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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

American Flees Spartak For Red Army Bases

After a week or so of inquiries I have formally left Spartak, a team on the verge of total collapse, and have joined CSKA -- the Red Army's baseball team.


Currently, CSKA is Russia's second-best baseball team, having fallen slightly behind the "Red Devils" -- a privately funded team which has on its roster the only three Russians ever to play in the American minor leagues. CSKA and the Red Devils are the only two teams which guarantee a salary for their players, which make them a virtual lock to secure the best talent in the country. The financial strength of these teams has practically turned the rest of Russian baseball's 10 or so semi-pro teams into a minor-league system.


When Spartak folded my first thought was to try to join up with CSKA. After making a few phone calls, then meeting with the coach, I was given permission to train with the team without pay. There is no avoiding the appeal of being on a team whose players are active members in the Red Army. CSKA players carry military identification; under the heading "Duties" in their ID booklets, which for most soldiers reads something like "Tank Operator" or "Flame Thrower Operator," a CSKA team member finds himself listed as "Athlete -- Baseball Player."


CSKA is not a Moscow team. The home field is in Balashikha, a Moscow suburb, and the players train in a walled compound in a remote part of the Balashikha forest which was once barred to foreigners.


In order to reach the CSKA compound, I had to first find a narrow footpath that was only barely noticeable from the road, and then walk through a kilometer of dense forest without the aid of signs before reaching a gray concrete wall beyond the trees. Beyond the wall I could hear the sounds of whistles and coaches calling out numbers in drills.


It was difficult not to imagine that somewhere behind the wall there was a James Bond-style villain pacing around in a yellow suit, lazily stroking a Persian cat while watching his henchmen train in total secrecy.


Despite all this, the presence on the team of an American civilian like myself is not that unusual.


The Red Army sports apparatus is not the reactionary puppet of the military it once was -- CSKA hockey, remember, is now sponsored by America's Pittsburgh Penguins, and its players are known as the "CSKA Russian Penguins" when they play overseas. And CSKA baseball has already had one American, a St.Petersburg businessman, play for the team informally.


None of this means that CSKA has lost its military flavor. The practices are far more intense than Spartak's and there is heavy emphasis on repetition and drilling. The coach, Aleksandr Ardatov, never strays far from his stopwatch. Players are fined 20,000 rubles for any drinking and 5,000 for being late to practice. At the first practice I was struck by the shape of CSKA's field -- incredibly deep to left field, but absurdly short to right. The distance from home plate to the fence in right, in fact, is only about 65 meters, making it about 35 meters shorter to the wall than in Boston's Fenway Park, the shortest field in the American major leagues. I asked Dmitry, the only member of the team to have played on the original squad that was formed in 1988, why the field hadn't been enlarged.


"This is crazy," I said. "You could almost bunt a home run out of here. Why didn't they clear out that row of trees and move the fence back? There's room."


He shook his head, seemingly offended. "This is the army," he said. "If there's a row of trees there, they're there for a reason. I'd advise you not to bring it up anymore."