The Russian All-Stars

I am a baseball fan sitting in the middle of a Russian novel. It is my winter passion to immerse myself in Russian literature until the teams come back up north -- spring training, I believe, can be ignored -- and it becomes time to put the bulky books away until late October. And this evening, as I sit beside my samovar and drink my tea and watch the snow float down and the troikas fly by in the streets, as I take a quick break from Pierre and Sonya, I find myself leaving winter behind with strange thoughts of the summer game: I find myself coming up with a rather peculiar, if impressive, lineup. It is an All-Star team, of sorts, my choice, for what it is worth, of where I would play the Russian writers. Barring injuries, here is how it looks to me tonight.

Leading off, in the left field, Chekhov. Chokes up, punches the ball to all fields, occasional signs of good power, too. Not excitable like Pete Rose; some coaches have even found Anton a little too dispassionate, but deep down he is a winner. Had to hustle early in his career and has never grown complacent. The good doctor would double as team physician.

Batting second and playing second, Gorky. Rose from the lower depths to achieve fame with the Reds; has continued to work with youth leagues to help others follow his example. The Bolshevik blood in him makes Maxim a tough customer on the double play; he never gives an inch to the oncoming runner, and he throws it over to first as if he hopes to flatten them. A hard-nosed competitor, scrappy, he will hang in there when the going gets tough.

Hitting third, in center field, Turgenev. Best pure hitter on the team; over-shadowed by the power hitters behind him, but still a good one. A graceful outfielder, covers a lot of ground. At times Ivan appears above the fray; has even said he would rather play in France, where crowds would be more civilized (they would also be smaller). The jeers of fathers and sons alike can still be heard when he steps up to the plate -- some will never like his stance -- but he gets results: a lifetime .329 hitter.

In the cleanup spot, naturally, and playing first base, Tolstoy. Massive hitter, hits a ton: 87 home runs one year -- and 196 RBIs. While he was growing up in Yasnaya Polyana the serfs taught young Leo how to play; he broke almost every window in the house with his long drives. Is known for his moodiness; his personal crises don't wait for the off season. Am sure he'll need coddling. Always good copy; the press can't get enough of him after the game -- has an opinion on everything. Which is why he's come in from the outfield, where he played in his younger days. Talks constantly to the runners on first; has even converted several between pitches. Uneasy relations with management; sometimes acts like it is his team, as if he's in charge, but he is much too popular to bench. Besides, no one can match his strength.

At the hot corner and hitting behind Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Would you walk Leo to pitch to Fyodor? Low average -- a Harmon Killebrew, Dave Kingman type -- the long ball is his forte. Takes the bullets at third with the best of them; is even said to enjoy taking some screamers off his chest, his chin -- as if he deserved it. Can be a little gun-shy at the plate, however; early in his career Nolan Ryan once threatened to throw at his head, and Fyodor spent years of suffering back in the minors before he regained his poise. Still, he is a man you want on your team.

Out in right, exiled there after years as an infielder, in rather deep right in fact and hitting sixth, Solzhenitsyn. Younger than Tolstoy, often considered his heir apparent. A cleanup hitter on any other team. Walks up to the plate like he's angry, like he means revenge -- and he is, he does. No wonder they pitch him tight. Alexander's popularity may be waning; some think he is too far in right -- he plays every lefty as a dead-pull hitter -- and the sportswriters have grown weary of making his rare interviews An Event. But there is commitment here; he commands respect. And runners no longer dare test his arm; even from deepest right he can uncork a bullet home.

Behind the plate, hitting seventh, Gogol. While catching, he screams ``Taras Bulba!'' as the pitch comes in, and he further distracts the hitters with bizarre if compelling anecdotes -- some batters call time out just to listen to him finish a story. In short, he keeps the hitters off balance quite effectively. Only problem: will occasionally run onto the field wearing his overcoat and holding on to his nose, fearing both will be stolen.

Batting eighth, but no weak hitter himself, is Lermontov. Smooth short-stop, not an Ozzie Smith, more a Robin Yount; came up through the Caucasian League, where he developed his rifle of an arm. Proud and outspoken, Mikhail has often been traded because of his remarks about the management. At least his teammates here will be sympathetic. Besides, he has always played hard wherever he has been, and in pennant drives has been a great clutch player. He disdains being identified as the ``hero of our time'' once the pressure in September builds, but he inevitably comes through.

On the mound, an easy choice, who else but Alexander Pushkin. No one seems as free and loose at the center of the diamond; so smooth -- ``poetry in motion,'' as they say -- that he makes even Dwight and Fernando look pretty stiff. Enormously popular, a legend in his own time -- as a pitcher and a lady's man! -- Alexander has inspired many young hurlers to follow in his footsteps. Like Lermontov he speaks his mind, so one does worry for him; the owners might grow jealous -- there can be too much of a good thing. So far, at least, he continues to win every duel out there on the mound, and the fans still fill the stadium just to watch him throw.

There it is. That's how I see them, at least. Of course I would be happy to consider some changes if you disagree. Shall we discuss the bench? Or maybe a team of characters?

Come sit down -- here by the samovar -- can I pour you some tea? It's a long time between now and the season opener. Let's see, we have Bazarov and the Karamazov brothers, Anna and Natasha, Prince Andrew and Nicholas, Pierre and Sonya. . . .

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