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Vozmi menya na beizbol...
Take me out with the crowd.... And there are about 210 people scattered throughout the stands in Moscow's Park of the Young Pioneers to watch the final of the second annual baseball tournament sponsored by Selskaya Molodezh (Rural Youth) magazine. No peanuts or Cracker Jack, but pass the water because it must be 90� in the shade, and there is no shade.
It should come as no surprise by now that they are playing baseball in the land of the hammer and sickle, nesting dolls and The Brothers Karamazov (Vince, Dom and Joe). What is surprising is that the Soviets play it so well so soon. The best Soviet teams are about as good as most American high school junior varsity teams, and that's saying something. The U.S.S.R., after all, is a mere toddler on the diamond, having officially adopted baseball a year and a half ago, after the International Olympic Committee granted the sport full medal status for the 1992 Games.
This unofficial national tournament, which took place June 28 to July 3, won't go down in history as Six Days That Shook the Baseball World, but it does show that the Soviets are at once serious and giddy about their new game. The players and coaches actually appear to be falling in love with baseball.
"I am out of mind about baseball," says pitcher Yuri Neskoromny of the Ukraine, one of the teams in the final.
"If I get married and have a son, I will name him Gary, after my hero, Gary Carter," says catcher Vadim Kulakov of the D.I. Mendeleyev Institute of Chemical Technology in Moscow, the tournament's other finalist.
Fan interest lags somewhat behind player interest in the Soviet Union, however. Most of the people in the stands on this Sunday are players from other teams, or friends and relatives of the participants. The Muscovites who come to watch out of curiosity are a little mystified by the complexities of the game. "Why is it that so many people stand in one corner of the field, while only one person stands way out there?" asks a first-time observer, pointing to the centerfielder standing in the middle of the soccer field.
They are playing on a soccer field because there are no baseball diamonds, per se, in the Soviet Union. Consequently, there are no pitching mounds, no permanent backstops, no base paths and few fences. The field at the Park of the Young Pioneers does have a guardrail in left, but any ball that happens to roll that far immediately plunges into an artificial pond some 30 feet below. Since baseballs—and most other equipment—are at a premium in the U.S.S.R., this created something of a problem in the tournament. When a batter for Leningrad hit a home run to left off the pitcher for Estonia in the morning's consolation game, the public-address announcer forlornly told the crowd (in Russian), "Now we lose our third baseball today. So let us say farewell to the ball. Those of you who wish may dive into the water to collect the three balls."
Dvai, dvai, dvai for the home team, and if they don't win, it's not only a shame but also a major upset. For the final, the hometown Mendeleyev is technically the visiting team since it bats first. The Chemists have recently returned from Prague, where they finished a heady fourth in a seven-team international tournament, and they are the most Americanized of the eight teams in the Soviet tournament. In large part, that is thanks to their mentor, Richard Spooner, who once played intramural baseball at Yale and now works for a trade consortium in Moscow, and has come to be known either as the John Reed or the Armand Hammer of baseball. Each week Spooner shows the Mendeleyev players tapes of recent National League games, and most of the players wear either Pirates or Dodgers caps. "This is a dream come true for me," says Spooner. "I feel like Johnny Appleseed."
Most of the players on the team representing the Ukraine are from the capital city of Kiev. They have the best baseball uniforms in all of the U.S.S.R., red with nuclear blue trim and the leaf of the beriozka (birch) tree, native to the Ukraine, over the heart. The Ukrainians have become one of the better teams in the Soviet Union with the help of Cuban, Nicaraguan and Ukrainian-American advisers and under the whip of their blustery coach, Victor Pyanikh, known affectionately to his players as Attila the Hun. He looks a bit like San Diego Padres manager Jack McKeon.