Hoboken kids play hardball with the Soviets. D'ETENTE ON THE DIAMOND
It was an unlikely superpower summit. A skinny Hispanic kid dressed in a red, white, and blue uniform jogged to the center of a Moscow soccer field. A cold rain was falling, and it was getting dark.Skip to next paragraph
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On a bench next to the field, waiting, were the men from the Moscow Aviation Institute. The beefy 25-year-olds are world-class athletes being trained by their government in a new sport: bezbal.
Baseball, that is. And the skinny guy on the field, 15-year-old Danny Ortiz from Hoboken, N.J., was there to help. He and his teammates, a streetwise gang of ballplayers, for this occasion renamed the Ambassadors, spent two weeks flying across the USSR last month. Stopping in Moscow, Kiev, and Tblisi (the capital cities of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian Republics), the Hoboken Ambassadors played five fledgling Soviet baseball teams. They beat all five, including the Aviators, although the boys were about half the size of their opponents.
The young Americans also showed the Soviets a thing or two about how the game is played, conducting joint training sessions that covered everything from batting helmets to bunting.
The Soviet government is eager to learn the all-American pastime, now that it is slated to become an Olympic sport at Barcelona in 1992. It even has a five-year plan. Many of the finest javelin throwers, handball champions, and tennis players have been skimmed from their national teams in the last two years and thrown onto soccer fields and track courses with a hodgepodge of equipment. There are no pitchers' mounds. Videocassettes from Cuban teams are used to explain the rules.
``We broke the sticks from trees for bats and used field-hockey balls, at first,'' said Andrei Tselkovsky of the Moscow Chemical Institute team. A gift last year of 500 aluminum bats from the Indianapolis-based International Baseball Association helped.
The Ambassadors gave credit to the Russian players for learning so much so quickly. ``See you at the Olympics,'' Blair DeGaeta said to his opponents at the end of each game. ``Da, Barcelona,'' replied the Kiev third baseman.
But although these first Soviet baseball players may make it to the '92 or '96 Olympics, Soviet sports officials say they are more likely to become the coaches of the future, as the government seeks to teach a new generation of children to love a sometimes frustrating and so far largely unknown sport.
``My friends make fun of me, actually, for playing this ridiculous game with bats and balls,'' said Mr. Tselkovsky when he met the arriving Hoboken team.
``Don't worry - no one likes our town, either,'' Francis (Chipper) Benway replied cheerfully.
Indeed, the Soviets found the right American team to invite. The Hoboken Ambassadors have survived tough odds, too.
Hoboken is a gritty former factory town just upriver from New York Harbor. The team, like the town, is an all-American mixture of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Italians, blacks, and Irish. The boys are sons of truck drivers, real estate agents, welfare mothers. Some are enrolled in private Manhattan schools; others are on the verge of dropping out of public schools.
Hoboken was Frank Sinatra's hometown, and the setting for ``On the Waterfront.'' It is also home to baseball.