Baseball in the Last Years of the Soviet Union

A while ago I got a few programs from the 1990 Goodwill Games: one of them had a Soviet pitcher on the cover:

Baseball is about the last major sport you associate with the Soviet Union, but in the last half-decade of its existence, Soviet planners had dreams of taking on the Americans on the diamond as equals by some point in the ’90s. I’ve already taken a look at baseball in China: this post looks at baseball in that other, now-defunct Communist country.

Here’s an Associated Press story from Managua, Nicaragua, on June 22, 1987. The headline: “A Plan to Beat U.S. – Soviets Take Aim at Baseball”:

The Soviet Union hopes to make significant progress in baseball for future Olympics competition, according to a Soviet coach visiting Nicaragua, where the sport is a national passion.
“We have 20 teams in the Soviet Union,” said Alexander Ardatov as he watched a game between Nicaraguans hoping to be selected for the team that will travel to the Pan American Games this August in Indianapolis.
“But we plan to field thousands. We like baseball. It’s nice, but it’s even more fascinating for us to compete with the United States and beat them.”
The 29-year-old Ardatov, who spoke through an interpreter, is a graduate of a Moscow sports institute. He and Ian Martienzonov arrived last week and plan to stay a month in the first Soviet baseball scouting visit to Nicaragua.
He said Soviet plans to develop baseball started by contracting several Cuban coaches, who traveled to Moscow “to teach theory.”
But he said the sport is so incipient in his country that “we have very little equipment to play. For now we have to get everything (bats, balls, gloves, etc.) from the Latin Americans.”
Ardatov said Soviet baseball players still don’t have uniforms.
“We play in sweatsuits,” he said, adding that he would take some Nicaraguan-made uniforms back to the Soviet Union as examples to be copied there.
Rafael Obando, a former player with the Nicaraguan national team and currently a sports commentator, believes “the Soviets have a lot to learn, but they can do it.”
The International Olympic Committee declared baseball an Olympic sport this year.
Among the difficulties facing the Soviets will be adapting from their homegrown game known as “laptak,” where they use a bigger and more active ball than is used in modern baseball . “Laptak” is played on a pentagonal field.
Nicaraguan Baseball Commissioner Rolando Cerna said the Nicaraguan Sports Insitute will donate enough equipment to outfit three teams for the two visiting sports experts to take back with them.
Cerna also said that the Nicaraguan “B” team will travel to the Soviet Union in August for exhibition games against a Soviet team.
“I think we can beat the Americans in about 10 years, and maybe in less time,” Ardatov said.

A year later, the Orange County Register reported on a thaw in Soviet-U.S. baseball relations:

