THE Cuban missile crisis and Afghanistan pale in comparison to the latest threat emanating from behind the Kremlin's devious walls. Stalin's 1939 nonaggression pact with Hitler almost seems benign next to this most recent villainy. It is geopolitical hardball, bald and brazen. The Reds (and not the gentlemen from Cincinnati) have officially taken up the great American pastime: baseball. Like virtually everything the Soviet government sponsors, this ambitious undertaking is not inspired by the inherent joy of hitting and fielding on verdant pastures. Practice began in deadly earnest after baseball was made an Olympic sport, to debut in 1992. Our rivals are bent upon showing the world that the disciples of Marx can beat Abner Doubleday's fellow travelers at our own game.
Clearly, the Russians have been closely monitoring the success of the Japanese. A slugger from Nippon now boasts more career home runs than Henry Aaron, and an Oriental iron man has played in more consecutive games than Lou Gehrig. Our Far Eastern allies, by the way, have been coaching the comrades of summer; so much for containment.
As difficult a pill as this development is for Americans (particularly George Will) to swallow, the communist challenge smacks of historical inevitability. How else can the Soviets launch a first strike without experiencing Armageddon themselves. On the diamond, massive retaliation means only a beanball or possibly a bench-clearing brawl. If there must be ``star wars'' competition, let it take place inside the ballpark - or so goes the dialectic of Mikhail Gorbachev et al. Let Dave Winfield send a rocket toward deepest center field and see if the fleet-footed Vladimir Zinoviev can interpret the projectile with a laserlike stab. Finally, in the infield, the encroaching Red nine can attempt to steal or overrun as many United States bases as they want, without facing global condemnation.
But is it conceivable that the Soviets could even approach our level of skill and savvy - accumulated over more than a century of competition? How long did it take them to match our atom bomb? Four years. Our hydrogen bomb? One year. Of course, they stole a signal or two to get the job done, but they succeeded. Still not convinced? Ask a Canadian. In 1946, the Kremlin decided to make another foreign sport, ice hockey, a national priority. In just eight years, the USSR won the amateur world championships and in 10 they took home the Olympic gold medal. By the 1970s, they were equals, at least, of the best professionals the West could muster.
No, my fellow Americans, this is a serious matter. Imagine how Soviet dominance would change our beloved pastime. Booing by dissident fans would not be tolerated in the International League (kiss the American and National Leagues bye-bye). Baseball fanatics who track reams of obscure statistics will have one additional category to add to RBIs, ERAs, etc.: KGB agents per nine innings. Our hitters will also be facing a lot more lefties, who, as is known, can more easily Cheka the runner at first base. Of course, when Soviet pitchers fail the Motherland, a fate worse than the showers may await them.
Yes, some year soon we may hear Phil Rizzuto hollering from inside our television sets, ``Holy icon! It's another run for that gang of nine from Moscow.'' Indeed, this very moment, somewhere in the bowels of the Kremlin, the top secret Ministry of Poetic Justice is probably Sovietizing the late Ernest Lawrence Thayer's immortal ``Casey at the Bat'':
Oh, somewhere in that privileged land
the sun is shining bright,
The Band is playing somewhere,
and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing;
and somewhere children shout,
But there's no joy in George Will-ville
- the capitalists are shut out.
David Holahan is a free-lance writer.