfect location to stage military operations for any country interested in the Middle East region. The relationship between Kuwait and the US is made out of necessity: the Kuwaitis need military help and the US needs a place to house/train/prepare soldiers and equipment for any Middle East operation.

 

The first stop on base for us was the PX store, it is like Wal-Mart for the the military. The store has everything one needs, from desert boots to Nintendo Wiis and televisions. I picked up a few things that say “Kuwait” on them for family members. I also bought myself a military watch since I forgot to bring a watch with me. After we checked out, we headed to one of the main buildings for a briefing where we learned the aforementioned information. We were also given a certificate of gratitude and an Army challenge coin. Members of the Army are given the coin unofficially by superiors as an “attaboy” or job well done. Any member can challenge another member from a different company with his or her coin. If the opposing member matches the coin with a similar one, the challenger must buy the challenged a drink, and vice versa. It is a way to build morale and familiarity between different people. Funny that no one is buying any drinks, because Alcohol is prohibited in the country of Kuwait. One of the posted photos is of me receiving my certificate.

 

After we were briefed, we headed to one of the community rooms to sign autographs and meet troops, we were there for quite awhile and met many interesting people. It was a fantastic first interaction as everyone was very happy to see us. It is very personally rewarding to shake hands with someone and know that you have made their day or maybe even month better. It is also strange because Chris and I don’t really feel like we are doing anything that special. I guess just being here is a pretty big deal.

 

After we signed for and thanked the soldiers, we joined them in the DVAC for lunch. I sat with a guy that was from the Dallas area that was on his third tour of duty. 

He told me fascinating stories about driving patrols from Arifjan all the way to the northern part of Iraq. It is amazing the things these men and women do for us.

 

We then packed into some Chevy Suburbans and headed to Kuwait Naval Base or KNB. We learned that despite being a Kuwaiti Base, it is fully operated by Americans. I only saw one Kuwaiti person while we were there and he was drinking tea in a guard booth, while members of the US Army patrolled the gate. We met with a company of men from South Dakota, Minnesota, Hawaii and California. The Californian played in a local Jazz Band (Concord Blue Devils – www.bluedevils.org )near my home town in Concord. He also briefly taught drums at the same High School that I attended, De La Salle! What a small world. Half way across the globe and we meet for the first time. 

 

After our briefing, we boarded a small patrol ship with some members of the Navy and the US Coastguard. The small ship was very fast and had three guns mounted on it, the one on the front was a fifty caliber! The gun was the same model used in WWII as an anti-tank weapon, the only update: plastic instead of wooden handles! We cruised around the Persian Gulf, skipping over waves, getting salt water everywhere and having a fantastic time. The crew of our boat was great, they let us take photos with the guns and even let one of the Mermaids, Estefania, drive, until she almost flipped the boat and deposited our team president in the Gulf!!!! This was the most exciting part of our trip to this point.

 

After we got back onto dry land, the girls performed a dance routine for the guys at KNB, we signed more autographs and met more troops then joined them for dinner in their DVAC. After dinner our entire party was starting to look increasingly weary, thankfully we only had one more stop.

 

We got back into the Suburbans and headed to the Kuwait Little League Complex. We were greeted with raucous cheers of “Let’s Go Fish!” as we walked into the small outdoor complex. There were a few decently manicured little league fields and around three hundred members of the KLL. The interesting part about the league is that it is the only league in the region run by a national and not an ex-pat. The commissioner of the league was a Kuwaiti man that went to college at the University of Miami and married a Cuban-American women from south Florida. Needless to say they were big Marlins fans, and half of the teams in the league were called the Marlins! We answered a few questions and then signed a ton more autographs, Fredi Gonzalez finally showed up (his first flight was cancelled due to inclement weather in Atlanta), and took some photos with the members of the league. When that was done we headed back to the hotel for some food and some much deserved R&R. 

Jan. 26 – Boats, Big Bases and Baseball Fields

Tuesday was our first full day in Kuwait and it was full of incredible experiences.  I am exhausted to the core after today, both emotionally and physically.  We all met in the lobby at 0830 and jumped into a couple cars that took us to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait.  We received a full debriefing about the country of Kuwait, including its history, its government past and present, its relationships with other neighboring countries and its relationship with the U.S. and our military footprint in Kuwait.  Everyone in our group received a Certificate of Appreciation from the Area Support Group in Kuwait and we met with several officers before heading to lunch at the base and doing some much needed shopping.

After lunch we departed Camp Arifjan and traveled to Kuwait Naval Base where we went out to sea with Col. Shock and members of the U.S. Coast Guard.  The boats were so small that we had to split up and take two boats out together.  John Baker, Chris Coghlan, Larry Beinfest and I opted for the faster of the two boats and tried to find out how fast we get it to go without dumping anyone out the side into extremely choppy waters.  Amazingly, nobody went overboard but we were all drenched by the time we got back to the base.

