Russians take to the field in 'Comrades of Summer,' an HBO film on baseball

July 11, 1992|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!

As Major League Baseball prepares for its annual All-Star Game break, a new made-for-cable movie suggests that events have occurred "that may have long-term ramifications for America's favorite pastime."

"The Comrades of Summer," premiering at 8 tonight on the HBO cable service, humorously fictionalizes the coming of baseball to what used to be the Soviet Union.

"We have great desire to achieve good results as baseballists," says a Russian envoy, who shows up at the door of fiery manager "Sparky" Smith (Joe Mantegna) shortly after he has been fired as pilot of the Seattle Mariners.

Mantegna's character, however, actually seems more drawn on the late Billy Martin than Cincinnati's Sparky Anderson. The owner who fires him (Michael Lerner) is named "George" -- as in Steinbrenner?

"My father told me never to trust those guys," says Smith of the Russian overture, but soon he is being introduced to a crew of Russian athletes drafted from other sports to learn the horsehide game.

"I'm Moscow-bound, and gagged," he tells a friend.

One of the nicest things about the film, which was produced on location in Russia (and also Vancouver), is the presence of co-star Natalya Negoda. The Russian actress ("Little Vera") winningly portrays Tanya, the government representative who supervises the American's task.

Production notes for the film reveal it was well under way when the Soviet Union dissolved, requiring the rewriting of political references in the script and in one scene replacing an old hammer and sickle Soviet flag with a new banner for the Russian republic. The Russian characters "CCCP" on the Russian players' uniforms in the film are still wrong; they stand for the defunct U.S.S.R.

Some viewers may object to stereotyping of the Russian characters that sometimes seems too broad, such as the regulation-bound Russian coach and a black marketeer hired to help equip the new ball team.

But Robert Rodat's script has fun with the cultural clash, as Tanya struggles with Sparky's colorful American vernacular (remember, this is cable so the language may be similar to what you might here in a baseball dugout), and he tries to adapt to the new surroundings.

"This is not New York, Mr. Smith," Tanya cautions.

"It's almost as bad," he replies.

Later, as the obvious romantic sub-plot begins to unfold, he apologizes for showing up on her doorstep, saying, "I would've called, but I couldn't find a phone book anywhere."

The plot? In the honored tradition of the baseball movie, it comes down to the last out of the last inning of the last game of an exhibition tour Sparky's Soviet players undertake against American professional teams.

And naturally, the opponent is Sparky's old team, the Mariners.

Will the Russians win? Will Sparky desert his new team for a chance at broadcast in the States?

You won't be surprised at the ending, and most of the game action seems more than a little contrived.

But "The Comrades of Summer" provides some fun and seems a worthy addition to the baseball-movie archives. It may even prove prophetic. A closing graphic informs the viewer that in April 1992 the California Angeles signed a left-handed Russian pitcher to a contract.

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