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Iron Curtain tour sparked Eastern League

Circuit flourished, Berlin Wall fell after team of stars visited in 1989
Images from a promotional program created for the Eastern League's Diamond Diplomacy tour. (Courtesy of Murray Cook)
February 25, 2016

Their jerseys said they came from Williamsport and Harrisburg, Reading and New Britain. More accurately, they came from places like Lumberton and Palmerton, Temple City and Haskell. Whatever their backgrounds, 20 Eastern Leaguers stood in the concrete locker room that September afternoon in 1989 and dressed for the strangest day

Their jerseys said they came from Williamsport and Harrisburg, Reading and New Britain. More accurately, they came from places like Lumberton and Palmerton, Temple City and Haskell. Whatever their backgrounds, 20 Eastern Leaguers stood in the concrete locker room that September afternoon in 1989 and dressed for the strangest day on a baseball field anyone could imagine.

Through the window floated music from a Ukrainian carnival adjacent to the massive stadium in which they stood. Outside, a carousel was spinning. From its speakers chimed Christmas carols. Dave Trembley addressed his team.

In the dying embers of the Cold War, Trembley had led this group of Double-A players halfway around the world to spread the game they loved in a place that had rarely seen it: the Soviet Union.

"Baseball is a game of adjustments," Charlie Eshbach remembered Trembley, his manager, saying. "And you are going to have many adjustments on this trip, starting with the fact that we don't have a mound today."

Three years before baseball returned to the Olympics as a medal sport and 16 years before it was voted out again, the Eastern League sent forth the tip of the spear in the globalization of the game.


In the fall of 1981, Eshbach embraced a tall order when he was elected Eastern League president. The circuit was anything but flourishing. He was 29 years old.

"When I took over, franchise values were $45,000," said Eshbach, now president of the Portland Sea Dogs. "There was talk about trying to disband the league because we were in bad cities, bad facilities and bad weather.

"I felt my job was to toot the horn of the Eastern League as much as I could and get the Eastern League in the best position it could be in. The thought was, 'What can we do to make ourselves different than the Texas League and the Southern League that would get us some attention?'"

Six years after his administration began, an idea struck. Eshbach read a story in the Sporting News about a college coach who had traveled to the USSR to conduct clinics and teach baseball to young Soviet players. Shortly thereafter, he began planning his league's own historic export.

"I thought about it for a while and I did some checking around, and at a league meeting the December before [the trip], I broached the subject with the owners," he said.

The concept was a hit, especially with Albany-Colonie Yankees owner Paul Keating and Harrisburg Senators owner Jerry Mileur. Keating offered to cover any skeptical owner's cost. The group approved.

After receiving approval from Major League Baseball and Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, the trip was on. Eshbach and Mileur traveled to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1989 to "get the lay of the land."

As the summer progressed back in the States, the league began compiling a roster. This was no normal sports trip. The Eastern League wanted to spread the game, not build a Dream Team.

"We were really looking for players who were good citizens, good teachers, not necessarily Major League prospects," Eshbach said. "I had a relationship with every farm director. I knew them, so I explained to them what we were doing. I explained to them the type of guys we were looking for, and then it was up to them. They all did a good job."

To handle the group, the league tabbed Trembley, who three years earlier had gotten his managerial start piloting the unaffiliated Kinston Eagles of the Carolina League. Trembley moved up to the Eastern League the following season and earned Baseball America Minor League Manager of the Year honors while leading Harrisburg to the title. He was in the midst of taking the Senators to a second Finals appearance in three years when he was invited to head the touring squad.

"I knew most of the guys," he said. "It was my third year and I had a pretty good idea late in the year of who the players were going to be. The guys knew when they came over it wasn't so much about playing baseball but being a good ambassador, representing your country."

Six of the eight parent clubs in the league approved players to join the roster. The Tigers sent coach Rob Thomson, while the Yankees offered coach Stump Merrill to serve as clinic coordinator, athletic trainer Kevin Rand and equipment manager David Hays along with a wealth of equipment.

