VHS proves the existence of Russian "Baseballists" and their strange black market trades!
On one of my recent video hunting jaunts to a Millville, New Jersey Goodwill, while sifting through a mess of assorted family entertainment and “Big Bucks of the Wild” videos, I happened upon an intriguing little flick entitled Comrades of Summer. The cover struck me not only because it was apparently about a Russian baseball team (?!), but it appeared that the versatile and always solid Joe Mantegna (Airheads, The Money Pit), was playing the lead. Being the Mantegna fan that I am, and also because I've inherently been an avid watcher of all types of baseball flicks e.g. Bad News Bears, Major League, The Sandlot, et al., I was undeniably inclined to snatch this one up. Joe Mantegna plays the heavy-hitting Sparky Smith, whose success is only topped by his popularity and charisma. Not only is Sparky the Seattle Mariners star player - he's also the team's manager! But when Sparky has a mishap during one of car commercial shoots and ruptures his tibia, his playing days are abruptly halted. That's all right, though, because he's still got his manager job, right? Now where would the drama be in that?
Pretty sweet uniforms, huh? And gotta love that over-the-top tagline! Oh, yeah!Sparky's dropped from the Mariners and though he's hopeful, no one else in the MLB is willing to employ him. Down and out and desperate for work, Sparky reluctantly takes a job as the new manager for the Russian Olympic Baseball team. Sounds like a pretty groovy gig, right? Not a chance. These Russsian "baseballists" are a clumsy hodgepodge of other Russian athletes, ranging from hockey players to track stars, the vast majority of them never even setting foot on the diamond. Their field is a broken down machinery lot, a couple use hockey gloves instead of baseball gloves and their clubhouse? It's an underground bunker crudely rearranged to resemble a locker room, but appears more as a smoky, rust-ridden dungeon. Sparky’s work is undoubtedly cut out for him.
The Chicago Sun Times knows how to work those puns! Honestly, I was expecting, "This one's a home-run!"The bulk of laughs are delivered by Mantegna as he spouts off complaints, insults and quips aplenty, mostly toward Tanya, his female liaison for the Russian Sports Alliance (she’s also the love interest here). We're also treated to some goofs supplied by the players as they try to adapt to this terribly foreign game and elicit laughs via the language and culture barrier. Prolific character actor John Fleck (Hard Rock Zombies, Howard the Duck) also gives a charmingly sleazy performance as Sparky's personal assistant who attains Sparky’s needs (both personal and business) through a series of black market trades and underhanded deals: he trades Sparky’s Walkman for some windshield wipers which he then trades for an industrial nail gun which he then trades for 250 high-quality condoms which are then turned over to attain a new backstop for the team. Oh, and he also got TWO Walkmans in the final trade, so he can return the Walkman to Sparky, and keep one for himself. It's laugh out loud stuff. Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (the guy who adapted Stephen King’s IT for TV and penned cult favorite Halloween III) this made-for-cable HBO film is curious in the way that it's laced with profanity and R-rated themes, but at its core, is really an uplifting however formulaic tale about a guy that's down on his luck, and then transforms himself by transforming others. It posits the age-old wisdom that it’s not whether you win or lose, but what you’ve achieved in the journey and how much you enjoy it. There's also a bit of info at the end of the flick about Soviet Union players actually being drafted into the MLB, so the film is also mildly informational, detailing an obscure fact of Major League Baseball.
Hats off to HBO for the excellent quality of the tape. It's just about twenty-years-old and it's practically as good as new! Analog rules.This one’s video-only and virtually guaranteed to stay that way. You can grab it online for about $5 - $10, but this is a prime example of the kind of flick you’ll find for a buck or less at your local Goodwill or dirt mall (just like I did!). Though Comrades of Summer goes a little flat at times and the baseball action leaves something to be desired, the solid laughs along with the performances from Mantegna and Fleck make this a score for Videovores who enjoy that certain baseball flick appeal or just love digging up those obscure 90s comedies that can only be brought to life through the magnetic magic of a VCR. Josh Schafer