Federation Focus: Russia proud past, promising baseball future

Federation Focus: Russia proud past, promising baseball future
As the main Republic of the Soviet Union, Russia was officially introduced to baseball in 1987. Current Russian Baseball Federation President Dmitry Kiselev reveals the nation's history and future of baseball.

The Russian National Baseball Team entered the 2001 European Championship as a relatively new baseball country, but claimed a historical silver medal. Italy and the Netherlands had finished either in first or second place in 21 out of 22 Euros played since 1958. Neither Italy nor the Netherlands participated in 1967.

Russia defeated Italy, 2-0, in the semifinal and lost, 4-0, against Rob Cordemans and the Netherlands in the final.

"It was a hard-fought silver," commented Dmitry Kiselev, president of the Russian Baseball Federation. A former coach and a Physical Education teacher, Kiselev was elected president in 2017. He is also the Secretary-General of the Russian Student Sport Union and a member of the European University Sports Association.

"Today, Russian Baseball has 3,000 registered athletes," said Kiselev told WBSC. "We also have an Amateur Baseball League with 20 teams. It is pretty popular".

The term of Kiselev as president was highlighted by the building of the RusStar Arena in Moscow. Construction began in 2017 and the venue officially opened in May 2019.
"The RusStar Arena was blueprinted, created, and built with solely private funds," commented Kiselev.

"It is a project that came to life, both idea- and finance-wise, thanks to Bogdan Strelchenko. He started playing baseball at an early age, and now we are proud to say Bogdan is the president of the Moscow Baseball & Softball Federation and the National Team General Manager."

The RusStar Arena hosted in June 2019 the Confederation of European Baseball (CEB) Federations Cup Qualifier. RusStar Moscow finished first.

"It is one of the most high-tech and up-to-date venues in Eastern Europe," added Kiselev. "It provides two open baseball & softball artificial fields (full-size and training) with artificial lights and 1500-seat stands, bullpens, batting cages as well as an indoor facility with two baseball & softball infields and a gym."

The RusStar Arena hosted the final series of the Russian National Baseball Championship and will host the Russian Baseball Cup in October.

The venue was supposed to host this year's Qualifiers to the European Baseball Championship and the U-23 European Baseball Championship. The events were postponed to the 2021 season because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The arena is still the home of the Russian Baseball National Teams.

"As of now we are looking at the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles," commented Dmitry Kiselev. "By that time our National Team will have a hardcore of today's youth. Most of our efforts go to improving the quality of their training. This involves arranging national coach clinics with the international specialists as speakers, building fields and stadiums across the country, getting hands-on the newest equipment – especially one for collecting and analyzing data, organizing as many tournaments as possible – even in winter, sending teams abroad for broadening our knowledge of the game."

The Russian Baseball Federation has recently introduced Baseball5.

"In my opinion, the discipline is a great opportunity to promote baseball, especially on the regional scale," added Kiselev. "It requires practically no equipment and the rules are quite easy to grasp even for newcomers. I’d say we are moving in the right direction. At the first European Baseball5 Championship in February Russia earned a bronze medal and was acknowledged as the Best Defensive Team of the tournament."

The history of baseball in Russia began after the dissolution of the USSR. The first Russian Baseball Champions, CSKA-Balashikha, were crowned in 1992. Russia was quick in establishing itself on the world stage and qualified for the IBAF World Cup 1998.

Kiselev was at the time the manager of the Junior National Team that finished third at the 1996 European Championship.

This takes us back to the 2001 European Championship and the historical win against Italy.
"Our pitcher, former javelin thrower Rinat Makhmutov, was truly brilliant on the mound and deserved his spot on the All-Tournament team," remembered Kiselev. "He was only one of our diamonds, though. Russia became the Best Defensive Team of the tournament and second baseman Alexander Nizov was voted the Outstanding Defensive player. He made the All-Tournament Team together with Makhmoutov and catcher Andrei Selivanov."

Both Nizov (Anaheim Angels) and Selivanov (Atlanta Braves) played Minor League Baseball (MiLB) in the United States. Right-handed pitcher Oleg Korneev, who earned the save in the semifinal against Italy, was at the time a Seattle Mariners minor leaguer.

The first Russian minor leaguers were the members of the so-called Glasnost Gang: pitcher Rudolf Razjigaev, third baseman Yevgeny Puchkov and shortstop Ilya Bogatyrev. They signed for the Anaheim Angels in 1992 and none of them went beyond the Single-A level.

Right-handed pitcher Victor Cole was born in 1968 in St Petersburg (then called Leningrad). His father emigrated to Russia from Sierra Leone. The family moved to the United States when Victor was four. Cole would go on to play eight MLB games for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Four more players born in Russia played in the Major Leagues. Catcher Eddie Ainsmith (who played from 1910 to 1924 for Washington, Detroit, St Louis, Brooklyn Robins, New York Giants) was born in 1890 in Moscow. Pitcher Rube Schauer (New York Giants and Philadelphia Athletics, 1913-1917) was born in 1891 in Odessa, today part of Ukraine. Outfielder Reuben Ewing was also born in Odessa in 1899 and had a cup of coffee in the Bigs for the St Louis Cardinals. Pitcher Izzy Goldstein, another one born in Odessa, appeared in 16 games for the Detroit Tigers in 1932.

The current Russian top prospect is left-handed pitcher Anton Kuznetsov. He made his professional debut at the Rookie League level for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2017, when he was a few weeks away from his nineteenth birthday. He pitched 33 innings as a Class A reliever in 2019.

Russia was officially introduced to baseball as the main Republic of the Soviet Union in 1987 when the USSR Goskomsport (the State Sports Committee) decided to promote the game, that had become an Olympic medal sport.

Baseball was actually introduced to the USSR many decades before by people leaving the United States during the Great Depression. Victor Starffin (1916-1957; he was born Staruhin in Nizhny Tagil, in the Urals Region) was one Soviet player who made his fortune in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). The right-handed pitcher, nicknamed "The Japanese with Blue Eyes", was the first 300-game winner in Japanese professional baseball and holds the record for career shutouts with 83.

The USSR Baseball Softball and Lapta Federation was established in 1987 in Moscow. After Russia, the first Soviet Republics where baseball spread were Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Uzbekistan.

The first unofficial international game was played on 15 August 1987 in Kyiv (current day Ukraine). Nicaragua defeated the USSR 22-0.

"The team was formed by athletes from Moscow, Kyiv, Tashkent, Tbilisi," remembered Dmitry Kiselev. "They came from javelin throw or tennis or handball and they were trying to become baseball players. Jut a month later, they defeated Czechoslovakia, 5-4."

The 1990 Group B European Championship in Parma, Italy, was the first official international event for the USSR. The Soviets outplayed the opponents and were promoted to Group A. The USSR got ready for the European Championship during the Goodwill Games in the USA and finished sixth behind the hosts Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, France and Belgium in the 1991 European Championship in Nettuno. They left behind Sweden and Great Britain.
It was the last event for the USSR Baseball National Team.