Baseball in Russia dying according to Dmitry Kiselev (middle). Photo Natali Gutovskaya M-SPORT
Dimitry Kiselev, vice-president of the Russian Baseball Federation, explained to Reuters that governmental funding for Baseball in Russia will be cut drastically. Because the Russian National Team wasn’t able to qualify for the Olympics and both Baseball and Softball are dropped from the competition after Beijing 2008 it seems unreasonable to keep a sport alive that has very few enthusiasts in a country that is dominated by fast-paced Sports such as soccer and ice-hockey.
Kiselev argues that being part of the Olympic program is very important to federal agencies such as Rossport (where Kiselev is employed) which oversees the development and financing of all sports in Russia: “I really fear that baseball will soon die as a sport in this country”, Kiselev told Reuters.
First days of Russian Baseball
Typically for Europe the first Baseball fields in Russia were converted soccer fields
After Baseball became an Olympic sport in 1992 Russia tried to construct a team that could compete by adapting athletes from sports that Russia was very good at. Hockey goalies were taught to block pitches in the dirt. Other sportsmen were grunting on the mound pushing themselves from the rubber rather than throwing a javelin.
(Jan Zelezny, Czech Republic, working out with an Atlanta Braves pitching coach)
Certainly the throwing and hitting motions of Baseball are far too complex to be mastered at an advanced age, and so it came that Russia had little success at first.
About 10 years into their program came the first international successes: In 1997 and 1999 Russia fought its way into the Semifinals of the European Championships and finished in 4th place both times.
Two years later they celebrated a sensational Semifinal victory over Italy. In a close game Rinat Makhmoutov took a no-hitter into the seventh Inning but was relieved after giving up a hit by Oleg Korneev. Oleg threw his fastball in the mid 90’s range with good accuracy, traits that impressed scouts enough to offer him a professional contract. He spent two years in the Seattle Mariners System following the 2001 European Championships.
Second from the right is Leonid Korneev, player for Krasny D'iavoly (Red Devils) and father of Oleg.
Russian Baseball on a Global platform
These accomplishments put Russian Baseball on a World stage as they qualified for the 1998, 2001, and 2003 World Cups.
But the team didn’t develop enough to make an impact at the World Tournaments. Russia never qualified for the Olympics and this put Dimitry Kiselev in an unfortunate position. As a department head of Rossport he had to take his favorite sport out of the Spartakiad, a biannual Olympic-style youth competition.
The Russian Baseball program does not rely solely on the help of their government, however. Summer of 2007 Robert Protexter founder of Russian International Baseball organized a month long Tour of the United States during which the Russian National Team played against amateur, collegiate and professional teams, and visited traditional baseball sites. A walk-through of the Baseball Hall of Fame and catching a Red Sox game at Fenway Park blessed the players with fond memories for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately the gruelling bus-trips and heat on the east-coast exhausted the team and Russia couldn’t duplicate their past successes at the European Championships in Barcelona a few weeks after their trip to the US.
During their US trip in 2007 Team Russia stopped at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy russianbaseball.org
Gearing up for the World Cup 2009
Meanwhile Protexter tries to raise additional funds for future events and hopefully future successes. Russia has had great success in the youth competitions.
Two pitchers from last year’s Juniors team signed professional contracts with the Minnesota Twins.
If Major League teams heighten their interest and awareness of Russian players this might be another channel of income for the national programs.
Meanwhile Moscow is gearing up for the Baseball World Cup 2009. As one of the hosts Russia will qualify for the event despite their bad result in Spain 2007. If this high quality event strikes a chord with the Russian public federal agencies such as Rossport might reconsider their decisions and make funds available for further development of the sport. It would be sad to see Baseball leave the proud sportsnation as it has produced a number of great players, as well as a number of unforgettable memories for many of the people involved with the sport.
How bright is the outlook?
Moderate beginnings. The USSR team is history, how will Russia develop in the future?
It remains to see how much the cuts in capital will cripple the federation, considering the sport never had much funding to begin with this situation may force executives to look in new directions for money. In Dimitry Kiselev’s opinion the sport could have established itself if the soviet-system had stayed in power a little bit longer. In the opinion of others the soviet-system didn’t leave soon enough, and some say it never left at all. But it remains clear that new policies and attitudes in the country also bring new opportunities.
Ironically some of Russia’s biggest exporting brands, such as Stolichnaya (vodka), or Lukoil (oil), decorate the commercial banners of popular MLB Stadiums: Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, while Russian Baseball is struggling to get the least of sponsorship money.
The key to ad-revenue of course is exposure, and this can only be achieved with big sporting events that not only domestic crowds attend. Big venues that also attract spectators from abroad.
There are good reasons to think that a game like baseball is something Russians could relate to. A beloved past-time called lapta (ball) is a tradinational Russian game that is very similar to Baseball (played with stick and ball). Russia has love and appreciation for chess incomparable to most other countries. It has been home to great artists, poets, and intellectuals alike.
In Baseball there’s an art to pitching, the sound of an erupting crowd and a skilled commentator can exhibit poetry at times, and out-smarting the opposition with a keen intellect is one of the key attributes of the legendary players. Many managers speak of the game as being a chess-match, where favorable match-ups are decisive to the outcome.
With a little luck and a Major League marketing-concept the Russian public may discover that Baseball showcases some of those attributes that they dearly love and embrace as a big part of their own culture. And maybe Dimitry Kiselev will again have something to cheer about.
Rough conditions - something Russian are used to.