On Sept. 22, 10 days after Albany-Colonie knocked off Trembley's Harrisburg team to win the 1989 league championship, he and his team were flying to the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Kiev was the first destination. After layovers in Los Angeles and Moscow, the Ukrainian capital beckoned the weary Americans.

Baseball wilderness

Murray Cook had just taken over groundskeeping duties for the Braves-Expos Spring Training home in West Palm Beach, Florida, when Eshbach invited him to join the trip.

"I was like, 'Well, what's involved?'" Cook recalled. "He said, 'Right now, we really don't know. We know we're going to play and we may need to put some lines down.' There was no planning prior to it, knowing what they had or what they didn't have. We kind of put it together as we went."

These days, as MLB's field and facilities coordinator, Cook travels the globe to scout locations for upcoming big league and major international baseball events.

His Twitter feed is a traveler's dream, with recent pictures from Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana and Estadio B'Air in Mexicali, Mexico, home to World Baseball Classic qualifying next month.

That advance work wasn't the case in 1989.

"That's what we do now," Cook said. "We do pre-event evaluations and find out what we need to fix. Back then, no, no, no. We were just going to go over there and wing it and see what they had. We knew we were playing in soccer stadiums. We knew there were pretty much no baseball stadiums to be used for this particular event."

Cook was among the first to get a look at the first facility to host the Americans, an 80,000-seat behemoth built for soccer in Kiev. He was tasked with figuring out how to create a temporary diamond on a soccer pitch. Mats were set down to serve as batter's boxes, "which was OK, except we had a close play at the plate and the guy slid in under the mat," Eshbach recalled. Bases were anchored without digging into the field and the field had no mound, although Cook did build the first one in the Soviet Union later on.

"We brought all this equipment over there and left it there for them: balls, bats, pitching equipment, helmets, uniforms," Trembley said. "Murray was making portable mounds, chalking out baseball fields on these soccer stadiums in Moscow and Kiev. There were no dugouts, no backstops. We sat on benches. There were track athletes running around on the track while we were playing. It was interesting."

No matter the field, the Americans dominated. After squaring off with a local Kiev team, the Eastern Leaguers routed the Soviet National Team, 20-0 and 20-2, in their first two meetings. Still, the locals loved the experience.

"Everyone was so receptive and so friendly," Eshbach said. "It was a surprise. I mean, here's the Soviet Union, and they welcomed us with open arms. When we were in Kiev, the coach invited us to dinner, a bunch of the owners and some of the coaches. We went to his house for dinner and he put on a spread. We were there from 5 o'clock at night until midnight. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

At clinics, players listened intently to the Minor Leaguers.

"It was so awesome seeing how determined these kids were," Cook said. "They really wanted to play the game. They wanted to do it right. They were taking notes."

Young sluggers with blisters from taking too many swings wouldn't stop hacking. One American recalled in an interview that when Merrill asked when the clinic would end, the kids in attendance responded, "When you get tired."

In addition to their dedication, they were fans.

"I was watching a clinic one day and Stump was talking to some players in a group," Eshbach said. "They all knew who Kirby Puckett was. They all knew who Wade Boggs was. They were really into it."

"We just tried to teach them how to play baseball," Trembley added. "The competition, obviously, was not very good, but it was a tremendous experience. They knew more about the history of the game than we did about their history which was really interesting. It's so far away, but they knew about baseball."

Eastern League president Charlie Eshbach throws from the first mound built in the USSR.Courtesy of Murray Cook

Diamond Diplomacy

After Kiev, the group headed to Tallinn, Estonia, for more clinics and sightseeing before traveling to Moscow. The decision was made, in the spirit of the "Diamond Diplomacy" moniker the tour had adopted, to mix the teams evenly with a draft borne out of the ideal, as Eshbach put it, of "two countries but one team."

Although baseball was the purpose of the trip, the American contingent experienced life outside the lines, touring cities, taking in the Moscow Circus, partaking in formal dinners with Soviet officials, snapping photos in Red Square and purchasing traditional wool coats and fur hats. Life certainly was different, even as tourists.

