TACOMA, WASH., JULY 26 -- The Soviet Union and the United States played baseball against each other for the first time tonight. The United States won, 17-0, when the game was ended in the seventh inning at the Goodwill Games. It could have been worse.
A few years ago -- when hardly anyone in the Soviet Union played baseball -- a U.S. businessman working in Moscow was umpiring a game when a pitch plunked a batter in the back.
"Richard," the batter said in Russian to the umpire, a 36-year-old Philadelphian named Rick Spooner. "What does that mean?"
"Boris, that means go right to first base," Spooner said.
The Soviets are just learning the game. The Americans already know it. So what happened tonight in the dreary twilight at Cheney Stadium, home of the Class AAA Tacoma Tigers, was a glorious revelation for both the earnest Soviet players and the U.S. fans who found themselves cheering as loudly for a Soviet putout as they did for an American home run.
"We've got to get them out at least 18 times," Spooner, a Soviet assistant coach, told a collection of reporters gathered beside the Soviet dugout before the game. "There's a 10-run mercy rule after seven innings, so, since they're the home team, that's six innings times three outs an inning."
Spooner, who played high school ball and intramurals in college, thinks of himself as the "Johnny Appleseed" of baseball in the Soviet Union. As manager of an American trade consortium in Moscow, he happened upon a game in the spring of 1987 and decided to help out. Soon he was mail-ordering videotapes of major league games for the players to watch, asking U.S. friends to bring gloves and bats, and teaching the most fundamental baseball skills.
Soviet children obviously never learned to throw a baseball. So, as Spooner and a few other coaches started almost from scratch to put together a team, they found former javelin throwers, water polo players and team handball players to have the best throwing motions. (Every baseball player is a former something.)
Still, there are problems. The national team's first baseman, Ilya "The Vacuum Cleaner" Onokov, fails to follow through when he lets go of the ball, leaving him standing awkwardly upright. The rest of the Soviet infield throws just fine.
But this is what happens when athletes try to learn a new sport in a vacuum. The Soviets will attend their first major league game Friday night when the Seattle Mariners play the California Angels at The Kingdome. They saw their first top-notch collegiate pitcher tonight, when Joey Hamilton of Georgia Southern took the mound in the first inning.
And they have seen the videotapes.
"They like to develop all the mannerisms of the major-leaguers," Spooner said. "Unfortunately, that includes chewing tobacco."
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics have become the Soviets' favorite teams, because they won the last two World Series, Spooner said. The Soviets' favorite big-leaguers are players with good nicknames: Dave Parker ("The Cobra"), Andre Dawson ("Hawk") and Darryl Strawberry.
"That's because they thought his last name was a nickname," Spooner said.
There are three baseball diamonds in the entire Soviet Union, all built recently. One outside Moscow is the prettiest, Spooner said. The architects who built it had never seen a baseball stadium before, so they planned and constructed it by looking at pictures of U.S. ballparks.
The Soviets decided to try to play the sport after the International Olympic Committee made baseball a full medal sport in the Games, beginning in 1992. That's basic Soviet sports philosophy: If you can win an Olympic gold medal in it, play it. And you know that someday the Soviets will beat the Americans at the game they invented, and people will remember the first time they met, and shake their heads at how lopsided it was.
Before the game, Soviet Coach Vladimir Bogatyrev, the Eastern Bloc's answer to Tommy Lasorda, was asked for a prediction.
"I have a feeling the Americans will win," said Bogatyrev, a former cycling coach who saw his first baseball game in Cuba eight years ago. Then he laughed.
He was right, of course, but his team played much better than anyone expected. Had the Soviets not been wearing "CCCP" in red on their chests, spectators would have thought this simply was a game between mismatched teams that both know and understand the sport. The Soviets routinely hit the cutoff man, they chased after long foul balls that just reached the seats, swung a couple of bats in the on-deck circle, played at the right depth in the infield and outfield, and had pitchers who threw curveballs, sliders and even a knuckleball, as well as fastballs.
During one glorious stretch of six U.S. batters over two innings, the Soviets had four strikeouts and a double play.
In fact, the silliest thing they did was to let two runners get picked off first base during the game, and that's certainly not the first time that ever happened in an organized game.
About 2,000 people play baseball in the Soviet Union now, Spooner said. These are the best players.
"It's a grass-roots movement," he said.
"My hope is for the kids, the young kids, to grow up as baseball players," Bogatyrev said. "That's our future. We definitely need a generation to pass before baseball makes any big steps forward."