MOSCOW, JULY 5 -- By the time Moscow's first baseball tournament came to a batty close today, nobody seemed to care much who won or lost.
In this country without a baseball tradition, the last word in the eight-team tournament went to resident Soviet allies with experience in the sport, leaving Pananamian umpires to explain Nicaraguan rules in Cuban terminology.
From the time the tournament opened last Tuesday, zany things happened, including lopsided scores (one example: 28-4), shortstops dropping pop flies, and effortless home runs by players with two weeks' training in the sport.
In a Friday game between teams from the Siberian city of Irkutsk and the Estonian city of Tallinn, a second baseman ended an inning by catching a line drive, but threw the ball to first for a "fourth out," just in case.
During the 24 or so games in the tournament, serendipity occasionally gave way to displays of talent. For instance, some players from the Soviet cities of Tashkent, Moscow and Kiev, which finished 1-2-3, showed a mixture of intensive training and the raw skill of natural athletes.
Most of the players are students in their late teens or early twenties. Soviet coaches handpick athletes with skills close to those needed in baseball and they hone them: sprinters have been geared toward base running, handball players toward pitching, and so on.
One weak spot for Soviet players is throwing, according to Richard Spooner, an American who helps coach one of the Moscow teams. The reason: popular Soviet sports -- such as soccer and hockey -- are geared toward the use of the feet instead of the hands.
Encouraged by the recent decision to make baseball an Olympic sport, enthusiasts from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev formed the Soviet Union's first official team last December. Since then, tactics have proven the most difficult aspect of the game to learn, according to Soviet trainers and coaches. "We can hit and run," said Andrei Tolokovsky, 18, a player with the Moscow Chemical Technological Institute team. "But all of this stuff about balls and strikes and stealing bases is a bit much."
Another difficultly, according to Spooner, who is employed by the Moscow based U.S.-U.S.S.R. Trade Council, is grasping when to respect an official's call and when to dispute it.
In the authoritarian-minded Soviet Union, players were stunned to learn in seminars that arguing with umpires over certain calls is sometimes encouraged, Spooner said.
During the Moscow tournament, however, players from teams intermittently poured onto the field to challenge the Panamanian student who umpired many of the games.
As the eight teams gathered from all corners of the Soviet Union, speaking as many as six languages, the makeshift diamond in a Moscow sports stadium sometimes took on the sound of the United Nations. The Riga team argued in Latvian, the Tashkent in Uzbek, the Tallinn in Estonian and the Moscow teams in Russian.
Instead of being imported directly from the United States, where it is most popular, baseball has come to the Soviet Union like banned technology, through third countries, including Japan, Finland and Cuba.
Many teams use the help of Cuban or other Central American students for training and end up borrowing their nuances, too. For many Soviet players, for example, the baseball is hit with a "batador."
One result: a mishmash of rules. "One team plays by Japanese rules, another by Cuban, and a third by rules from God knows where," said Slava Smogin, a Soviet student who helped organize the tournament and is working on translating a book of American baseball rules.
Without a baseball-equipment manufacturer in the Soviet Union, players are left to their own devices for equipment, leading to wide disparities -- awkwardly fitting gloves from Finland, professional bats donated by the U.S. embassy in Moscow, hats with insignia ranging from "Boss Clothiers" to "Harvard" and "Pipeline Control."
First prize for fashion in the Moscow tournament went to the team from the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, which sported white professional quality togs donated by a team from nearby Japan.
In the meantime, everything from when a player can steal bases to the cultural home of the game comes under dispute.
"We know that baseball originates from the time of Shakespeare," said Victor Pianok, a retired handball coach who founded and helps train the Kiev team.
Another trainer argued that baseball's roots are in early Russia, citing the game of lapta, an old-time Russian national sport also played with a ball and stick that died away after World War II. "We used to play it in the time of Alexander Nevsky," he said, referring to the 13th Century Russian hero.
In fact, baseball in the Soviet Union does date back to the 1930s and '40s, when American expatriates founded teams in Moscow and some outlying cities. But those early sprouts died away during the war.
The new Soviet baseball is a mutt of a sport, with some Soviet customs -- such as lining up and shouting "rah, rah," before every game, and teams exchanging banners at the outset.
Without hot dog and beer stands, fans are left to their own devices for refreshments. During the tournament they ate salami and cheese and drank juice.
Still, the local version of baseball has a slight American accent -- mostly supplied by sons of diplomats who have served in North America. There are American caps, occasional baseball cards and chewing gum.
Pianok, the 50-year-old trainer of Kiev's team, conceded that the Soviet teams are not yet up to the standards of their western counterparts.
"Best to ask all the questions that you want right now, though," he said, in Russian. "In another 10 years we'll be pros. Then it'll be pretty hard to talk to us."