Longform

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.

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Philip Martin