There are no real baseball players right now in the Soviet Union, according to Rod Dedeaux, the winningest college baseball coach in history during his 45 years at the University of Southern California. ``What the Russians do have, though, are some mighty fine athletes who are learning to play baseball,'' Dedeaux explained. In other words, don't underestimate the Soviets' potential.
Dedeaux was among a small delegation of Americans who visited Moscow earlier this year to partcipate in ground-breaking ceremonies for the Soviets' first true baseball field.
The facility is under construction at Moscow State University, and is being financed via a generous gift said to total $3 million made by Dr. Shigeyoshi Matsumae, president of Tokai University in Japan.
Until 1987, when the Soviet government recognized baseball, games were played mostly on converted soccer fields. That meant no pitcher's mound, no batting cages, no permanent backstops, few batting helmets, inferior equipment generally, and only a stray fence or two to define the outfield.
Obviously, the Soviets are making an effort to improve the situation.
One evidence of this is the new construction. Another is the increase in tours by teams like the U.S.A. Ambassadors, a group of American teen-agers who played several games in the USSR this summer. But they still have a long way to go, according to Dedeaux.
``The Russians are now playing what we in the United States would call club baseball,'' he told me. ``It is my understanding that there are six or eight teams within 10 miles of Moscow that have gotten together and formed a league.
``These teams have agreed among themselves to play a 30- or 40-game regular-season schedule, and to keep statistics. I believe they plan to have either one game or a short series at the end of the season to determine the champion - their version, I guess, of our World Series.''
Asked to put a verbal yardstick on the ability of Soviet players, Dedeaux replied:
``Right now their mechanics are not very good. They don't know the subtleties of the game. Their pitchers need a lot of instruction. Most of their players are athletes who left another sport, like soccer or wrestling or track and field, to try baseball. Originally, their baseball coaches were instructors in other sports.
``Most of the outside help the Russians have gotten - including equipment - has come from Cuba,'' Rod continued. ``All of the fielding gloves I saw there were poorly made and the catching equipment outdated. Most of their bats were wooden, although I did see a few metal ones. The players wore soccer shoes. And those players who aren't good enough to make the team are turned into umpires.
``The bases, surprisingly enough, looked regulation [size] and American-made. But the baseballs were so bad that I know O'Malley [Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, who also was on the trip] has already sent them at least one shipment of National League balls.
``I saw some Dodger and Pirate caps on fans and players while I was there,'' Dedeaux added, ``and their players are familiar with most of our major league stars, even to the point of adopting their uniform numbers. However, I was told that attendance at games usually numbers fewer than 100 fans.''
Once you have heard the story, the explanation as to how the Russians come to know so many of our major leaguers by sight is quite simple.
There is an American in the Soviet Union named Richard Spooner, a former intramural baseball player at Yale University, who regularly shows videotapes and films of American and National League games to Russian players in his living room.
Spooner, who works for a trade consortium in Moscow, gets some of his tapes from the Dodgers, and some from a West German firm that specializes in distributing baseball highlight films.
How far are the Soviets from putting a baseball team into the Olympics without embarrassing themselves?
``I don't know if the Russians have a target date, although they probably do,'' Dedeaux said. ``My own feeling is that unless the Soviet government [Soviet Sports Committee] makes a huge financial and time commitment to a baseball program, it would take the Russians 12 years [to get good enough to qualify]. But I understand that the Soviets are indeed going to make that commitment at any time.
``When it comes to sports, the Russians are a very smart and creative people,'' Rod continued. ``They are awfully good at getting book knowledge on a subject and then making it work for them in practical ways.
``Obviously, there is no lack of talent in the Soviet Union, because the country is full of fine athletes.
``Developing a championship team from scratch is nothing new to these people, either. They have already created in world-record time Olympic champions in ice hockey and basketball, neither of which were native to the Russians.
``In fact, before we left the Soviet Union, one of their interpreters told me: `Seven years after we took up ice hockey, we won a gold medal in the Olympics.'
``Believe me, these people know what they are doing. I would take the words of that Russian interpreter as a friendly warning!''