Build a field and they will come. You've seen the movie, but the Asian Lilies are living it—and still waiting for a happy ending. The women have a field, the only one in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and perhaps the only softball diamond on the Silk Road between Beijing and Istanbul. True, it has its eccentricities: Leftfield merges with a soccer pitch and rightfield abuts a clay tennis court that is as dry as talcum powder. But the diamond's baselines are straight and true, and the infield grass is cropped by grazing cows. No, what the Lilies need is some competition.
Once upon a time they had a league of their own—half-a-dozen teams, most based in Russia. The Lilies played home and away games and in season-ending championships. But after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, travel to other formerly Soviet regions became prohibitively expensive. No sooner had the Lilies established themselves in fast-pitch softball than they were marooned thousands of miles from anyone who knew a suicide squeeze from a sacrifice fly.
However, they have gone on gamely. "The main thing is just to play," says coach Natasha Gloybik, 25, who storms the sidelines in a black miniskirt and scarlet lipstick. "We don't care about not having cleats or anything."
The Lilies practice two hours a day, five days a week. On Mondays they enjoy a team sauna. On Saturday mornings they take on all comers—usually a motley, mostly male pack of Peace Corps volunteers, peach-fuzzed U.S. Embassy interns and visiting businessmen.
July 24, 1994
Well-trained by Cuban and Nicaraguan exchange students who brought the game to Tashkent in 1986, the Lilies lay down drag bunts, steal bases and execute the hit-and-run with impunity. Their sponsor, Metro-Stroitel Sport Club, pays each player about $2 a month—the nation's average monthly salary is $10—and many supplement their income by competing in pro handball, volleyball or basketball leagues.
In 1993 the Lilies could afford to travel only once, to the Russia Cup, from which they brought home the silver medal. It remains a bittersweet memory. "We qualified to go to the European Cup," Gloybik says, "but they didn't send us because we're not from Russia. They sent the third-place team instead."
In fact, the Lilies do have a number of Russians on their roster. But the rest of the team seems to have been assembled by United Nations officials committed to equal rights for all ethnic groups. Uzbeks, Tajiks, Tartars, Koreans and Chinese are all represented. Then, there is the Lilies' lively shortstop who's partial to high-cut track shorts. On one recent Saturday morning—as she expertly fielded a ground ball and fired it to first base—Bob Coffin, a member of the opposing team, lamented, "She's going to break my concentration."
After the first inning Coffin and his associates were down 4-1. By the fourth inning the Lilies were leading 9-4. One of them laid down a bunt, and the Peace Corps pitcher desperately kicked the ball to the first baseman. When the runner was called out, Gloybik dashed onto the field, her black pumps kicking up dust. Both benches emptied, and an Uzbek-style ballyhoo ensued.
Arguing with the umpire, Gloybik insisted that the home rules disallow the kicking of the ball by fielders. "That's not how we play in America!" bellowed Mel DiGiacomo, a 51-year-old photographer from New Jersey in Tashkent on business. In unison, the Lilies, who went on to win handily, responded with the one English sentence they all seem to know: "We're not in America!"
Not yet, anyway. The Lilies want to go to the U.S., and their sponsor has promised to buy the team plane tickets to New York City. First, though, they must arrange for housing and schedule some games. A Peace Corps volunteer has been trying to help, but progress is slow. "Still no word," says Gloybik, gazing across the meadow toward the billboard in centerfield, which shows a tomboy in pigtails next to a single, talismanic, all-American word: BASEBALL.
Lucinda Hahn lives in Prague and writes for several publications, including The Prague Post.