Sportsflicks: The Comrades of Summer, or Tales of the Cold War WBC

In which Joe Mantegna takes a break from Mamet to teach a ragtag bunch of Soviet baseball players the wheel play.
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You will almost certainly not be asked to do this, but on the off chance that you were tasked with creating a Soviet national sports team, and further tasked with having that team be coached by an actor who was active during the fall of Communism, Joe Mantegna would probably not be your first choice.

This is no disrespect to Mantegna, a fine actor who would definitely be the first choice to play a secretly desperate con artist type in a David Mamet play. But there are so many other options. Charles Bronson would probably coach hockey, as a few seconds of exposition in Telefon teaches us. If we’re looking to keep the budget reasonable, Henry Silva played a lot of hitmen in his day, and would have probably killed more pitchers than Mike Easler; at the very least, there are worse hitting coaches in the Majors. William Smith would have been perfect had the World League of American Football placed a team in Moscow instead of Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina. He would still make a hell of a theoretical Soviet coach of American descent at almost eighty years old.

So we’ve got some candidates, then. Charles Bronson. The coked-up bad guy from Sharky’s Machine. That guy who actually spoke Russian in Red Dawn. But who do we have coaching Commies in the 1992 TV movie The Comrades Of Summer? Joe Mantegna. Fat friggin’ Tony.

Granted, Mantegna does a credible job an erstwhile Major League Baseball player/manager. It’s not his fault that his character is named Sparky Smith, but Mantegna’s Sparky combines Pete Rose’s inability to know when to quit, Tommy Lasorda’s propensity for endorsement deals (and, presumably, high-carbohydrate dinners), Ron Santo’s predilection for kicking up his heels and the ligaments of Greg Oden. A broken ankle dashes Smith’s dreams of hitting clean-up and his shot at managing a Seattle Mariners team that he guaranteed to win the pennant.

After months of squalor, which in this film means having set decorators deflating beach balls and adding leaves to the protagonist’s backyard patio, Smith gets an offer to manage the Soviet national baseball team. It’s not the job he wanted, but what else is he going to do, go back to Chicago and sell dicey-seeming real estate lots from an office that doubles as a brutal satire on the dehumanization of the marketplace? There are no Glengarry leads. Sparky Smith needs the work.

***

Some historical context. Great Soviet Wikipedia tells us little about baseball in Russia, redirecting us to the game of lapta, which indeed has a bat and a ball, and was close enough to baseball to allow Communists to claim that baseball partially evolved from it, despite the lack of any evidence. A SABR publication from the early 90’s I got from the estate of the winner of Game 3 of the 1950 World Series goes into better detail about Soviet baseball.

In the early to mid 1930’s, Americans who went to the USSR brought baseball over, and as many as 25,000 people once saw an exposition game there. The threat of World War II and later anti-American sentiment curbed Soviet baseball until the mid-1980’s, when the Olympics announced that baseball would be a medal sport starting in 1992.

Cuban and Nicaraguan college students in the USSR taught native Soviets the game, but whatever progress this achieved was hindered by the fall of Communism, the sport’s limitations to the college level, the splintering off of pitcher-rich Georgia, and fear from their allies (namely Cuba) of being beaten by these Eurasian upstarts.  The Soviet baseball team had support from both the Eastern bloc and American interests, and even some sponsorship. The squad’s deal with Taco Bell during a 1989 goodwill tour may have been the only thing the USSR had in common with YUM! Brands before Mikhail Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut commercial.

In the fantasy world of The Comrades Of Summer, cardboard cut-out Bob Burns manages the Seattle Mariners to their first World Series title. Their best hitter wears number 24, but instead of center fielder Ken Griffey, Jr., the number is worn by one R.J. Sims; the theoretical 1991 AL MVP is a Verlander-esque pitcher named Hank Tracy. According to the stock footage used in Comrades, Phil Bradley hits the title-clinching grand slam, off the Minnesota Twins’ Ron Davis, on April 13, 1985. The suspension of disbelief required for this—as you no doubt recall, Bradley was more of a gap-to-gap guy—kind of pales in comparison to the movie’s insistence that THE SOVIET UNION STILL EXISTED IN EARLY 1992, naturally. But yeah, it’s a movie. 

The “comrades” in The Comrades Of Summer are a ragtag group played by an even more ragtag cast comprised of Soviet sex symbols, radical performance artists, future wacky neighbors from “The Hughleys” and a bunch of guys who had bit parts on “MacGyver.” Natalya Negoda, the May 1989 cover of Playboy and an actress of some note in her native Russia, plays a Soviet sports official and Sparky’s obvious love interest. John Fleck was, around the time of the film’s release gaining controversy as one of the NEA Four, a group of performance artists whose federal grants were defunded by the George H.W. Bush administration. In Comrades he plays Milov, a black market dealer who gets the team everything but PEDs.

Eric Allan Kramer, the aforementioned token white guy from “The Hughleys,” plays a former hockey player who switches sports after being told he’s too old. (In reality, of course, he would’ve played for the Detroit Red Wings until 2007.) Canadian TV star Ian Tracey plays Andy, a diplomat’s son whose time in New York has surprisingly not dampened his love for New York-area baseball teams. Michael Lerner, the crass studio head from Barton Fink, sort of reprises that role as a Steinbrenner-ian MLB owner named George. Mark Rolston, most famous as the sadistic prison rapist in The Shawshank Redemption, does not play one here.

The off-camera talent is stranger still. Robert Rodat, who would go on to write Saving Private Ryan, also wrote The Comrades Of Summer; before Rodat created the TV show "Falling Skies," one almost made up for the other. Behind the camera is Tommy Lee Wallace, whose Halloween III: The Season Of The Witch was easily the best film in the franchise not to feature Michael Myers. Wallace also directed It, the best Stephen King miniseries not to feature an appearance by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The film's location scout must be commended as well. Outside some establishing shots filmed in Moscow, Comrades takes us from the rainy clime of Vancouver to the frozen tundra of someplace near Vancouver, and then, in its climax, to the tropical Florida sun of Vancouver. At the risk of spoiling the whole thing, the team does much better than you might expect, and everyone learns some valuable lessons.

In an instance of mediocre life imitating mediocre art, the Seattle Mariners did manage to have their first winning season in 1991, although the Twins had Jack Morris on the mound for the final game of that year’s World Series, and not Ike Davis’ father. Former NL Rookie of the Year and Batman henchman Jim Lefebvre led the ‘91 Mariners, and he actually went on to manage the Chinese national baseball team in the 2006 World Baseball Classic and the 2008 Olympics. All very interesting, if not much help to Comrades of Summer.

There is no more Soviet Union, and there is no more baseball in the Summer Olympics.  What we do have is an okay-enough TV movie whose VHS tape I can almost certainly sell on eBay for much more than the dollar I paid for it at a Cherry Hill, NJ news agency. Milov would be proud. The system works, whatever Mantegna’s time in real estate sales might suggest to the contrary.


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