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.
June 18, 1989
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.
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.
The game was covered by both Soviet television and CNN, as well as by Sergey U. Toporov of the daily newspaper Sovietsky Sports. Les Lapins moved out smartly to a 3-0 lead in our half of the first and held the Teapots scoreless in their half. Defensively, we were superb throughout the game. Our shortstop, Billy Brisbane, made diving stops all over the infield. I, normally a nervous wreck even in practice, was strangely calm throughout this historic encounter, setting a personal record of handling six chances at second base without an error. Our scorekeeper, Patsy Glynn, is notoriously generous in this regard, but I was fielding and throwing so cleanly that I did not require her customary largesse.
In the third inning, the first officially recorded double play in Soviet Softball history was made—Brisbane to Fimrite to Rowell. We had become the Tinker to Evers to Chance of the U.S.S.R. Bob Rowell also hit the first Softball home run in the Soviet record books, a tape-measure shot over the grandstand in rightfield. Afterward it was suggested to Rowell that years from now he will be the subject of trivia games in barrooms from Kiev to Vladivostok.
With Les Lapins leading 12-0, Moose began substituting freely, even dragooning George Wendt, better known as Norm of television's Cheers, into playing an inning in rightfield. Wendt, who was filming a TV movie in Moscow, had come merely to take in the action and down a few beers, but he happily joined in the fun.
The Soviets, for their part, were having a ball. Their rightfielder, Viktor Lisitsky, startled the spectators by doing cartwheels in pursuit of a fly ball in the gap. Later, we learned that he had won five Olympic medals as a gymnast in the 1964 and '68 Games. The best of the Teapots, however, was shortstop Anatoly Kirilov, who fielded flawlessly, and was awarded a home run by the ever-accommodating Glynn when his hard shot down the third base line bounced past the usually impeccable Frank Bruno and then was kicked in leftfield by the usually reliable Keith Fitch.
Even Moose suppressed his boiling competitive juices this fine sunny day. When Teapot catcher Viktor Snegirov bunted past him for a base hit (bunting is a no-no in slo-pitch), our manager uttered not a word of complaint. Snegirov then roused the crowd with a theatrical belly slide into second base when the next hitter grounded softly to short. The final score was 18-4, Lapins.
We had a party back at the Kosmos, exchanging vodka toasts deep into the evening. Rowell saluted Kirilov as the Most Valuable Teapot, and Kirilov toasted all the Lapins as "great all-stars." Art Groza, a Washington lawyer, presented Pozner with a Softball signed by President Bush, and Pozner promised to have it signed in turn by President Gorbachev. "We expected to lose this game," Pozner told us, "but really, no one lost. I think we both won. We became friends. We had fun." We all drank to that. And in our mutually expansive mood, the world seemed somehow smaller. And brighter.