We all thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I would encourage everyone to check out the photos and videos at Marlins.com, they should be up sometime on Wednesday.  After the ride, we were back to land and off to nearby Camp Patriot for a brief visit and Commaner’s Call, followed by a stage performance from the Mermaids and autograph session with the troops there.

After a quick dinner at Camp Patriot we were off to the Kuwait Little League for an event that materialized at the last minute on our itinerary.  We weren’t sure what to expect when we got there and we cerainly couldn’t have forseen the crowd of over 300 kids and parents waiting for our arrival!  As we started to walk up the path between fields I started to notice a sea of teal as the vast majority of the kids were wearing Marlins shirts.  As soon as the kids noticed us, they errupted with cheers and starting chanting “Let’s Go Fish!”  I still have chills thinking about the reception we received and how excited the kids were to see the players and Mermaids.  Meanwhile, Fredi Gonzalez’s plane had landed (you may remember that he was not able to get out of Atlanta and join us on our flight Sunday night so he was delayed 24 hours) and he met us at the park for the beginning of the Little League event.

The kids had the opportunity to ask questions for Chris, John, Larry and Fredi for the first 20 minutes, and then they all came up individually to get autographs, take pictures and tell us how important baseball and the league has been to them.  The Kuwait Little League has been in existence since just after the first Gulf War and it was a true inspiration to see these kids care so much about baseball and our visit to them.

No matter how big of an impact we may have made on those kids there tonight, it was us who certainly left with memories that will last a lifetime.  Our driver Gary, who I have really enjoyed getting to know over the first couple days, is an American who has worked in Kuwait for close to 20 years and he told us that he has never seen an event in all of these tours that touched him so much personally as our visit to the Kuwait Little League tonight.  It was a wonderful way to conclude a long day.

The group got together for dinner nearby and then called it a night.  Another big day is on tap for tomorrow, including at least two base visits and a possible third before we pack our bags and get ready to head to our next destination.

More updates from SWA soon..

Matt

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After the flight – January 25th in Kuwait (John Baker)

After the flight – The “night” of January 25th in Kuwait…

After we deplaned and went through the short painless visa process we headed to baggage claim and got our stuff. Three out of the four members of the dance team have bags that are bigger than they are. Girls. After we went through customs, which consisted of having our bags put through some sort of security scanner, we were out the door and into a van driving to our next destination…the hotel.

While riding down the freeway, the first thing I notice is how Western this place has become. H2s, Corvettes, and other popular American cars race down the road at break neck speeds. A member of our security detail informs us that the police do not enforce speeding on any of the roads so the goal is to drive as fast as you can without getting into a fatal accident. (I would learn later that this ideal is known in the world of Islam as “Insha’Allah” which translates to God willing. The people truly believe that when it is their time to die, they will die, so they drive with a strange reckless abandon, putting all their faith that Allah will deliver them to safety. They also have a “thirty minute rule” when it comes to dealing with the victims of an accident. The police and medical response units will only intercede thirty minutes after a crash. If you die before that, “Insha’Allah”, it is what God wills. If you last thirty minutes, you will receive medical attention.) We pass a giant mall that looks like a basketball arena and myriad giant palace-like houses that seem to line the freeway. We eventually pass a real palace on the way to the hotel and the best way to describe it (since it is against the law to photograph the building) is with one word: majestic.

Our hotel is super nice, my room, or rather rooms, has a bedroom, two bathrooms, a dining room and a family style room with a big flat screen TV. Much of the programming is in English, so I feel right at home. For all I know this could be transplanted right into the US and no one could tell the difference.

After dropping the bags off at the room and changing into some athletic gear, I hit the gym with Coghlan in hopes of working up a sweat so that I can fall asleep. Being 11 hours in the future is just plain weird. The gym is extremely nice, it is on par with the large health clubs in the states, basically an upscale 24 Hour Fitness. I workout for around half an hour and successfully shake off the stiffness I have developed over twenty plus hours of traveling. 


Post workout the four guys on the trip got together for some dinner. We figured that Chinese food should be good in Asia so that is what we had. Basically middle-eastern PF Chang’s, I will say now that we won’t be eating there again.

 

John Baker

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@manbearwolf on Twitter
www.johnbakerbaseball.com

36,000 Feet above central Iraq (John Baker)

January 25th, 2010
6:52 AM Pacific Time
5:53 PM “I don’t even know the name of the time zone” Time (SWA?)

Wow. I am writing this at the tail end of what has been an extremely long yet some how pleasant travel day. We were lucky enough to be upgraded to business class so my seat nearly fully reclined on the second flight. I am on a Boeing 777 and it is a huge plane. From the pictures you can see that it is quite comfortable. Amazingly, the seventeen hours of flying time has not seemed that long. It really hit me when I looked at the in flight monitor and watched the little computerized airplane fly directly over Baghdad and a region marked “Mesopotamia”. It is not everyday that I get to be this close to the Cradle of Civilization.