While the United States and Soviet Union move toward a gradual reduction in nuclear arms, the two — as sporting powers — held an unofficial summit this summer in an effort to increase the number of baseball arms.
An eight-member Swedish/American Baseball Coaches Clinic team was greeted with open arms by Soviet baseball coaches and players when they arrived in Moscow in early July for a 21/2-week instructional-league tour showing off America’s national pastime.
Although the first Soviet team began receiving ideas and information more than a year ago from Cubans, Nicaraguans, Japanese and Canadians, it was the first time the players received detailed demonstrations, clinics and practice sessions.
Leading the visiting contingent was Ron Brown, a consultant and US representative to the Swedish Baseball Softball Federation. Brown, a career-guidance counselor at Santa Ana Valley High School, is a former Chapman College pitching coach, and minor-league coach and scout for the California Angels.
The Angels organized an international baseball and softball program nearly 14 years ago in Sweden.”I’ve been going to Sweden every summer, wanting to develop an international baseball program on a higher level,” said Brown, 45, of Orange. “When the opportunity came up to go to the Soviet Union , we jumped at it.”
Brown is a goodwill ambassador in spiked shoes.
He was a founding member of the Swedish Baseball and Softball Federation and coach of the Swedish National Team.
Two years ago, he helped establish the Stockholm International Baseball and Softball Tournament and has helped organize an international sports exchange program in such countries as Denmark, Italy, Germany and Poland. He threw out the first pitch last year in what is believed to be the first US-Poland baseball game.
The Swedish and American coaches’ team submitted its request for an exchange with the Soviet Union to its sports federation in December. When the two federations agreed on specifics, the visiting country’s group provided the cost of air fare, and the host country’s group took care of all additional costs.
“Thanks to Dr. Robert Smith (president of the International Baseball Association and United States Baseball Federation), we were able to secure our visas through the sports attache to the Soviet Embassy (in Stockholm),” Brown said. “The first week we gave clinics to the Soviet coaches and players at Moscow.”
The US and Swedish coaches worked with clubs from the Russian Federation, Gorki, Tashkent and Moscow. They would arrive at a different location throughout the capital city each morning to “eagerly awaiting coaches and players,” Brown said.
Russian athletes in track and field, water polo, team handball, volleyball and basketball between the ages of 18 and 26 were recruited to learn nearly every facet of the game.
Almost 30 club teams from Leningrad, in northern Russia, to Tashkent, in the southeast, already had been established. They play approximately 40 games each season. In addition, a post-season national baseball tournament that rotates among eight Soviet cities was initiated last year.
“(The Soviets ) want to field a world-class baseball team by the 1996 Olympic Games,” Brown said.
Baseball became a demonstration sport at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984 and again during the ’88 Games in Seoul but will be an Olympic medal sport at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
During the second week, the US-Swedish team stayed in Kiev, capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, to preside over the Kiev National Tournament. The eight teams arrived from Moscow, Gorki, Leningrad, Tallin, Kaunas, Kiev, Tibilsi and Tashkent.
Games were played on soccer fields because no baseball fields exist. Brown said fields are being planned in Moscow and Kiev.
The Swedish and American coaches were assigned to a club and critiqued the team’s play during and after the games.
Of course, exchanges made between the three nations were not relegated just to on-field activities. The American coaches got the young Soviet players into some American baseball -card swapping.
“During the opening ceremonies, we presented the Soviet players and coaches with a baseball packet,” Brown said. “It contained some Dodger pins, some Angel decals, some `I Love Baseball’ pins and Topps baseball cards. The interest created by that packet, especially the baseball cards, was amazing. The only problem I had was trying to explain the meaning of `ERA’ (earned run average) and `slugging percentage’ to them. I haven’t learned to speak Russian yet. … I might have to.”

By September 1989, with Eastern Europe about to start breaking out of the Soviet bloc, the Soviets were confident enough to claim the sport as its own. From the Fort Lauderdale News & Sun-Sentinel:

