FROM RUSSIA WITH GLOVE
Amid the orange groves of Mesa, the boys play catch. A dozen baseballs snap through the bright air.
From their matching tee shirts and the casual formation they've made along the left-field line, these boys look like teammates, and this seems to be an organized practice. From their calm eyes and the easy grace with which they flick the ball around, they appear to be professionals.
They are pros, but just barely.
The Mesa Angels play in the most minor of minor leagues, before few fans and without much finesse. Most of the players in the Arizona League are too young to pound the Budweiser legally; many have just been graduated from high school. In the hierarchy of professional baseball, a spot on the roster of a Rookie League team is your basic entry-level job. Except for some players who are here to get back into shape after suffering some injury, the overwhelming majority of athletes in this eight-team league are in their first year of professional baseball. More than half were selected in this year's June draft and reported to their clubs after signing their first pro contract.
They are here because some scout saw something--a lively arm, an uncluttered swing, good wheels--and offered them a chance to play against other borderline prospects. For the season, most of them will make about $850 a month, and they will live two to a room in a cheap motel. At best, probably no more than one or two of these Angels will ever see the inside of a major league clubhouse, and many won't even be offered the chance to come back next year.
As pleasant as it may be to sit and watch these young men whack at lobbed tosses during batting practice, there is no outward sign that the Mesa Angels are anything more than another forgettable assembly of flat-bellied young men. This is a team that will lose slightly more games than it will win. It will make bonehead plays. It will test the patience of its manager and coaches. And it will, at least in a small way, make history.
This is the team with the Russians. Three players from the former Soviet Union, of varying degrees of competence, are playing for these Angels. They are the first players from that country to join a professional league in the Americas. They are somewhat older than most of their teammates, and four years ago none of them had ever played the game.
Despite Nikita Khrushchev's curious Cold War assertion that baseball was invented by the Russians, Soviet authorities only began to sponsor organized teams after the International Olympic Committee voted in 1986 to confer medal status on the sport. The Soviets immediately began a program of training and development with the stated goals of winning the European championship by 1993 and an Olympic medal in 1996.
If such optimism seems naive, it should be remembered that the Soviets launched similar programs in ice hockey and basketball, becoming world powers in those sports in remarkably short order. Their strategy was essentially the same in baseball.
Professor Irakakly Kutaeladza, a sports specialist in musculature and hand-eye coordination who had worked with the formidable Soviet national shooting team, was picked to recruit and train a "freshman crop" of 13-year-olds at a special baseball academy in the Lenin Hills section of Moscow. According to the ten-year plan, these youngsters would form the nucleus of the first Soviet medal team.
In the meantime, however, regional teams were organized by sports clubs and universities all over the Soviet Union, as coaches and equipment were imported from Cuba, Nicaragua, South Korea and, in the age of glasnost, the United States and Japan. Diamonds were laid out on soccer fields by coaches who had never seen the game played. Often these fields had no pitcher's mounds and their games were marred by incomplete knowledge of the rules. In those early days, it was not unusual for a bateador--the Russians adopted the vocabulary of their Latin American coaches--to run to third base instead of first after grounding to short. Many players learned the game through videotapes and secondhand coaching from Russians who themselves had never played the game.
But by the time the country's first true baseball park was opened on August 15, 1989, there were an estimated 50 teams and 1,500 players from Ashkhabad to Zyryanka. American high school and college teams began to schedule good-will tours. And some quality players were beginning to emerge.
Ilya Bogatyrev, for instance. The 23-year-old Bogatyrev was a kayak champion at Moscow State University, an Olympic hopeful, before he broke his hand and switched his game. His father, Vladimir, was something of a pioneer in the Russian game who served as president of the Soviet Baseball Federation and now is the general manager of the Russian National Team.
"It was interesting, it was western and something new," Bogatyrev, who speaks English better than he lets on, says through his interpreter, Angels coach Bob Protextor. "I want to learn as much as I can."
Before signing with the Angels this spring, Bogatyrev and Yevgeny Puchkov were teammates on the Moscow Red Devils and made five or six barnstorming trips to the United States, playing against everything from high school and junior college teams to all-star aggregations of over-30-league players, Double-A minor league teams and topflight college teams.
