Imagine that it's a beautiful summer day in Moscow. It's 1987, and the Texas-USSR Musician's Exchange has swept the Soviet Republics and Десять негритят is all over the silver screens. In short, things are weird, the entire worldview that your grandparents were dragooned into is teetering on its edge, and the Soviet Top League for soccer won't start for a while yet. And then you get news about the 1992 Summer Olympics, to take place in rapidly-rebuilding Barcelona. There will be some new sports. Baseball will be one of them.
You are Sergei Shachin. You are in a bind. The Sports Journalists Union expects the good ol' boys in red to win, except nobody knows what the sport is. Your job relies on drumming up cocky enthusiasm for success on a sport that everyone's a bit unclear on. It involves tobacco, right?
Anyways, comrade Sergei, what do you do? You go to the archives. You think. You find a game. The boys at the vodka distillery call it "Lapta." You? You call it baseball.
It looks like a blast.
In all seriousness, it's a fantastic and incredible article about one of the world's superpowers trying to start up a team. Like Cool Runnings, but with antagonists. And an American volunteer John Candy-esque dude name Spooner, who says:
You have this strange spectacle of these well-conditioned athletes, real athletes, who pick up the ball and throw it like a girl.
The entire scene is so damned strange. Apparently teams in the Soviet far east have an advantage by bringing in Japanese washouts from the NPL. The Estonians have..not so much of an advantage.
Bill Keller wrote this article on July 20, 10 days after I was born. Keller was 38 years old and had the assignment of a lifetime; covering the very end of the USSR. He also got to write about baseball.
Keller's now the editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, a new journalism start-up looking at the US criminal justice system. It's very well-respected, and I have no doubt if I ever run into him, the first thing I'll ask him is about Shachin's baseball dreams.
Those dreams? Well, the USSR didn't qualify. If it makes them feel any better, the Yanks failed to medal, losing a tiebreaker to Chinese Taipei.
Keller, for his part, would go on to be one of the more tremendous partisans supporting the US-Iraq War. It won't be 1987 forever.
I can't find out what happened to Sergei Shachin. The more I look into this story, the less it makes sense. But Shachin had one good point:
''The best players,'' he stated, ''are the Cubans.''
The Cubans won the gold in 1992 behind a young workhorse named Orlando Hernandez. One wonders if Brayan Pena and Aroldis Chapman saw it on TV. And if they could compare it at all to whatever the heck Lapta is.