Hoboken kids play hardball with the Soviets. D'ETENTE ON THE DIAMOND
Moscow — 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.
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.
As the story goes, the first-ever game of organized baseball was played on Hoboken's Elysian Fields in 1846. Today, a plaque on a rock in the middle of 11th Street is a reminder of the city's glorious baseball past.
The boys of summer in Hoboken don't have their own baseball field, either. Like the Soviets, they play in donated uniforms on borrowed fields. And they're used to road trips.
Three years ago, coaches William Culhane, Joseph Reinhard, and Walter (Binky) Lebhrink Jr. (the latter two are Hoboken police officers) scouted the Hoboken Little League teams, picked the 17 finest players, suited them up, and began crisscrossing northern New Jersey in vans and school buses to challenge other Sandy Koufax teams (generally between Little League and high school age). ``It's cool - it's almost like being in the pros, traveling on the bus and all,'' said 15-year-old William (Chilly) Agosto, who lives in a housing project.
Within two years, the team without a home field won its division, state, then Northeast regional championships. They were flown to Puerto Rico for the Sandy Koufax World Series, where they came in fourth.
The invitation to visit the Soviet Union came at the prompting of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, who, on a visit to Moscow last year, told Soviet sports officials of the team's success.
The Soviet Union, team members found, was a whole different kind of road trip. The visit required eight airplane flights and more than 30 bus trips in 14 days. In Kiev, a beautiful, tree-lined city, the boys were scared to drink the water because the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is about 25 miles upstream. They were impressed by some aspects of Soviet life, however. They were floored by the spotless subway stations, especially the ones in Kiev, which are lined with chandeliers.
The towering concrete apartment buildings that ringed all three cities didn't faze them. ``It looks just like home,'' said Danny Ortiz, who lives in the Hoboken housing projects.
The greatest surprise for all the boys were the people. ``I thought the Army would be everywhere,'' said Clay Castro. ``I thought there would be curfews, and people would be scared to go out at night, because of the KGB. It's not like that.''
``In Tblisi the people came right up to me and wanted to shake my hand,'' said Michael Purvis. ``That shocked me. No one in America has ever just walked up to me and wanted to shake my hand, ever.'' Michael turned 16 while in Tblisi, and his Soviet hosts and their parents threw him a birthday party, complete with cakes.
Although communication was difficult because of the language barrier, baseball itself was the language. On the last day in Tblisi, the Ambassadors stripped off their gear and piled up bats, gloves, face guards, and helmets in one glorious heap near home plate. Then they dragged their Georgian hosts over and urged them with hand motions to take it all.
Danny, Hoboken's pitcher, tapped Georgian pitcher Alex Copa on the shoulder. He had a gleaming new baseball in one hand. ``Yo, watch,'' he said, wrapping his fingers around the ball. ``Look, two fingers here, and throw like this,'' he demonstrated. ``Got it? Let's see it.''
Danny gently corrected Mr. Copa's grip. ``You got that, ace?''
Copa nodded quickly, then spoke. ``Curveball,'' he said, then grinned and enveloped Danny in a bear hug.