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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gangsters, Foul Balls And Moscow Baseball

Playing baseball, Russian style, can be a jarring experience for an American steeped in the culture and history of the game. In the United States, for example, the main danger for kids playing street ball is breaking a cranky old woman's window. But here in Moscow, the locals seem unconcerned by the trajectory of the white rawhide missile. Earlier this week, I was standing in a makeshift Moscow baseball field yelling loudly in the direction of a nearby promenade, "Hey, look out!" By way of response a small crowd of elderly Russians, some of them men with war medals on their blazers, turned to stare languidly at me, indifferent that a baseball whizzed over their heads and ricocheted off a tree into a marble birdbath. The ball also just missed a group of men watching a chess game. They hadn't noticed it either. Puzzlement and a kind of suicidal obliviousness are the only responses to baseball I have observed from spectators in my first week of practice with Spartak, one of Russia's eight semiprofessional teams. The team is hanging by a shoestring financially, struggling to find sponsors and stay in existence; the players, all Russian and all total zealots for the sport, travel with portable electric pots and sacks of potatoes and bullion cubes to keep themselves fed on the road. The team practices on a soccer field because it cannot afford the rent at the city's only baseball field, at MGU. I play without pay. Spartak is making a Herculean effort to push the sport, but as my experience this past week has proved, they are still having trouble getting the public to respond even on a fundamental motor level to the concept of baseball. While working as a journalist in Uzbekistan in 1992, I worked out for a month with the country's national team and was amazed to learn that the Uzbeks had even involved livestock in the sport, building its central baseball field on an active pasture. During a scrimmage with Kyrgyzstan they were actually forced to make ground rules in which hitting a cow was a double, but hitting a sheep, a smaller target, was a triple. From that time on I was hooked. Baseball and its ridiculous traditions and rules had taken up a huge chunk of the first part of my life, from the age of 4 or so through high school in Massachusetts. In the later part of my life I was spending most of my time struggling to get around in Russia. Putting these two passions together made it inevitable that I would sneak back onto a team here somehow. After a few offseason inquiries I made a deal in February with Pavel Gladikov, the coach of Spartak, to play for a season. Because of a job in the United States, I missed the first part of the regular season and arrived to find the team 4-8 in the Russian Baseball League and in the midst of preparations for a trip the next week to Mainz, Germany, to compete in a European tournament called the "Cup of Cups." Despite its record, Spartak is a good team with a good future. It is probably the youngest team in the league (at 24, I am the oldest player) and yet still has five players who were chosen to play for the Russian national team. Meanwhile, the team's daily existence is more humble. Notes from a recent batting practice: while looking for a foul ball in a nearby alleyway , I find a dead cat, garbage and "Moskovsky Komsomolets." Chasing after another ball, I search through weeds and come across four super-cool Russian guys in blazers and sunglasses leaning over a Mercedes -- there is probably a body in the trunk and they are standing guard in case it kicks. I say, "Hey, you guys didn't happen to see a baseball?" They snarl an obscenity and suggest I leave. The coach later says balls sometimes get lost. "Touching Base" will appear weekly this summer describing Matt Taibbi's experiences on the Spartak team.