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GOODWILL GAMES : Score: U.S. 17, Soviet Union 0, Have Mercy : Baseball: As a kind gesture, the first international tournament game for the U.S.S.R. is halted after 6 1/2 innings.

July 27, 1990|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TACOMA, Wash. — It could have been worse. Everyone in the CCCP and USA baseball jerseys knew it, and so did the tournament planners, who decreed there would be a 10-run mercy rule once Thursday's game reached the seventh inning.

These are, after all, the Games of Goodwill.

So after 6 1/2 innings at Cheney Stadium, the Soviets ended their primer in that intriguing American exercise known as baseball. The final score was United States 17, Soviet Union 0. The Americans sent 29 batters to the plate in the first three innings. The Soviets clinked four singles, caught some fly balls, turned one double play and had no one seriously hurt.

"'In general," Soviet assistant coach Alexander Ardatov surmised, "the game turned out very well."

All of three years old, the Soviet national baseball program toddled into its first major international competition fearing catastrophe. This was going to be worse than the United States in the World Cup. Or at least close.

In Team U.S.S.R.'s media guide for the Goodwill Games, printed by Sovetsky Sports Publishers, it notes that "The Goodwill Games tournament opener makes the U.S.S.R. play against the Americans, (which lets) them have enough time to come to their senses after the game."

Or as Soviet first baseman Ilya Onokhov put it, "We were very nervous that they will beat us by a very much score."

The Americans won by a very much score. But Onokhov, grinding away at a plug of American chewing tobacco--Red Man, of course--was smiling. He had singled in his last at-bat, a towering blast over the head of U.S. shortstop Roger Burnett.

That enabled Onokhov to bask in the light of another American baseball tradition.

So, what pitch did you hit?

Onokhov's eyes widened.

"Fast," he said. "But at the end of the bat. Not the middle."

Onokhov said he would try to do better next time.

The Soviets are here, learning about cutoff men and pickoff throws, because of the 1987 announcement that baseball would be a medal sport in the 1992 Olympics. Soviet sports officials knew nothing about the game, but they do know their medal counts, so they quickly commissioned a national baseball program.

Athletes were recruited from other Olympic sports--basically, the leftovers, the bit players. The Soviets' best pitcher, Alexander Buyanov, used to compete in the decathlon. Another pitcher, Gherman Gulbit, used to throw the javelin. Others came from team handball, rowing, wrestling, tennis and water polo.

The head coach, Vladmir Bogatyrev, was once the Soviet Union's cycling coach. He saw his first baseball game eight years during a competition in Cuba.

"I saw the game, I really liked and I got carried away with it," Bogatyrev said. With credentials like those, the Soviet national sports committee knew they had found their man.

Bogatyrev's right hand man is consultant/interpreter/assistant coach Rick Spooner, a transplanted Philadelphia businessman living in Moscow. Spooner has helped build the Soviet program, literally, from the ground up. Three years ago, Soviets were introduced to the game on abandoned soccer fields. Six months ago, they added pitchers' mounds.

Spooner remembers one of the early days, when he was umpiring behind the plate during a practice game.

"A batter gets hit right in the back with a fastball," Spooner said, "and he turns around and asks, 'Richard, what does that mean?'

"And I said, 'Boris, that means you go to first base.' "

More difficult than the rules were the fundamentals. Such as throwing the baseball.

"In the Soviet Union, they don't have any sports where they throw a ball like that," Spooner said. "It came a little easier to the water polo and team handball players. And we do have a couple pitchers who were javelin throwers. Of course, that only goes so far when you're throwing a baseball."

Hitting was entirely different, Spooner reported.

"We have a couple tennis players who hit the ball pretty good," he said.

Much of what Spooner couldn't teach, the Soviets learned from TV. "They started chewing tobacco after watching a videotape of an American game," Spooner said. "And they started to follow favorite players."

So who goes over big back in the U.S.S.R.?

"Mostly, they like players with the best nicknames," Spooner said. "They like Dave Parker--'Cobra.' Andre Dawson--'Hawk.' Darryl Strawberry, because they thought his last name was a nickname."

Only recently, however, Soviet factories began churning out bats and balls. A plant in Leningrad manufactures gloves, a company in Kiev stitches baseballs. "Other than that, it's been hook or by crook," Spooner said. "If any of the players have friends going abroad, they ask them to bring back gloves. They'll try to buy equipment off exchange students from Cuba and Puerto Rico."

Even outfitting the team can be tricky. Thursday, most of the uniforms delivered to the Soviet Goodwill team were too small, so 20 players had to share 13 jerseys. No, the relief pitchers who warmed up in the bullpen with warm-up jackets on weren't confused about the concept. They were just waiting until an available number was sent to the showers.

So, all things considered, 6 1/2 innings and 17-0 was a success. Three weeks ago, the Soviets played a group of American collegians in San Antonio, and the game was called at 13-2--in the second inning.

"My hope is for the young kids," Bogatyrev said. "The kids who watch are players now and decide to play baseball. That's our future. We will definitely need a generation to pass before baseball in the Soviet Union makes any big steps forward."

For the time being, then, that means a lot more very much scores.

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