I was a holdout, though. I had said that there were two things I would never do again: play another softball game and return to Moscow. I officially retired from Les Lapins in 1986, shortly after we had played, within 24 hours, a doubleheader in Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. I did not go out with a blaze of glory; I was more like a circus clown.
As faithful readers of these pages will recall (SI, Oct. 6, 1986), I had developed at that time a baffling throwing disorder, a howling case of the infielder's yips. After nearly 50 years of throwing on target, suddenly I couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. It was a condition that filled me with such despair that I saw no way out but to pack it in. Then, just as mysteriously as I had been stricken with this humiliating malady, I was free of it. I noticed early the next year, while in the park idly throwing a tennis ball for my dog, that the old cannon was back. And so I decided to come out of retirement. In fact, if I do say so, I began playing as well as I had in 20 years.
But Moscow was something else. When I departed from the Soviet capital after spending nearly three miserable weeks there covering the 1980 Olympic Games, I was convinced that Napoleon himself had better prospects of returning than I did. The city seemed like an armed camp, and since the U.S. sent no team that year because of President Carter's boycott of the Games, few American journalists were there. I felt as lonely and abandoned as a Tolstoy heroine. No, the only way anybody would ever get me back to Moscow was on a cold slab. But I hadn't counted on the leadership skills of Ed Moose and Mikhail Gorbachev, each of whom convinced me in his own way that the U.S.S.R. had taken a turn for the better and that Moscow wasn't such a black hole after all. I signed up for the trip.
And so, a cumbersome 43 strong, we set off for this latest exercise in athletic diplomacy. We were a diverse company composed of artists, musicians, lawyers, stockbrokers, journalists, novelists, bartenders, real estate salesmen, contractors, radio broadcasters, private investigators, four widows, assorted wives and girlfriends, and Moose's partners, Sam Deitsch and Mark Schachern. It was the same crowd you would find in the Square almost every day.
Our first stop was Paris, but just for one night of relaxation. (The Paris game itself would come two days after the one in Moscow; the game would be played on the rocky turf of the Bois de Boulogne, where, trooping off the bus in our red uniforms, we would shatter the tranquillity of an afternoon under the Paris sun. One sunbather would resolutely refuse to move from what became the first base coaching box. But I get ahead of myself.) About 20 of us dined that first night at the Brasserie Lipp on the Boulevard St. Germain. I tried to explain to a waiter there in halting French that we were an American softball team. He looked with some bewilderment at the middle-aged diners and settled his gaze finally on the silvery head of John Cordoni, a septuagenarian bandleader. " 'Nous sommes un baseball team'?" the waiter said, giggling. "Oh, non, non, non...." And he ran downstairs to share the joke with his confreres.
Les Lapins went next to Leningrad, where we spent two days museum-and-monument hopping. Some of our number lit out for a night on the town and, at 2:30 in the morning, discovered that they could not return to the hotel because the drawbridges over the Neva were all up and would not be down for another two hours. With a sigh of resignation, they settled onto their bar stools and ordered another bottle of vodka.
We left Leningrad by train from the Finland Station (where Lenin arrived from exile to get cracking on the Revolution) on a Thursday night and arrived in Moscow the next morning. We were given a day off and then summoned to practice on Saturday. It was a miserable workout—dropped fly balls, bobbled grounders, wild throws. Moose did not hide his displeasure as we rode silently back to the Kosmos Hotel. He reminded us of our third baseman Bob Frugoli's constant refrain, "I didn't go no 10,000 miles to lose," and he cautioned us against underestimating the opposition. The Soviets might lack experience, he reminded us, but they were undoubtedly better athletes. There was no disputing this.
The game was played at the Young Pioneers Stadium near the huge Lenin Stadium, where the track and field events at the 1980 Olympics were held. Young Pioneers seats about 95,000 fewer spectators than Lenin, but it seemed more than adequate to our needs. We watched with interest as the Soviet team warmed up, and we were surprised to see that they were not the fumble fingers we halfway expected them to be. They could catch and throw, and they hit with some authority. It was also apparent that they were much faster than we were, but that was no surprise at all, for Les Lapins are scarcely noted for speed. There are so many trick knees and weak ankles on our roster that we do not so much run as hobble in the manner of Walter Brennan. As we watched the Soviet players cavort enthusiastically, this thought occurred to more than one of us: Maybe we had come 10,000 miles to lose.
The crowd at Young Pioneers Stadium, perhaps as many as a thousand people, was easily the biggest ever to see us play. We had our own rooters, of course; most of one section was filled with our wives, girlfriends and hangers-on. But the vast majority of the spectators, it was clear, was pulling for the Soviet team.
The opening ceremonies tended to defuse any semblance of partisanship. At Pozner's suggestion, the two teams assembled under the stands after batting practice and marched onto the field together, virtually arm in arm. In the middle of the diamond, we exchanged gifts, the Soviets being far more generous. They had decided to name their team the Teapots, that being not only the best-known receptacle in the land but also, in Russian slang, the equivalent of "wild hares." And so, they gave each of us a small teapot. In return, the Soviet players received a dime-store sampling of lapel pins and ballpoint pens. At the conclusion of this ritual, Cordoni stepped forward with his alto sax to play both national anthems.