"One of the first press conferences I went to -- we played the Moscow Red Devils from the Soviet Army and we'd played the team from Kiev -- one of the first questions I was asked was very political. 'Which team do you think is better?'" Trembley recalled. "It was very pointed towards political. 'Kiev or Moscow?' And I had to be very careful. I said, 'Both teams are very good. Both managers are very good. The players play hard.' I was schooled on making sure that I said the right things."

Above all, with the USSR on the verge of a collapse that came two years later, the brief immersion in a monumentally different society struck a chord throughout the group.

"You saw a lot of depressed people over there, a lot of people that didn't have a whole lot, yet were very friendly, very warm, wanted to touch you, wanted to talk to you, find out about you," Trembley said. "I think all our guys would say they never realized how good they got it. The Minor League lifestyle is not very good, but it's a whole heck of a lot better than what we saw over there. You have a tendency to feel sorry for yourself and think you don't have a lot. We have a whole lot to be thankful for. I think that's really what everybody took away once they got home."

In Moscow, the playing field leveled. The mixed teams of Soviets and Eastern Leaguers played to a 5-5 tie in one game and a 7-5 decision in the finale. The last leg of the trip included an improvised game of indoor baseball when snow forced the teams into a domed, netted soccer training facility. Cook taped down lines and bases.

"If it hits the net [in the outfield], it's still in play," Cook said. "Anything off the net, you play it. There were no home runs in the game. These guys get up there, and they started playing. They were having a blast. It's like this whole new game of baseball."

"We tried to balance it out, but it was a lot of fun," Trembley said. "You lined up on both foul lines and they'd play our national anthem. Then they'd play their national anthem. It was kind of a predecessor to the Olympics."

Despite some awful memories about Russian food, the trip was a resounding success. Cook noted with a laugh that borscht was one of his only negative memories. Trembley groaned when asked about his own culinary reflections.

"We tried to bring some levity and some happiness," the manager said. "We tried to break down some barriers, which we accomplished. We tried to establish some trust and some friendships through the game of baseball. I think that was probably one of the main goals when this whole thing was established -- to bring baseball to Russia to bridge the gap between two entirely different cultures and people's way of life."

Players and coaches from the Eastern League's touring team mill around during a game in Kiev.Courtesy of Murray Cook

'Baseball did it'

Major League teams began scouting the Soviet Union the following year. Four team members went on to the big leagues, including current Rangers manager Jeff Banister. Trembley has managed at five levels, including from 2007-10 with the Orioles, and currently serves as the Braves director of player development. Eshbach left his post as Eastern League president in 1992. The value of league franchises upon his departure? $3.5 million.

"Shortly after we did [the trip], Major League Baseball really embraced the international scene," Eshbach said. "They really were into that. When we did it, it was this vacant niche no one was really going for. We decided we'd try it. I don't know if I can point and say, 'Because of that trip, thus-and-so happened,' but the Eastern League since that time has flourished. So has all of Minor League Baseball, for that matter."

"I think it's like anything else: you have to dream and you have to dream big," Trembley said. "Somebody had a dream and somebody had a vision that eventually baseball was going to be worldwide. It was going to be global. I think we were the test pilots. We were the ones that went in there and did the dry run. If you could do it in a very communist [place], a situation where everyone thought that was your enemy, if you could make peace and establish friendships and give the olive branch in Russia, gosh darn it, you can do it anywhere else."

He concluded, "I think Bart Giamatti and everyone else that was involved in this, it was a risk, but it was a calculated risk. Everybody felt like baseball could be the common denominator that could bring people together."

As for the "diplomacy" side of Diamond Diplomacy, the trip may have had a more profound impact than anyone realized.

"After we left, guess what happened?" Cook said. "The [Berlin] Wall fell. Baseball did it."

"The Berlin Wall came down pretty quickly after we were there," Eshbach echoed with a smile in his voice. "So I'm willing to take credit for that, too."

Tyler Maun is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.