The flights have been uneventful. I read on the first flight and listened to some music on my iPhone. On a side note, after having this iPhone for less than a week, I don’t know how I lived without one. Currently I am reading Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory”. It is the story of NFL Player turned Army Ranger, Pat Tillman. After 9/11 Pat turned down a 3.6 million dollar contract to enlist in the Army and was killed in action two years later in the Khost region of Afghanistan. He was a victim of friendly fire. I’ve only just started the book, and it is already a sad story.

The second flight has actually been kind of fun despite it’s length. Coghlan and I engaged in a spirited debate about life, faith, love, baseball and our motivations for heading out on this adventure. After that he slept, I seriously think he has been asleep for the better part of this flight…like ten hours!! I watched the Tarantino movie “Inglourious Basterds”. I thought it was great, but like I do most of the time when I watch a Tarantino film, it ends and I feel like about half of it went right over my head.

I’ll probably watch another movie in the hotel room tonight, maybe “Food Inc.” or perhaps “Facing Ali”, I feel like a documentary is somehow appropriate. Anyways, can’t wait to get to the hotel, take some of my own photos and keep everyone updated.

John Baker

@manbearwolf on Twitter
www.johnbakerbaseball.com

 

Safely on the ground

We finally touched ground after a 12-hour voyage across the Atlantic!  After check-in, John, Chris and I hit the gym for a while and then met up with Larry Beinfest for an outstanding dinner at the hotel.  Everyone has been extremely nice to us and very accommodating.

Hopefully everyone else found a way to get to sleep, not much luck here..it’s after 2AM here and we have a big day planned, starting at 0800 hours!  I passed a Turkish coffee shop downstairs earlier and I have a suspicion that we will be getting acquainted in just a few hours.

Plans tomorrow include a boat ride, base tour, photo/autograph session with the troops and a visit to a local little league.  I can only imagine how excited the kids will be to meet real Major League Baseball players and we are all looking forward to spending time with them.  Who knows, maybe we’ll find a couple future Marlins while we’re there!

Remember to check back regularly this week as we will be uploading video from our activities as soon as possible.

Take care,

Matt

Ready to board!

We successfully landed in Washington/Dulles and are about one hour from boarding for Kuwait!  It hasn’t been without a bit of unfortunate news as Bill Beck, our Senior Director of Team Travel was unable to fly with us due to an illness, and Fredi Gonzalez has been stranded in Atlanta because of weather.  Plans are optimistic for Fredi however, who will hopefully join us in Kuwait a day later and join the tour in progress.

In the meantime, Larry, Chris, John, Carin, Stef, Christina, Natalie and I are watching the 4th quarter of the NFC Championship game and counting down the minutes until we leave for our 12-hour flight to Kuwait.  Thank you to everyone who sent us your best wishes and positive thoughts over the past fews days.

Next up we will update from Kuwait!

Matt

Final countdown

Less than 24 hours remain until we depart for Southwest Asia! The washing machine has been running all morning, the cameras have been charging and soon all bags will be packed. It’s not a very exciting Saturday in the sports world, and being rather starved for baseball, I dug through the DVR inbox until I found something interesting..Mark Buehrle’s perfect game from last July is a good place to start.

I just checked the weather forecast for Kuwait and it is expected to be pleasant when we land Monday afternnoon, sunny and 75, dropping to 50 overnight. I have read that they can get quite a bit of rain and chilly temperatures during the winter, so it appears that we have lucked out; very little rain expected over the next 10 days in Kuwait and Iraq with mostly 60-70s during the day.

I couldn’t be more excited to get on the plane tomorrow and start the trip. We have been planning this with Armed Forces Entertainment since October and it’s hard to believe that the time is finally here! I started to get really amped up for the first time last night at the Mermaids Final Audition Show at Seminole Paradise. It was a great event hosted by the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and an excitable crowd cheered on their Mermaid hopefuls as the group of 50 finalists was narrowed down and the 2010 Marlins Mermaids were selected. After the team was announced, the four girls who are going with us signed their Mermaids contracts and we discussed the laundry list of details surrounding the trip. It was at that point that I realized only a few hours remained.

We have a very busy 9 days planned, so the rest of the day will consist of some final packing and taking in the Heat-Kings game tonight. After that, a good night of sleep and then we’re off!

I will be updating the blog regularly as time allows so check back for new entries throughout the week and I will also arrange for a few “guest” bloggers on the trip. Also, visit Marlins.com for video and photo updates, as well as a Question of the Day where you ask the questions and we’ll answer them from Southwest Asia.

Forgot how quickly Buehrle works, 12 up and 12 down already…

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