By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
"The Russians got all three outs," Lloyd notes. "That's another first."
Though the Angels fail to rally and win, between games his teammates present Razhigaev with the strikeout ball. It's become something of an Angel tradition: Bogatyrev and Puchkov both got the ball after they collected their first hits. As the season nears its end, it appears they've genuinely become part of the team.
"When they first got here, they'd only play catch with each other," Protextor says. "Now they mess around, joke with everyone."
The three or four years they have on their teammates may be a bigger gap than the cultural divide. The Mesa Angels are an ethnically diverse group, comprised of players from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and even New Jersey. And there's even one Angel who's widely believed to be gay--and a standup guy.
"Long as he don't try anything with me, he's a teammate," one of the Angels says. "Hell, if his roomie don't mind, it sure ain't none of my business."
Razhigaev is from Kranayarsk, in Siberia, which is farther from Moscow--hometown to Bogatyrev and Puchkov--than Viscano's hometown of La Romana in the Dominican Republic is from Angel outfielder Ron Martin's mother's house in Compton, California. Though DeShawn Warren, an 18-year-old left-handed pitcher (with a legitimate 94 mph fastball), is from the hamlet of Butler, Alabama, Rudy is really from the sticks.
"His hometown doesn't show up on most of the maps because they have a weapons factory there," Protextor says. "Actually, Rudy says they have two weapons factories there--one that's there and one that isn't."
"So it's Rudy Razhigaev, from parts unknown," says John Farrell, a 30-year-old former major league pitcher assigned to the Angels as he recuperates from elbow surgery. "They've got the plant that's there, and the plant that is there but they say isn't there."
"Something like that," Protextor answers.
Razhigaev is the most outgoing of the Russians, and the best--or at least most willing--English speaker. While Bogatyrev and Puchkov can at times seem introspective, brooding and aloof, Rudy is perpetually smiling. As the second half of the double-header begins, Rudy sings to himself in English. Tonight he's into Peter Gabriel.
"Biko, Biko," he sings, as he idly manipulates a baseball in his left hand.
It took a while for the Angels to warm up to the Russians, at least to the point where Bill Minnis could impersonally tie Bogie up. Some members of the team introduced them to golf, taking them to a nearby driving range, and they educated them on the advantages of the 44-ounce Big Gulp. They taught the Russians to yell "Attaboy," and in turn they've learned the Russian equivalent, Krasafchik.
For their part, the troika learned about the American game before arriving in Mesa by studying a Russian-dubbed version of Bull Durham. They've memorized the movie almost line for line, including the soliloquy Kevin Costner (as catcher Crash Davis) delivers, affirming his belief that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and that Astroturf and the designated hitter are un-American.
"It's strange to hear that in Russian," Protextor says.
Puchkov is the most successful of the Russian players in the Arizona League. Formerly a promising tennis player at Moscow State University, Puchkov has a compact, left-handed swing that's no worse than Costner's. It produces a lot of line drives to the opposite field. He's always been able to hit--his first season with the Red Devils he hit .444, which is good in any league, and this year he had his average up close to .270 before a leg injury forced him first into the designated-hitter role and then to the bench.
Taking ground balls at third base, Puchkov looks like a ballplayer. His movements are more fluid, less mechanical than those of his countrymen. He's the Russian one couldn't tell without a program.
When he was with the Red Devils, his teammates nicknamed him "Murbarak" for his alleged resemblance to the Egyptian president. (They nicknamed Bogatyrev "Home Boy" for reasons that remain obscure.) The Angels, however, have settled on the less esoteric "Poochie." Puchkov was the first Russian to get a hit in an American pro league, and the first Russian to get two hits in one game. For a while, before Razhigaev arrived and Bogie found his sea legs, an Angel says the Russian contingent was usually referred to as "Poochie and the other guy."
"He's done incredibly well," Minnis says of Puchkov. "For someone who's only been playing for a couple of years, he's done really well. It's kind of hard to believe. He makes contact, he doesn't strike out."
Team manager Lachemann shares that assessment. He thinks Puchkov has the most natural talent of any of the Russians, and that he's the most physical of the three. He's also the best versed in the art of baseball clichās--he told Protextor he was going to start coming to the park with a list of standard answers to sportswriters' questions, just like his video mentor, Crash Davis.
A breakthrough in the Angels' international relations may have come in late July, when Lachemann called a team meeting to discuss field deportment. It seems one of the Dominican Republic players had, the day before, been run from the game by an umpire who objected to--and, more to the point, understood--the stream of abusive Spanish the player directed his way. Lachemann and his coaches reminded the team that umpires aren't that stupid. In a league where many times the dugout chatter sounds like a Mexico City market, the umps are likely to have a working knowledge of the language.