Because the Arabian American Little League team is so used to getting stares – a 13-year-old who stands 6-foot-8 tends to draw attention – the players and their parents didn't mind doing a little gawking of their own last week.
When they pulled their rental cars in Newark, N.J., onto the Garden State Parkway and en route to the Little League World Series, they passed their first gas station.
Sticker shock, thy name is gas prices.
"We pay 75 cents or 80 cents a gallon," said James Durley, coach of the team from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which has cruised through its first two games in Williamsport, Pa., and will try to lock up first place in its pool today at 6 p.m. Eastern against the unbeaten Cardenales Little League from Venezuela.
"It's painful here."
Durley left North America with his family five years ago to move to Dhahran, essentially a small compound city that houses families who work for Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil company. Along with Durley's son Aaron, the 6-foot-8 gawkee, the remaining 10 kids on the Dhahran All-Star team are American expatriates, an advantage that has allowed them to carve a dynasty across the ocean.
Teams from the Dhahran region have qualified for the World Series seven consecutive seasons, 12 of the last 13 years and 18 times since 1983. Perhaps a testament to the dearth of baseball in the Transatlantic region, which covers Europe, Dhahran's success nonetheless is impressive when considering its talent is drawn from two teams in the compound.
Two teams that play each other again and again and again.
"Twice a week," Durley said. "Same faces every time."
Sounds like life on the compound, which crams more than 10,000 people into an area of about 10 square miles. Everyone knows everyone, because everyone either works together or goes to school together.
And everyone, young and old, is there because of oil. Aramco recruited Durley from Calgary, Alberta, where he had moved to work for an oil company after interning in Texas. Aramco targets young families by offering significant pay raises and a close facsimile to the comforts of suburbia in exchange for moving to the middle of a desert. The kids are military children nouveau – Aramco Brats, they're called, with Bratchat e-mail rings and reunions everywhere from Los Angeles to Asheville, N.C.
In Saudi Arabia, they can live in modern or adobe houses, drive down the street to the grocery store, go a little further and catch a movie, stop off at the stable to ride horses, kick around a soccer ball, take a swim, rally on the tennis courts or, as the kids in Williamsport have done, play baseball.
"It's a tremendous place to raise young kids," said Tom Timoney, whose son Matt is a pitcher, catcher and one of the team's preeminent power hitters. "At the time, I had four young kids. I worked for another oil company and had a job where I traveled. I didn't think that was fair to the kids and my wife. It was an opportunity to have more of a family experience in a place that offers a lot for young kids."
For some of the kids, the World Series is their last hurrah with Dhahran. Once children finish eighth grade, parents have two options: Send them away to school or move back home, because there is no high school in the compound.
Not only is Aaron Durley headed to Houston to live with his grandparents, this is likely his final fling with baseball. He's close to outgrowing the sport, just as he's done innumerable pairs of Rollerblades. Basketball is his real love, in the blood tracing back to his maternal grandfather, Wilson Graham, who was an all-state guard in Ohio.
Aaron, who played last year in a men's league on the compound, towers over grandpa, stands bigger than his dad, who played basketball at East Texas State, and is encroaching on his favorite wrestler, WWE star Batista, whom Aaron watches weekly over satellite.
"He's got basketball in his blood," his father said. "He's definitely going to be playing hoops. He still wants to play baseball, though, and he wants to win this World Series."
As do the other 40 or so Aramcons who plunked down $1,600 for a plane ticket and took the 15-hour flight from Dammam to Amsterdam to Newark, then hopped in their cars for the three-hour jaunt to Williamsport.
Even though they're regulars, they've become minor celebrities this time around, thanks in large part – literally – to Aaron Durley. ESPN announcers have touted him, "Good Morning America" taped a segment with the Dhahran team and his opponents want to take pictures with him.
What's next? Teenagers asking him to buy beer?
Aaron would smile at the suggestion, as he does at most everything. He and the other expats are an affable bunch, 180 degrees – on the globe and in personality – from the Staten Island kid whose televised F-bomb has made the biggest Little League headline.
Dhahran, too, provides an interesting dichotomy, one that could leave fans torn. If the Aramcons keep winning and advance to the finals, who to root for: The Americans or the Americans living abroad?
"All of us are American," Durley said, "but we're representing Arabia."