The Connecticut Falcons Teach Chinese Women" How to Let a Thousand Fungoes Bloom
The introduction was subsequently corrected to "Vice-Premier of Softball," and the signature music changed to Auld Lang Syne and The March of the Toy Soldiers. But the theme of high-comic culture shock lingered on throughout the 10-day, six-game tour—a conspiracy of the Chinese' extreme eagerness to please the 17 tall strangers in their midst (average height: 5'9") and the Americans' bewilderment at being catered to so curiously. The silverware at the team's dining tables was always vastly oversize serving utensils, and a failure of translation at the Min Zu Hotel in Peking brought out a meal to feed the Chinese army. "My God," one of the Falcons whispered so as not to give offense, "they must think we're monsters."
They had by that time given their hosts good reason to wonder at their tastes. When they arrived in Canton at the end of a three-day journey via Tokyo from the U.S., beaming officials greeted them with a seven-course meal that included a local delicacy: chicken heads. As their hosts happily dug into them, eyeballs first, the Falcons experienced a chill that would become increasingly familiar as they were called upon to sample such national dishes as sea slugs, sheep brains, the webbing of ducks' feet and pigeon lungs. "I was looking forward to being in China for the good food," Joyce said after one meal. "Wrong!"
At times the tour seemed designed to tax American expectations. Joyce, a professional golfer as well as a ballplayer, brought a club hoping to hit some balls along the way, but found the country all but completely grassless—"one big sand trap," as she put it. The baseball diamonds were dust-bowls. The temperature stayed in the 90s almost every day, and a dense, seemingly permanent smog hung over the country. Adding to the team's discomfort was the lack of air conditioning in their hotels and showers in their locker rooms.
Rising early to beat the rush-hour crush of bicycles, joggers on the team loped past hundreds of young and old Chinese who gathered at dawn in city streets to practice the martial art of t'ai chi—and found their silent, reverent exercise one of China's most memorable sights. But in all three of the cities they visited—Canton, Peking and the industrial complex of Lanzhou, where thousands of people still live in caves—the Falcons were virtually imprisoned by the natives' friendly curiosity about them. Whenever they ventured out into the streets to shop or sightsee, jaws dropped, cigarettes fell from open mouths, children shrieked and hid behind their mothers, and bicyclists crashed into each other, gaping at the strange foreigners. (Lanzhou hadn't hosted any Americans since the Revolution.) "After this place," cracked outfielder Snooki Mulder, 29, "I won't mind Buffalo."
What redeemed the trip for all of the Connecticut Falcons was what they had come for: softball. It was a somewhat different game in China, where bases are the size of sofa cushions and the sideline drink is hot green tea or a tepid, oversweet orange drink. But the Chinese women were clearly dedicated players—and far better trained than the Falcons expected. "Remember," warned coach Brenda Reilly after a joint practice before their first game, "friendliness is for afterward. They make very few mistakes." Indeed, that day the Chinese women had the Falcons behind 1-0 with two outs in the last inning before Joyce began a rally that gave the Falcons a 3-1 win.
But the Falcons' thrill was not so much in winning (which they did by very close scores, partly because Joyce pitched only twice—one a no-hitter in Lanzhou) but rather in the status given their team and their sport in China. At home in Meriden they draw small crowds, little press and salaries of only $1,500 for the May-September season. To get them to China, a friend of the team sold a second mortgage on some property to raise the difference between the $25,000 their sponsor, Bic Pens, gave them and the $40,000 air fare. But in China all their expenses were paid by the government, and their tour was covered daily by the New China News Agency—upstaging concurrent visits by Ambassador at Large Robert Strauss and Citizen Henry Kissinger. And every one of their games was played to packed stands of appreciative fans, their play garlanded by thunderous ovations. Pitcher Margaret Rebenar, 21, is still moved by the memory of the team's welcome into the jammed 50,000-seat Chi Li Ho Stadium in Lanzhou (where the ideologically lax were scalping 10-cent seats outside the gates). "When we walked around the stadium and everyone clapped," she recalls, "it actually gave me goose bumps."
No one was unhappy to go home. "I'm just relieved it's over," said Coach Reilly as the group boarded the plane to Tokyo, and Joyce agreed. "If I'd been here by myself, I would have been gone in a day—the food was so bad, and I got so tired." But no one would say they were sorry they'd come either—or deny they would go back anytime they were asked. "I always wondered what it would feel like to play in front of 50,000 people," mused Donna Terry, 32, on the flight home. "It's too bad we had to go to China to find out."