By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"It's an investment," Fontaine says. "I believe in ten years Russia will be producing major league players." Fontaine, a stocky, mustachioed man who has been a scout since he was 19 years old, sees this Mesa Angels triumvirate as the vanguard of a potentially rich Russian crop of ballplayers. After all, Soviet-trained athletes like Lithuanian Sarunas Marciulonis have already made an impact on the National Basketball Association, and about 10 percent of all major leaguers come from the tiny, beisbol-mad Dominican Republic.
Protextor, a 25-year-old who played college baseball at Pan American University and Morningside College in Iowa before going to the then-USSR to help coach the Red Devils and the Soviet National Team, allows it would be nice if the Angels, the first team to sign a Russian player, were to "keep up the relationship," but he says none of the players has any guarantees.
"They've got the same deal as everybody else," Protextor says. "After the season, they'll be evaluated, and if the Angels think they've made some improvement and that they can improve some more, they'll be asked back. If not, they won't."
@body:Most of the "civilians" in the stands at Arizona League games, which are held at spring training complexes rather than stadiums, are not really there for the baseball. Some of them are friends of the players, some are family. A surprising number of young women come to flirt with the players--Manager Lachemann fines any player who picks up a woman during a game $50.
"More, if she's ugly," says one Mesa Angel, who begged for anonymity.
So almost no one is here at the Compadre complex south of Chandler on August 24 for the Angels' twinight doubleheader against the Cubs-Rockies. Aside from the coterie of Angel pitchers sitting in the metal bleachers behind the screen, almost no one finds it significant when, in the top of the final inning of the first game, with his team trailing 3-1, Lachemann decides to give his Siberian left-hander some work.
Mike Holder notices. Holder may be the Arizona League's biggest fan--this year he single-handedly, and at his own expense, compiled a 122-page information guide to the league. When Holder sees who's warming up, he gently nudges the kid sitting in front of him.
"Look, son," he says to the boy, "they're bringing in the Russian."
At that, the younger Holder swings his legs around to face the field and flips open the copy of his father's guide that he's heretofore employed as a teething device. His boy's eyes scan down the Angels roster to connect the pitcher's number--37--to his name. Razhigaev, Rudy.
A few feet away, John Lloyd, an 18-year-old Angel pitcher out of Jacksonville, Florida, who bears a striking resemblance to pro golfer John Daly, is charting pitches, making obscure marks on his clipboarded stat sheet. He opens a new column for Razhigaev, and leans back as the former Red Army paratrooper takes his warm-up tosses.
Someone asks Lloyd how Razhigaev's been throwing.
"Rudy?" he drawls. "Ummm . . ."
Lloyd smiles and rolls his eyes, puffs out his cheeks and expels a soft sigh. Enough said.
Razhigaev was the first Russian player ever signed to an American contract. He was a distance runner at Moscow State when he happened to run by the school's baseball practice. The coach, impressed with his 6-feet-2-inch, 185-pound physique, asked him to throw a little to a catcher. Then he told him to report to practice the next day.
Now, three years later, Razhigaev bounces his final warm-up throw, a big overhand curveball, in the dirt and prepares to face professional, "perfect American" hitters.
He walks the first one on four pitches. Someone mentions that Razhigaev's fastball has been clocked at 94 miles per hour. If so, it seems a good 10 mph slower tonight. His curveball is big and loopy, with the pregnant potential of an ICBM. In other words, it's hanging when he gets it up in the strike zone, and even in the rookie leagues, hitters crush those kinds of pitches.
And it's a curveball the next batter hits, only he's way out in front of it. He catches it just on the end of the bat, sending a humpbacked liner to Angels shortstop Julian Viscano. Viscano snatches it on one hop and throws--harder than he needs to--to second baseman Bogatyrev, who catches it as he trots across the bag. No chance for the double play, but there is one out.
Now Rudy bears down. He gets two quick strikes on the next hitter, then he throws a curveball way outside. A couple of more pitches are fouled off. Lloyd looks down at his charts. "Ring him up, Rudy," he says, nearly as a prayer, under his breath.
Razhigaev looks in, peering at his catcher's flashing fingers. He straightens and comes to the plate, his long left arm whipping across his body. The pitch floats. A change-up. A swing. A miss.
Lloyd clenches his fist and bites his lower lip. "That's Rudy's first strikeout," he announces. The first strikeout recorded by a Russian in a pro game in the Americas goes in the book. It's anticlimactic when the next batter hits a weak grounder to Viscano, who again flips to Bogie.