As we celebrate the 1987 World Series amidst continuing debate over Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, we recall from earlier in the season an important item from the sports pages of the New York Times, printed under the startling headline, “Baseball Fever in the Soviet Union”:
“MOSCOW, April 20 (AP)-Kiev physical education students defeated a team from Moscow to win the Soviet Union’s first national baseball tournament, the Tass press agency said today. Tass said that eight teams, including clubs from as far away as Irkutsk in Siberia and Riga, Latvia, competed in the tournament, which was held in Kiev. The Kiev Institute defeated a team from a Moscow aviation school, 5-4, in the final game. Tass said the games were popular with the spectators, ‘the majority of whom came to observe the overseas “wonder.” ‘ It is said that many stayed from start to finish, despite poor weather that included snow.”
Our more hard-bitten readers will permit us a moment’s fantasy about this development. Baseball, as all true believers recognize, poses fundamental challenges to both dialectical materialism and to Leninism. A baseball game is played in a time beyond clock time, on a field that could, in theory, be extended to infinity. And thus baseball is what our friend Peter Berger would call a “rumor of angels,” a signal of transcendence. Baseball also teaches the delicate interplay between individual initiative and teamwork. Its league structure, in the United States, incarnates federalism. (What can it mean for Soviet nationalities policy when a team from Kiev beats a team from Moscow?) The entire structure of the game demands a deep respect for law and a crafty sense of how the law can be, er, breached on occasion-if you’re willing to take the consequences. If baseball is taking off in the Soviet Union, can spitballs, corked bats, and other forms of civil disobedience be far behind?
Scoff if you must, but your editor regards the emergence of baseball in the USSR as a momentous event. Sure, they’re crazy about baseball in Nicaragua and Cuba-but why not look on that as a sign of hope, an outpost of civil society in a totalitarian state? And look at what baseball did for Japan, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, and Taiwan.
Thus a proposal for summitry: if and when General Secretary Gorbachev visits these shores (we write in August, and summit fever is building along the sweltering banks of the Potomac), let him be taken to Boston’s Fenway Park, Chicago’s Wrigley Field, or Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium-and not, for heaven’s sake, to those plastic-surfaced, doughnut-shaped monuments to socialist realism in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, or St. Louis. Let him sit beside and learn from the New Yorker’s Roger Angell. Teach him baseball. Maybe he’ll learn a little more from its subtle truths than Dr. Castro or Commandante Ortega did.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.