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The Nyet-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players

November 08, 1991|PATRICK MOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's mid-September in Moscow, and you've just seen a man standing on a square throw a bayonet at a lighthouse on the edge of the moon.

Who's crazy?

Not John Lehr. He knows a well-turned relay when he sees it: an outfielder on the diamond making a hard peg to the cutoff man at the edge of the infield dirt.

That's \o7 beizbol, \f7 comrade. And Lehr, a 39-year-old attorney and baseball fanatic from Laguna Beach, has become one of its most visible ambassadors, bringing gloves and \o7 glasnost \f7 and a bit of The Show to a land where the horsehide is still on the horses.

For 10 days in September, Lehr and a pair of retired major league veterans--former Angel pitcher Tom Murphy and former Dodger third baseman Ken McMullen--watched the most American of all games being played at Moscow University by the Soviet Union's premier baseball team, the national champion Moscow Red Devils.

And after each game, Murphy and McMullen took the field with the players to coach them in the finer points of the game that most of them had taken up only four years ago after the International Olympic Committee voted to make baseball an Olympic medal sport.

The trip, said Lehr, was primarily a goodwill journey "using baseball as the vehicle. Baseball was really an extension of personal involvement with the people there. It brings a smile to people's faces. It breaks the ice."

Lehr's group, traveling under the name Baseball Ambassadors ("Bases for Understanding" is its motto), was the result of Lehr's passion not only for baseball, but for travel and cultural exchange. Before setting up the September visit, he had gone along last year on baseball/goodwill trips to Nicaragua and the Soviet Union that were arranged by other international sports organizations.

Particularly taken by the idea of helping the game gain a stronger foothold in the Soviet Union, Lehr said he decided to assemble his own tour--which cost him about $5,000--that would expose the best team in the country to instruction from experienced major leaguers while, in the bargain, learning lessons about Life and Baseball, Russian style.

Lesson No. 1: It hasn't replaced hockey. Yet.

Nobody in the Soviet Union knows anything about baseball, said Lehr, except the players and their families and friends. That's the bad news. The good news is that those in the know have embraced the game.

"People would see us traipsing around our hotel in our uniforms," he said, "but I don't think they know the game of baseball even exists. But the players are fanatics. They're very thirsty for knowledge about American baseball stars.

"You'll see copies of Sports Illustrated from two years ago lying around. They seem to embrace players with colorful nicknames: Dave Parker is The Cobra, Andre Dawson is The Hammer. They love them. And any time they can get their hands on American baseball memorabilia and clothing items, they're very enthusiastic."

The American trio provided. To the Red Devils went seven aluminum bats, a fungo bat, 24 baseballs, 10 gloves and six pairs of spikes, all items that are, for the most part, not home-grown in the Soviet Union.

That could change. Lehr said that the players told him that the failure of the coup could mean that Soviet aluminum could now be used for bats instead of tanks.

More than equipment, however, the players craved knowledge. Murphy's and McMullen's brains got thoroughly picked.

"They reacted very warmly to Tom and Ken because of their reputation and credentials," said Lehr, "and many of them stayed after (the clinics) asking questions. It was like a fantasy camp for those guys. They'd come by our hotel afterward and just want to talk about baseball."

Murphy was impressed.

"They were far more advanced than I thought," said Murphy, who lives in San Juan Capistrano and works for a real estate brokerage. "All the pitchers could throw sliders and some had split-finger fastballs. I was surprised that they were so interested and soaked up the knowledge so fast. They treated us kind of like gurus. They were in awe, and you could see it when Ken and I were warming up. We played a lot of pepper and they just stood around and watched how we conducted ourselves."

They were almost the only ones watching, however.

"There are no crowds," Lehr said. "It's a lot like going to a Little League game where the parents come and keep score for their kids. You see that there, too. It's a very warm, middle-America kind of approach."

Lesson No. 2: Can't anybody here play this game? Yes. Sort of.

How good are they? Lehr and Murphy said they compare favorably to a good American high school or junior college team. They are, after all, the Soviet Union's best, and 12 of the players are on the national team. Last year the Red Devils won the European Division B championships, which qualified them to compete in the Division A, or Olympic-class, bracket.

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