Thursday, August 23, 2007

мальчики лета (Boys of Summer)

Let's not pretend that baseball (or even it's ancient cousin, lapta) is very popular in Russia. It isn't.

However, the Russian National Baseball team hopes to make it a little less so. Philadelphia Weekly Online has the details of last weekends Russian National Baseball Team 6-0 victory over the Greater Philadelphia Men’s Adult Baseball League All-Star Team. It was one of only a few victories that the RNBT scored while on tour the past month in the United States.
The Russian baseball team has been in the U.S. since mid-July, barnstorming up and down the East Coast, preparing for next month’s European championships, which will also serve as a qualifier for the 2008 Olympic Games.

Russia has never qualified for the Olympics. The official Russian baseball website carries this slogan: “Soviet hockey obtained world-class status in only 20 years. Soviet basketball obtained world-class status in only 20 years. Why not Russian baseball?”

It seems unlikely. The Russians have lost more games than they’ve won on the worldwide trip. They lost to the United States national team 6-0 and the Chinese team 6-1. Though the local boys held their own,the Russians won 6-0.
Not a bad showing versus the local Philly All-Star team. Some of the problems that Russian baseball faces include not just a low level of national interest in baseball within Russia, but the heat of an American summer combined with throwback flannel uniforms:


Heat is a problem. The Russian players aren’t used to August in America. “They were dying last night,” GPMABL commissioner Brett Mandel says of a trip the Russians took to Citizens Bank Park last week. Making matters worse are the jerseys the Russians wear.

According to the Russian baseball website, “These special flannel ‘Throw Back the Clock’ uniforms are patterned after the 1956 USSR Olympic Team outfits from the Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, however of course instead of the CCCP jerseys of the time the Russian National Team will be sporting the Cyrillic spelling of Russia … that includes America’s favorite backward ‘R.’”

America’s love of the backward ‘R’ notwithstanding, the jerseys aren’t quite right for a tour of America. They’re old-time baseball jerseys made out of flannel. While the Philadelphia team wore modern, breathable jerseys to last week’s game, the Russians were sweating in flannel. (The fashion conscious will be happy to know the official Russian national team hat will be available in the popular New Era 5950 model.)
I'm sorry that I missed the RNBT's tour here in the U.S., they played a game in Lowell, Massachusetts on July 17th that is only 40 minutes from home. However, I believe this won't be their last trip here, and next year I hope to do more to promote the teams arrival.

For those interested in participating in any future games or a possible tour in 2008, I would recommend contacting U.S.-Russia Chamber of Commerce of New England, Inc. (USRCCNE) and Bob Protexter or Total Baseball Development. Additional information about Russian International Baseball can be found at their website, here.

I also briefly mentioned baseball's ancient cousin, which still exists in Russia, called lapta (лапта). Lapta originated in the 14th century and is a possible ancestor of all "bat and ball" games, including the 19th century game we came to know as baseball. The theory goes that Russian immigrants in the early 19th century on the west coast of what is now the U.S.A. brought lapta with them, which evolved into baseball. However, it would seem more likely that lapta arrived through Europe, evolving into cricket and rounders and eventually baseball in America. From NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, Fall 2000 issue author Robert Elias recounts a story by writer John Leo, which dates lapta’s arrival in the United States as occuring in the 1840s. Leo cites a story from Pravda that claims

lapta and baseball were probably “stolen by a Marine guard at the U.S. embassy in Moscow who scurrilously wheedled crucial lapta information out of an unwary Russian cook during an evening of illicit and probably drug-induced lovemaking.”
The same story by Elias cites Leon Trotsky as an ardent lapta fan, and that the Soviet Union attempted to claim baseball as their own (the horror!):
... the New York Times reported on February 17, 1935, that the 'Soviet Government,' apparently seeking to reclaim its ownership of the game, 'decided today to sponsor a program for introducing baseball throughout the Soviet Union as a national sport.' Zoss and Bowman claim that 'for whatever reasons, nothing seems to have come of it.'

But this vastly underestimates the real story. Indeed, a game resembling baseball had long been played in the Soviet Union. What historians often ignore is that one of those who most excelled at the sport was none other than Leon Trotsky, who first starred on his school team in the small town of Yanovka in the Ukraine and then played semipro lapta in various leagues around the country. Trotsky was also a fierce advocate for lapta as the Soviet national sport. He believed it was the only game with real, revolutionary potential. He was not alone. John Leo reminds us of Vladimir Lenin’s famous admonition about the Russian psyche: 'Anyone who wishes to understand the Russian soul had better learn lapta.'
Actually, this is all part of a joke article, fiction by Robert Elias. I highly recommend the rest of the story by Robert Elias in NINE for anyone interested in Russian and Soviet history and baseball. It's a great and humorous collision of these two topics.

Lapta is essentially a childhood game and isn't played very often these days, even in Russia. However, various groups do hope to change that (such as lapta.ru).

One problem is that lapta rules can vary considerably and there are many local forms of the game. There are also no official equipment requirements, other than a ball and lapta ... what we would call a bat. The nature of the ball varies, as these photos show a tennis ball but really any number of different balls can be used. Also the lapta itself varies, from a wooden paddle similar to that used in cricket, to a thick stick or broom-handle as you would use in stick-ball. Various rules exist, with 2 player variants and other forms available for play.

In some ways, lapta is more similar to cricket, in that the batter runs back and forth across the field after the ball is hit, rather than around 4 corners of a square or diamond, with "safe" spots at each corner or "base" ... as in baseball. However, there is no wicket in lapta and bowler (or pitcher in baseball) doesn't throw the ball at the batter.

Instead, they stand before the batter and toss the ball up. There are various methods of swinging the bat or striking the ball, depending upon the player and the strategy at the moment.

More lapta leagues and organizations are forming across Russia these days, with a subsequent solidifying of the rules and training of officials for higher level of play. Increased popularity and participation can only enhance the prospects for baseball in the future in Russia.


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12 comments:

Lindsay said...

Cool article. Would have loved to see these guys play as well (beats watching the Nats). Might have to pick up a cap when they come out.

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