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SOVIETS STEP UP TO BAT IN EFFORT TO FIELD A TEAM FOR '92 OLYMPICS

It's raz, dva, tri strikes, "You're out!" at Moscow State University, where Soviets were learning the American national pastime while President Mikhail S. Gorbachev toured the American heartland.

The Soviets started playing baseball four years ago, hoping to field a team at the Summer Games in 1992 when it will be a medal sport for the first time.But hopes are not high on the astroturf at a 1,000-seat baseball stadium built on the university grounds last September.

"I don't think a Soviet team will make it to the Olympics this time around," said Alexander E. Semyonov.

"The American, Cuban and Nicaraguan teams are much stronger," said Semyonov, who calls himself "the only Soviet baseball writer." His articles appear in the monthly "Sport" magazine.

"The big problem is that we don't have many fans," Semyonov said in an interview Monday. "They don't really understand the rules. For example, they don't know what a ball is. Or a strike."

In a game Sunday, about half the seats were empty, including those directly behind home plate. They are considered choice spots in U.S. ballparks but shunned by Soviets because of the protective wire screen. Fans seem to prefer taking their chances with fly balls along the foul line.

Otherwise, the scene was much the same as at a high school or small college ballpark in the United States. Fans wore the caps of their favorite teams. The men went shirtless and the women wore halter tops and basked in the early summer sun.

It is strictly bring-your-own hot dog at Moscow stadium, which has no concessions.

Cheers and jeers in Russian, English and Spanish rose from the stands as the Red Devils of the Moscow Chemical-Technical Institute ran up a 10-2 score against last year's national champions, the Army Sports Club of Bala-shikhov, known by its Russian acronym SKA.

"They tried what is called a double play," intoned the Soviet announcer, as the SKA second baseman handled a toss from the shortstop, turned the force at the bag, then buried his throw to first base in the dirt.

The announcer, sprawled in the stands, wore shorts and a blue cap. He mixed his commentary with warnings about pop foul balls that sailed over a low screen and bounced among cars parked next to the stands.

The stadium itself is vulnerable to the pop foul: glass skylights on either side of home plate sport neat round holes, a danger apparently not foreseen by contractors.

The ballplayers themselves occupy the semi-professional gray area typical of Soviet sports.

"They are amateurs, and have other jobs. But it's hard to say how hard they work," said Semyonov.

On the field, play alternates between poor fundamentals and prowess.

A Red Devil baserunner on first broke for second and slid just as the catcher's throw reached the bag. But the SKA player bobbled the ball, and it skipped deep into center field, allowing the runner to take third base.

The next pitch was wild, and the runner scored.

A half inning later, SKA tried the same play. The batter missed the bunt, and the catcher pegged the ball hard to second. Again, the throw was too hot and low for the fielder, but this time the second baseman was backing up, and the runner was stranded on second after the next out.

So far, there are no stars among the 14 teams in Soviet baseball.

"We don't write about individual players, because the level of play isn't really high enough yet," said Semyonov.

The season started early this year - in March - with the championship slated for late June to give the national team time to prepare for European competition in Italy in August.