It started out to be just one of those simple reunions in Paris, with the usual champagne and dancing girls. And then glasnost and perestroika and George Bush and even the Esalen Institute got into the act. The rest is...well, there is no other word for it but history. Softball history, anyway.
But first, a little background. For 10 years we've had a slo-pitch softball team called Les Lapins Sauvages down at the Washington Square Bar & Grill in San Francisco, where I spend many happy, if unproductive, hours. Actually, we had a team of sorts even before that, but it played only one game a year, against a now defunct rival saloon in town called Cookie Picetti's Star Buffet. Then, in 1979, Ed Moose, our manager and a co-owner of the Square (as we regulars call it), decided we needed to play at least one road game to give the team some legitimacy in the sports world. And because Moose was friends with an Englishman named Steven Spurrier, a wine connoisseur who was part owner of a restaurant in Paris, he decided that the away contest should take place in the City of Light.
The players quickly agreed that Paris was as good a place to start as any. In our efforts to sound more cosmopolitan for the occasion, we settled upon the nickname Les Lapins Sauvages, mistakenly convinced that this translated to "The Wild Hares." Alas, we have been The Wild Rabbits ever since.
The Paris game, which we won by a score of either 40-20 or 40-22—the scorekeeper lost track—established a tradition. Every year since, we have played our one home game and then a road game in some faraway place. We have traveled to London, Dublin, Hollywood and Hong Kong. We have played in the Bois de Boulogne, in a Napa Valley vineyard, on a rugby pitch at Oxford and, very gingerly, in a sheep pasture outside Winston Churchill's ancestral home at Blenheim Palace.
Yet none of us had given much thought to playing in the Soviet Union. For one thing, though the Soviets had recently begun playing baseball, they had pretty much eschewed its offspring, slo-pitch softball. At least they had until Mother's Day. That's another tradition of ours: We always play on Mother's Day, the reason being that anybody young enough to have a living mother doesn't belong on our team. Forty is our nominal minimum age, but most of us are older. In fact, our starting lineup—of which I am a proud member—averages well over 50.
The game this Mother's Day was to have been a 10th anniversary meeting in Paris with our first overseas opponent, Le Moulin du Village, Spurrier's restaurant. But the seeds of a much more important foreign adventure had been planted almost two years before when Vladimir Pozner, a Soviet television commentator and Communist Party spokesman who is as ubiquitous as Dan Rather, attended a Giants game in Candlestick Park with Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen Institute.
Murphy has always been a sports fan and, also, a fan of the Washington Square Bar & Grill, so that's where he took Pozner after the ball game. Pozner is himself no stranger to baseball, having spent much of his youth in New York City (his father was, for a time, an MGM executive). In fact, when the Soviet sports authorities went looking for someone to become their first commissioner—certainly not czar—of baseball, they settled logically on Pozner.
Pozner and Moose hit it off from the beginning, and over snifters of brandy the restaurateur casually suggested that maybe what glasnost needed was Les Lapins Sauvages. Why not a Softball game in Moscow? An enthusiastic Pozner said he would get back to Moose on that one, and a short time later he called to say, "Play ball."
This would be an epochal event: the first officially sanctioned softball game between Americans and Soviets on Soviet soil. All Moose had to do was convince his players that the expense of traveling to both Paris and Moscow would be worth it. Moose manages his softball team much the way Jack London's sadistic sea captain, Wolf Larsen, skippered his sailing ships: He is an unrelenting taskmaster who tolerates neither mental nor physical errors.
Away from softball, our manager can be both charming and persuasive. In his restaurant he is the quintessential innkeeper, hopping indefatigably from table to table, calling even the most unfamiliar customer by name. Moose started to work immediately on convincing Les Lapins that a return to Paris and a mission to Moscow were in order. In no time he had even the most dedicated xenophobes and Red-baiters among us shoveling out down payments for our Soviet invasion.