MOSCOW – A Russian baseball player handed Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley a figurine during the Soviet Union’s first international baseball tournament last weekend.
It was a caveman poised to swing a giant club. The player offered it as proof of what many Russians suspect. Baseball is really the Russian pastime. Its origin is buried in their ancestral roots.
One Soviet writer theorizes that baseball’s origin can be directly traced To Russia. Sergei Scachin created a mild controversy last year when he wrote that an ancient Russian game dating back to Ivan the Terrible’s reign is the inspiration for baseball. He theorized that Russian immigrants took lapta to the United States in the 1800s. It’s a loosely organized game played with a stick and ball.
”Look out,” warns Constantine Bondarenko, a U.S. history specialist and interpreter. ”This new sport is not so new after all. It has roots deep in our country’s soul.”
Baseball was introduced in the Soviet Union two years ago. The Kremlin ordered its development in preparation for the game’s new status as a medal sport in the 1992 Olympics.
The Big Red Machine’s passion for sport has Americans wondering how long it will take before the Soviets master baseball.
”Slowly but surely,” said Alexei Nikolov of the Soviet Baseball Federation. ”We have many difficulties to work out.”
Sturmovschina, the Russian word for taking something by storm and perfecting it, isn’t being applied to baseball the way it had been to hockey and basketball. At least not yet. Still, there’s a plan with a gold medal in mind. Soviet baseball officials hope the international baseball tournament they hosted last weekend will hasten other plans.
”I couldn’t overstate how important the tournament was to baseball’s development here,” Nikolov said. ”Many important officials watched, and they were impressed.”
The four-team tourney, which included the University of Miami and Moscow State, was a two-day gala, a celebration of the opening of the Soviet Union’s first baseball stadium. Top-ranking Soviets from the Politburo and the Ministry of Sport watched the tourney and stadium dedication on the Moscow State University campus.
”It was a chance to show off our new sport,” said Evgeny Isyanov, the general director of the Moscow Sports Committee. ”To show baseball is big and important. I think we changed some minds.”
Baseball has received little support from the strained resources of the Soviet Ministry of Sport. The new baseball stadium was a $3.7 million gift from a Japanese philanthropist. Until its construction, games were played on soccer fields.
Bats, balls and gloves are still hard to come by. Just six months ago, a Soviet baseball official estimated there were as few as 100 baseballs in the country.
For the most part, the sport’s new enthusiasts were left to manage for themselves. About 30 clubs played last spring. They are made up of former track athletes, soccer players and the like.
Mendeleyev, the first Soviet baseball team to tour the United States, formed typically. Andy Petrov read about the Kremlin’s endorsement of baseball and approached the Mendeleyev Chemical Institute for sponsorship. He was introduced to the game while living in Montreal, where his father was a Soviet trade representative.
Petrov’s team started from scratch. In fact, before it was officially formed, Petrov organized a six-on-six game in Moscow’s Sukolniky Park. They played with a broom handle and a tennis ball.
Rick Spooner, an American working for a trade consortium in Moscow, saw the game. He volunteered to help coach. He also provided some gloves and balls.
Still, Mendeleyev had little. They practiced for their U.S. tour with three bats, seven balls, hockey goalie pads for the catcher and a broken helmet. When a ball got knocked into a nearby river, they went swimming after it.
”We made our own field, and it was pretty rough,” Petrov said, stretching his lower lip to reveal a chipped tooth. ”Lots of bad hops.”
The state of the game is slowly improving. An organizational plan is unfolding.
Twenty-four clubs played this summer in the Soviet Union’s first national baseball tournament. The Soviet Army and Kiev will play for the championship this month.
”There are about 50 clubs now,” Isyanov said. ”And more are forming every day. We have teams in all 15 republics.”
Next year, he said, the first official Soviet league will be formed. The top 12 teams from this year’s national tournament will play ”professionally.” Many players from those teams have signed contracts with the Ministry of Sport and will compete full-time, much the way Soviet soccer, hockey and basketball players do.
”I will be making 200 rubles (about $320) a month,” said Petrov, who switched from volleyball. ”That could change depending on how well I play.”
Youth clubs are being formed independently, but Isyanov said he hoped it wouldn’t be long before a national youth team and official youth leagues were organized.
”We’re betting on them,” Isyanov said. ”They are our hope. Those kids who will know only baseball.”
For the first time, in fall, two of the nation’s 28 specialized youth sports academies will include baseball in their academic-athletic curricula.
”It’s a beginning,” Nikolov said. ”Not all of the structure, or even its concept, is in place yet.”
Isayanov said new fields are planned in all the republics. Though the government recently purchased 1,000 baseball gloves from Cuba, equipment remains a problem. The Soviets don’t produce any equipment themselves, but officials say tentative plans are being made to build a plant. Teams get most of their equipment any way they can.
A touring Latin American team left many of its gloves and balls. Bunny Mick, a hitting instructor for the Cardinals who journeyed to Russia on his own this month to give clinics, brought $5,000 in equipment from Hillerich and Bradsby.
Soviet coaches also pick up instruction where they can. Mick isn’t the first American to offer his services. Two Johns Hopkins coaches returned to the USSR this summer to give clinics. A year ago, Johns Hopkins became the first American team to play here. Cuban and Japanese coaches also have been imported for clinics.
The Soviets won’t predict how long it will take them to challenge for a gold medal. Isyanov says the first goal is to overtake the Netherlands and Italy in the European championships. Then, perhaps by 1996, they can qualify for the Olympics.
”When we have players who are baseball players first,” Isyanov said, ”then we can begin to expect more.”

Published in: on July 22, 2012 at 2:27 pm  Comments (8)