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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Happy Tourists Pay to Lose

If you happened to be passing by the baseball stadium at Moscow State University this past weekend, you might have seen a strange thing.


The Moscow Red Devils, the elite baseball team in Russia, were on field, in uniform, slugging away Sunday against a group of middle-aged American men -- guys named John and Don and Ed in their 30s and 40s and 50s who had beltlines more fit for beepers than baseball, and who seemed unconcerned that the few fans in attendance were pulling out pocket calculators to keep track of how many runs the Devils were beating them by.


Was this sports? Who were these guys? And why did they look so exhausted?


"You have to understand, our guys are tired," said John Gilmore, the coach of the American team. "They've been doing a lot of touring. First there was Red Square, then there was the Pushkin museum. And you know, that's a big museum."


Led by Gilmore, who when he's not playing baseball is a computer science professor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, this group of Americans are here as part of an unusual tour package that involves games against Russia's pro-baseball teams in the morning, and tours of Moscow in the afternoon.


For a permanent Moscow resident it doesn't sound like much of a vacation -- 10 days of being crushed by dozens of runs in the morning and led into Lenin's tomb in the afternoon -- but to these players it is a good time.


Many of them are veterans or active players in America's over-30, over-40 and "Fantasy" baseball leagues -- leagues which allow men who miss the game they played as kids to play in uniform in real hardball leagues.


"Fantasy" baseball is a concept that first appeared in the late 1970s in America. In these leagues, men who were fans of pro-baseball as kids but grew up to be doctors and professionals can travel to Florida or some other sunny place to compete against their old heroes -- Ted Williams and Willie Mays, for instance -- who have long been retired and do not mind suiting up and playing every now and then for old times' sake.


Gilmore's team contains several veterans of the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians fantasy league camps. Along with the rest of the players, these men are here to pursue a new kind of fantasy -- to play against up-and-coming international pro teams, in an exotic environment.


To this end, Sunday's game at Moscow State University, played in the shadow of the university's Stalin skyscraper against a Devils team that competes in international tournaments as Russia's national team, was an exciting and satisfying event.


"I think this is great," said Don Kiser, a Sarasota doctor in his mid-30s whose trip took a bad turn earlier in the week when he broke his leg sliding on the base paths. "We're all amazed at the level of play here. And we're seeing a lot of Russia."


As far as the Russians are concerned, the games may not be so interesting from a sporting standpoint. In Sunday's game, the score got so lopsided that nobody kept track and towards the end the Devils' players were walking the bases so the Americans could throw them out. But it is a kind of way for the Russians to pursue their own fantasy, which is to keep baseball alive here and hopefully create leagues as viable as those in America.


"We need this kind of thing very much," said Valery Varinsky, coach of the university's team, which beat Gilmore's squad Friday. "We know it's not the real thing, but it allows us to imagine that we'll see top-flight American teams here someday. It's the same as with them -- they know it's not the real thing, but they enjoy it anyway, just because they love the sport, like us."


Gilmore's team made another contribution: financial help. Not only did the American players pay all their own expenses, but they donated several thousand dollars worth of new baseball equipment to Russian baseball.