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.
"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.
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.
"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 clichs--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.
So "the Russians"--the source wasn't specific as to who made the initial suggestion--asked if they could effectively swear at the umpires in their native tongue. Lachemann, a gruff old-timer with two brothers--Marcel and Rene--coaching in the big leagues, thought about it for a moment and said why not, the umps weren't that smart. From that point on, all the Angels began taking language lessons.
It comes in handy during tonight's second game. Angel ace Miguel "Felix" Fermin is throwing well when, in the third inning, Cub third baseman Juan Cedeno cranks a fastball 400 feet over the left-field fence. Cedeno, a right-handed hitter, takes four steps down the first-base line, then stops, hands on hips to watch the ball disappear into the night sky.
This, of course, is a severe breach of baseball decorum. This is simply not done. This, as Angel pitcher David Kennedy puts it, is "horseshit." When one is fortunate enough to hit a home run, one puts his head down and circles the bases at a brisk pace. To do otherwise can only be read as a disrespectful and "bush" attempt to show up the other team.
"You're going to get plunked, Number 11," Kennedy screams at the slow-moving, high-fiving Cedeno. "You're meat, motherfucker, you're going down."
Two innings later, with the score tied at one run each and a runner on third base, Cedeno comes up to hit again. He doesn't bother to dig in, and he's not smiling anymore. The Angel bench crackles with vicious energy.
"He's got to hit him," says Farrell, the former major leaguer who won 14 games for the Cleveland Indians in 1988. "He's got to hit him, doesn't he?"
Trainer Phil Bevacqua nods and makes a swooshing gesture with his hand. Right in the ribs.
Fermin's first pitch is a fastball. It comes in at Cedeno's shoulder, but the showboat dodges this one. Puchkov and Razhigaev, on the bench, hoot along with their teammates. "Bastard. Idiot." Kennedy, who seems the most interested in Cedeno's immediate future, screams at Number 11.
"You're going down, asshole," he snorts.
A second pitch whizzes by Cedeno's ear. A near miss. Paul Zuvella, the Cubs-Rockies manager, charges the home-plate umpire. "Warn the pitcher," Zuvella tells the young ump, pumping his forefinger at the young pitcher like a gangster blazing away. "He's throwing at my man. Warn him."
The umpire waves the manager back into the third-base coaching box. Fermin comes set. The pitch flashes under the bill of Cedeno's helmet and rings off the wire backstop 20 feet behind the plate. The runner comes home from third.
Lachemann hangs his head in quiet disgust.
"[If] you're going to throw at the cocksucker, you gotta make sure you hit the cocksucker," he spits, to no one in particular.
Cedeno has had about enough of target practice. In the time-honored tradition of hotheaded Latin ballplayers, he starts to take a step toward the mound, bat in hand. Angel catcher Joey Bertucci lays a heavy hand on his shoulder. Rockie manager Zuvella runs toward home plate--Warn him! Warn him!--as the splinter-thin Fermin braces for a brawl. Puchkov and Razhigaev tense up as their teammates prepare to rumble. Then . . .
Cedeno steps back into the box. Bertucci releases him. The umpire takes a couple of steps toward the mound to warn Fermin that if he throws at Cedeno--or any other hitter--again, he's out of the game. (Lachemann halfheartedly protests: "Why don't you let [Zuvella] call balls and strikes for you, too?) The Angel bench settles back, the tense moment past. For an instant, all is still. Cedeno seems to have escaped censure, at least tonight.
Suddenly, Bogatyrev, his eyes strafing the hitter from his position at second base, looses a bloodcurdling, bitter expletive toward Cedeno. "Pee-al-kawh!"
The Angel bench dissolves in laughter. "Ooooh," Farrell says. "That's telling him, Bogie."
Lachemann looks to Protextor, who's put his hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter.
"What'd he call him?" the manager asks.
"A pussy," Protextor translates.
"Krasafchik," Lachemann says.
YOU CALL THIS A REVITALIZED DOWNTOWN? WA... v9-09-92
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.