IT STARTED OUT AS A DAYDREAM. WE WERE JUS SITTING AROUND AFTER A SLOW-pitch softball game one evening last summer, drinking beer, talking politics when the idea popped out: Why not take the office softball team -- the Slugs -- to the Soviet Union?
People laughed, made a few jokes and after a minute or so the conversation moved on. But a year later (after six months of trying to get up the nerve to ask the publisher and another six months of furious work and long-distance communications), there we were: getting off the plane at Sheremetjevo Airport outside Moscow.
We were not a bunch of hard-bitten foreign correspondents. Instead we were a mixed group of reporters, copy editors, artists, columnists, one photographer, our interpreter, plus a handful of family members -- curious, a little nervous, and eager to see for ourselves what life was like behind the rapidly crumbling Iron Curtain.
The 10-day tour that started July 27 took the 26 of us to Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, Baltimore's sister city on the Black Sea.
Suddenly perestroika and glasnost became more than words. Glasnost was the determination on the faces of demonstrators carrying Ukrainian national flags outside the Odessa City Hall -- their first steps toward Ukrainian independence.
Perestroika was a boxful of kittens for sale at a street fair in Moscow -- another first step, this one, however tiny, toward free enterprise.
Hlib Hayuk, a professor of Soviet geography at Towson State University, came along as our interpreter but became our teacher as well. Having grown up in the Ukraine, he shared a lifetime of knowledge and experiences with us. One minute he was helping us buy ice cream; the next he was helping us eavesdrop on a fierce political debate.
Bob Hamilton, our lone professional photographer and one of our starting outfielders, hardly had a moment's rest during the whole trip. Everywhere you looked there was another face, another scene, begging to be photographed.
On the softball field (often an improvised diamond in a Soviet soccer stadium), we won all of our games over our Soviet opponents -- not only when we had to organize and teach the other team but twice when we played a Soviet professional team and a university team. But then we met our match when we lost two games to the U.S. Slo-pitch Softball Association's Women's All-Star Team -- which happened to be in Moscow the same weekend we were there.
Next summer, in the final part of this cultural exchange, The Baltimore Sun will host a delegation of Soviet journalists who will be coming here to see America for themselves -- and of course to play softball.