I introduced Mikhail Gorbachev to hardball, and have the evidence to prove it.
In 1993 the deposed general secretary of the USSR was to visit to Ottawa to raise money for his Gorbachev Foundation. This was no ordinary man, and this was to be no ordinary visit.
I‘ve had the privilege of meeting many VIPs. I conversed in Swahili with Julius Nyerere, founding president of Tanzania, where I had worked as a game warden. As a parliamentarian I saw Ronald Reagan address the House of Commons. I have Nelson Mandela’s autograph.
Gorbachev was something else – a Nobel laureate who changed the course of world history. There was an aura about Gorbachev; the power and influence that man had. Time magazine put him on its cover 17 times. Churchill only made seven covers.
Brian Mulroney had provided Gorbachev with a Challenger jet to fly to Ottawa, though he was no longer head of state. Protocol was delicate; the Russian Embassy was upset that we’d put out the red carpet for Citizen Gorbachev.
I was assigned to lead the welcoming party at Uplands air base. Who wouldn’t want to be Gorbachev’s host for a couple of days? It was unbelievable. Here was a man who rose through the Soviet Communist ranks, who introduced perestroika and glasnost, who witnessed the collapse of an empire and the close of the Cold War. I couldn’t sleep the night before. Waiting for Gorbachev’s aircraft to taxi up, I reminded myself: “Breathe, Barry, breathe.”
On boarding the jet I saw Gorbachev seated; he looked up and remarked, “He’s a very tall man.” I am 6’4”. He had a warm smile and engaging manner. The hardball came later.
We hosted Gorbachev at a luncheon. The Rideau Kiwanis club was raising funds for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, and made the event a sell-out. The guests numbered almost 800. We even had some Ottawa Senators attend; the hockey club was then scouting Soviet talent. Alexei Yashin later became their first-ever draft pick, scoring 94 points as captain in the 1998-9 season.
In preparing for the luncheon I’d mentioned the big event to a friend, Doug Frobel, who coached my youngest son in baseball. Frobel had been a right-fielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates. When he heard I was to greet the former Soviet leader, Doug said: “You have to get him to sign these” – two new major league baseballs.
Before our distinguished guest left the next day, I asked him to autograph the two balls. He was puzzled: “What’s this?” Gorbachev had never seen a baseball before, but cheerfully signed his name – and now there are two in the world with his autograph on them. One is with Doug Frobel, and the other is safely tucked away in my gun case.
It is an unforgettable memory for me.
(Editor’s note: the author is former Progressive Conservative MP for Ottawa- Carleton, and author of From The Plains of Africa to the Jungles of Parliament, 2012 Optimum Publishing)