|Anton Shirokyi delivering a fastball against his future teammate. Tornado Balashika and CSK Balashika merged before the season.|
Scouting the Little League
From the kitchen window of a Moscow appartment I could make out basepaths and a backstop on a brought down Little League field. Not surprisingly it serves mainly for everything else but Baseball, ranging from cross country skiing to a playground for kids, but the basepaths suggest that games or practices have taken place recently.
Having played on it I can honestly say it’s no easy task to survive on this field. I walked away with a Mohammad Ali-type bruise beneath my right eye because the ball took an unexpected hop. This is not uncommon, what troubled me more were the pieces of glass and stones that marked the field’s landscape.
Russia does not pay great attention to baseball. Funds from the Government are limited, as in any other European Baseball country. But the players and coaches involved take a hightened enthusiasm and passion to the field, living life the american way with burgers and a can of dip, if only for a few hours a day.
Luckily the before mentioned field is used minimally as there is a nice Little League and Softball facility close by. Little League has caught on in some disctricts in the South of Moscow, so has girls Softball. The Russian teams have represented Europe in the Little League World Series numerous times in both Baseball and Softball.
Matsui? Matzusaka? Matzumai!
In the foyer rests a brass head of Mr. Matzumai, the Japanese man who designed and built the complex, accompanied with a handful of pictures from Governement officials and people who drove the sport in the Soviet Union and later Russia.
Last time I visited I noticed a scoreboard from a Moscow International Tournament with teams from Asia, notably two Japanese teams that faced each other in the final game. Japan has helped the game in Russia.
From what I gathered there are some teams in the East that have played in Asian Leagues. A few years back a team from Vladivostok would come to Moscow for a Russian Championship tournament. Quite a task considering the travel takes 6 full days and 4 hours by train, and a plane ticket runs at over thousand dollars.
The Russian Baseball League
This year the Russian Top Division constitutes of 5 teams from Moscow and Moscow Region (one more than last year): Tornado/CSK, MGPU, Moskvich, Patrioti Balashikha, and Severne Zvezdy. Over the off-season Tornado merged with CSK (the team of the Russian Military) and has two teams in the tournament. Patrioti is a second Tornado team. CSK decided over the off-season they did not have enough capacity to compete in the tough Russian Schedule. The coming season teams will play four games a week: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
This makes it impossible for older players with jobs to play all games, but the Russian Baseball landscape is dominated by young players. MGPU the team of the Moscow University of Education consists mostly of players who attend the University.
Other clubs profit from the established Little League programs and develop strong youth teams. Most players above the age of 25 are either involved with the clubs or quit Baseball for lack of time, and of course, obligations to their beautiful wives.
The League keeps changing the playing format much to the despair of players, and their wifes. Last year’s three games a week with a game each friday, saturday, and sunday seemed like a stretch to me, but it was makable for most players. In Russia sports has a high value and with notes from the team-management players were able to take leave from work to attend the friday game.
“Thursday and friday will be too much however”, said Alexander Vasiliev, catcher for the Russian National Team. He will only be able to attend the weekend games.
In addition to the extra game the League subtracted the playoffs, playing a soccer-type format with a Champion emerging over the course of the Regular Season.
|Alexander Nizov. Possibly the only minor-leaguer to make it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Photos coutesy RIB|
But to be honest, it seems that Russians like to put hurdles in their lane and then remarkably go on to beat their opposition nevertheless. Two player from the first generation made the jump over the pond and landed themselves a minor league contract. Alexander Nizov (shown donating a jersey to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown) and Alexander Toropov (shown with former Dodgers skipper Tommy Lasorda).
These players never had the opportunity to play on the field I was observing from my kitchen window, because the Little Leagues was not in place then. The players who are the first generation of Little Leaguers are making a significant impact in recently and in years to come.
Nikolai Lobanov played in the 2001 Little League World Series, 5 years later he signed with the Minnesota Twins and is playing in the Minor Leagues with fellow Europeans Rodney Gessman from Germany and Jakob Toufar from the Czech Republic.
More Russians on the way
Running in from first base you can see Nikolai. The Pitcher, Viacheslav Vasiliev, also plays for MGPU but has not yet found a home oversees.
Following Nikolai Lobanov (signed Oktober 2006) was Andrey Lobanov (signed August 2007). The two are in no way related other than being teammates on the Twins’ Rookieball squad. Nevertheless, their style of pitching is very much the same. They throw mid-80’s and a decent curve, but lack speed, movement, and a confident third pitch to become highly effective.
Having faced all three of the above pitchers last year I considered Slava (video) to be the best of the bunch. His fastball gets to the upper 80’s as well as low 90’s occasionally, and his breaking ball is hard to see out of his hand. Despite him being right handed (as opposed to the left handed Lobanovs) it’s hard to feel comfortable at the plate, which is what the other two lack as of yet.
Andrey and Nik are 18 and 19 respectively, and both are physical for their age. There comes a point in a pitchers life when he’ll experience a jump in velocity, almost like a growth spurt. What makes me think that this is yet to come for Nik and Andrey is their age for one thing, and secondly when I saw Nik throw last year it felt like the ball was coming out of his hand slower than his body was throwing it. To me this indicates that his body is not yet capable of recovering fast enough for him to throw his best every day. Thirdly, the obvious reason that they got a contract by the Twins.
Tornado and MGPU are the teams to beat, but Moskvich put themselves in the mix by getting their great players back over the off-season. Severne Zvezdy played well in the second division last year, and their team is similar to MGPU as far as age is concerned. The experience of the Tornado players is the ace in their hand and at the same time Patrioti the wild-card as I haven’t been able to find out who exactly plays for this team. From what I understood it’s a collection of Junior Tornado players. But in Russia.
You never know.
A month from now the Russian teams will try to make the Semi-Finals in the European Cups. They are well geared to accomplish their goal, the question will be how well they can perform since the start of their season was relatively late compared to the other teams in the field (League kicked off Mai 15th).
But if Anton Shirokyi can hold T&A San Marino (RSM) to 4 runs or less in the first game, the Tornado offence will give him a chance to win the ballgame. Tornado Balashikha lefty Vladimir Petrov should match-up nicely against the Spanish Marlins Puerto Cruz in the second game, but the bullpen will have to take over at some point during both games and in the past this has been their weekness as they lacked depth at the pitcher’s position. This year they will be better equiped, having acquired a full pitching staff from CSK.
They have a real chance at the Semis, but also a very tough group. Their third game is against defending champions Corendon Kinheim (NED), putting them in must-win situations in the first two games.
A climber on the peak of the Everest has more oxygen in his system than their coach thinking about the line-up for those games. But Russians seem to have some kind of special gene that allows them to be fearless with just about anything that comes their way. In their mind they have to be thinking about the Semis.
Let’s hope their players weren’t thinking too much about Vodka after Russia’s Ice-Hockey National Team won the World Championships in Quebec City, Canada yesterday. Which is what counts anyway.
As far as Russians are concerned.