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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clashing With Russia's Baseball Bureaucracy

Over the last two weeks I've had a real education in how the army sports bureaucracy works.


Not only did I not play in the latest round of the Russian regular baseball season, I didn't go to Seoul, South Korea with my team, CSKA, this week to compete in an international tournament being held there.


I wasn't alone in not going to South Korea. Of the team's 25 players, only 13 went. Curiously enough, however, there were 33 people on the military transport plane that took the team to Seoul.


Most of these extra people were army colonels and majors looking for a free week's vacation in the Far East.


That the delegation of visiting officers should far outnumber the players didn't surprise most of the people on the team, but a few were privately upset that they had lost their spots to the officers' wives.


When one of the team captains quietly announced to the players during one of the recent Moscow games that five wives were planning to make the trip to Korea, the dugout erupted in groans and cries of "They're going to Tula with their own samovars!"


Tula, to explain, is the samovar capital of Russia, home to the world's largest samovar factory. Korean girls have a tremendous reputation among Russian athletes.


I owe my own unenviable status on the team to these same colonels and majors. From my very first practice with CSKA I was a little unnerved by the way the supervising officers -- the "big pinecones," as they players call them -- were always hanging around the field. Although I was never introduced to any of them, they all knew me by name and were constantly approaching me, slapping me on the back and asking me questions like "So, Matt -- how's America? Still standing?"


These questions were usually asked in a tone that made me suddenly unsure of the answer. But before I could press the issue they were almost always gone, disappearing into the rear of the compound towards the officers' club, where, of course, I was not allowed.


As recently as a few weeks ago I was assured by the coaches that they had worked out a way for me to play, although no foreigner had ever played baseball for CSKA in Russia (one American did play for them earlier this year, but in a tournament in Prague). But as it came closer to the start of the games the number of officers hanging around practice increased markedly and the coaches began to be more ambiguous in their answers to my questions about my status.


Alexander, the assistant coach, later told me that there had been long discussions about me between the officers in charge of CSKA-PVO (the junior team) who apparently had problems with my playing, and the officers in charge of our club. And in a Kafka-esque tone he said that "my case" was being discussed but that there was no way to tell when there was going to be a result.And, just like in a Kafka novel, I was eventually sent on a series of preposterous errands that theoretically had some bearing on my ability to play but turned out to be empty, meaningless ordeals. I had to apply to the Olympic committee to get myself "registered" as an official player, had to talk to half the janitors in Balashikha to try to find a uniform, and had to wait for an army stamp on my Olympic committee "registry" papers.


Now I'm apparently clear to play, but there is a lot of time -- the next Russian games don't begin until August 21 -- for something to go wrong again.