Our "National Pastime" in the former Soviet Union? A generation of Cold Warriors must be turning over in their bomb shelters. What's next? Teaching China how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? As Major League Baseball considers an international draft, scouts from professional teams have invaded Russia to try to promote baseball and develop some potential stars. The sport hasn't exactly caught on yet. The best Russian athletes go into soccer, hockey and basketball, leaving the leftovers to pick up a bat and glove. Fewer than a dozen fans attend a typical game. But if the Montreal Expos could sustain a team for so many years with similar attendance, who knows what will happen in Moscow?
Conspiracy buffs are probably asking why this happens to be going on during the Bush administration. They may feel it's not a coincidence that news of the Mudville-Moscow connection has come out just when there is so much discussion about Major League baseball players using steroids. Maybe it's an attempt to deflect attention from the drug issue. After all, President Bush was the owner of the Rangers while Jose Canseco was in Texas using steroids and becoming slightly larger than the Alamo. They might wonder aloud, "What did George Bush know and when did he know it?" But I think it's quite a stretch to try to involve the President in this controversy -- although it wouldn't be the last time that some people who worked for him had too much testosterone and not enough common sense.
Professional basketball has been internationalized in the last few years, and I think that's great. It's been fun to watch players from all over the world play with and against each other. Part of my enjoyment probably comes from my naïve, corny view of sports. It's that same mushy feeling that some of us get during the Olympics: "If people can get along so well on the playing fields, maybe we can all get along in the real world." So, why didn't I greet the news about trying to teach baseball to the Russians with the same enthusiasm?
I think it's because baseball seems uniquely American, and it's so much a part of our history. It's the Grand Old Game. Wartime soldiers used baseball terms as tests to tell if a stranger were an enemy or a friend. The President of the United States throws out the first ball of the season. And just about every American has played some form of baseball at some point in his or her life -– even if just taking a few swings or tossing a ball around.
Deep down, I know spreading baseball around the world is a good thing. It'll just take me a while to get used to it. It's also going to take the Russians time to learn the game. Baseball may look simple, but there are all kinds of nuances that players must learn. For example, simultaneously spitting and crotch-scratching doesn't come easily. They'll also have to learn to say, "I'd play the game for free" while asking for tens of millions. The terminology might be difficult for foreigners to grasp: In baseball, "stealing" and "hitting" are good things, and a "screwball" is not just that shirtless guy who writes the team's name on his belly.
So, I figure by the time there are Russians in the Major Leagues, I'll be so used to the idea that I'll greet them with a standing ovation. In the meantime, I'll just try to imagine the vendors in the Russian stadiums crying out, "Hot dogs! Peanuts! Borscht!"
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver