By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
They almost always lost, and though they were diplomatic about it, they never liked it. They were good athletes and hard competitors, just inexperienced. It stung to lose, especially when it got embarrassing, like when a team of visiting Nicaraguans ran up a 48-0 score.
Now Bogatyrev, who earlier this summer got some private coaching from Hall of Famer Rod Carew, is a minor leaguer waiting his turn to hit. Angels coach Charlie Romero, a native of the Dominican Republic, is throwing batting practice; behind his protective screen, he has a shopping cart full of dingy, worn-out baseballs. Players pop in for a few swings, square around for a bunt, then make way for the next guy.
As the Russian taps his bat against the ground to test its soundness, he's approached by a teammate. Bill Minnis is a 24-year-old infielder and Dobson High School graduate who's back in Mesa after a year in the Midwest League. Since he's a bit older and more experienced than most of the Angels, Minnis often acts as sort of a player-coach, warming up pitchers in the bullpen, maintaining the esprit de corps. He tentatively places a hand on Bogatyrev's shoulder.
"Bogie," he says sheepishly, "I just want to tell you it was nothing personal."
The Russian regards Minnis blankly, with what might be mistaken for contempt. There is something to Bogatyrev's sculpted Slavic countenance that gives him the icy aspect of a James Bond villain. He shrugs, almost imperceptibly.
"Not per-son-al," Minnis tries again, his voice creaking up the scale in the manner of an American trying to order steak in Delhi. "You understand, not per-son-al?"
Bogie apparently does not.
"Bob, come over here," Minnis pleads. "Can you tell him it wasn't personal when I tied him up?"
Protextor walks over from his perch behind the batting cage and obliges. He and Bogatyrev speak for a few moments, making dark Cyrillic growls, with the coach apparently explaining that, in America, teammates can tie each other up without meaning any harm. Later, Protextor says that though the Russians knew about more traditional baseball pranks such as hotfoots and short-sheeting, apparently Minnis' practical joke was a little exotic. After the exchange, the Russian nods his head, but doesn't smile.
Protextor turns to Minnis. "He understands," the coach explains. "He says you should come visit him in Moscow--he and his friends could show you a good time."
The coach and the Russian share a secret smile, as Minnis, who seems unsure of how to take the invitation, offers his teammate his own bat as a gesture of reconciliation.
"Here, try mine," he says. "You need to choke up a little, about an inch." Again, the Russian seems mildly annoyed, as though he feels he's being patronized, but he takes Minnis' bat and steps into the cage.
Bogatyrev is not much of a hitter. At least not at this level. A right-hander, he affects a slightly open stance, his left foot shifted toward third base. He holds the bat low, near his waist, waving it with the ostensible nonchalance of Carew. But he hits at the ball rather than swinging through it, like a man swatting a fly with a rolled-up newspaper. Though today he makes good contact with Romero's gingerly offered pitches, he's overmatched against most of the Arizona League's young arms. While most professional hitters can get around on a fastball, Bogie's bat speed isn't all it should be.
Two nights before, he had come up with a key hit against a team made up of potential Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies, but Angels manager Bill Lachemann saw it for what it was, a flare, a blooper. Bogie caught an outside fastball on the end of his bat and it ricocheted over the first baseman's head--the kind of hit one's grandmother might get now and again. Lachemann is grateful that Bogatyrev is at least an accomplished bunter who is generally able to advance runners. Occasionally, he catches a third baseman napping and lays one down for a base hit. He runs pretty well.
"Maybe Bogie can't hit for shit," Lachemann says to another coach, "but he can put the ball in play. He's doing okay."
Still, Bogie's batting average is well below .200, and though statistics--and even wins and losses--don't really mean much in developmental circuits like the Arizona League, he's not posting the sort of numbers that could earn him a promotion, or even a chance to come back next year.
In fact, if Bogatyrev or either of the other two Russian players come back next year, it will probably be as much a good-will gesture as a cool-minded talent decision.
Angels' director of scouting Bob Fontaine, who signed the three Russians during a visit to the Commonwealth of Independent States this spring, doesn't really expect any of them to make the major leagues. Frankly, they started playing the game too late, and no matter how good an athlete one may be, the clock runs out quickly for a minor league player. If a player hasn't advanced to Triple-A ball--the minor league level one step beneath the big leagues--by the time he's 25, there's very little chance he ever will. Bogatyrev and Puchkov are both 23, and pitcher Rudolf Razhigaev is 24. None of them is ready to move up.