Crisp Russian Squad Outplays Tri-Staters

© Peter Wallace – Register Citizen – 7/19/07

Russian National Team 7, Tri-State All-Stars 3

How does Torrington ‘s Fuessenich Park compare with baseball fields in Russia?  “There are no bad baseball fields,” smiled Russian National Team Head Coach Dmitry Shlyapnikov through an interpreter, after his Russian National Team beat the Tri-State League All-Stars, 7-3, Wednesday night in a light fog at Fuessenich.  The Russians played well – 11 hits, no errors, lots of aggressive base running – while the All-Stars are better individual players than they showed as a new-formed group – 6 hits, 5 errors.  But the point of this game for everyone, players and fans alike in a half-filled stadium on an iffy weather night, was much more about a Russian coach’s grin and shared love of baseball than who got a specific hit or made an error.

“Everybody here had a smile on their face when the game ended,” said Tri-State Commissioner Ed Gadomski, who, with his Board of Directors, put the game together with about a month’s notice.  “I’ve played on a lot of all-star teams, but I’ve never played on one that represented my country,” said Torrington Rebels third baseman Darrin Gould.  “It was an honor to be out there with those guys.”  Torrington ‘s Rich Thomson is the closest there is to a local expert on Russian baseball.  Beginning with his membership on a Connie Mack All-Star team that beat a Russian junior national team in 1994, he’s now played Russian teams three times.

“We beat them that first year; the next year, they were better and beat us,” Thomson said. “Now, they seem to know the game.”

If they don’t, it’s not their coach’s fault.  “I started playing when I was 21,” said Shlyapnikov, now 41.  He’s proud to have 18 and 19-year-old kids on his team now, in a sport that ranks “in the bottom third” in Russia, behind hockey, soccer and basketball.  The team arrived in the U.S. Sunday, and its game with Tri-State was already its third of a 19-game schedule to be played in a month.  Starting with losses against the NECBL’s Pittsfield and Lowell teams, the Russians came to Fuessenich hungry for their first win. “We played our game – fewer mistakes,” said Shlyapnikov.  And took advantage of Tri-State’s mistakes.

That’s how they posted their first run, in the top of the first, on a lead-off error, followed by a hit batter.  A single and a fielder’s choice put the run across.  Both teams saw lots of variety on the mound.  The Russians used five pitchers; Tri-State used seven.  Pitching changes for Russia began in the second inning, when the Russian pitcher with the most American-sounding name – Victor Cole – was also the friendliest to Tri-State batters.  Justin McCulloch led off the inning with a walk. Tom Downey and Ricky Langer followed with singles, and, bases loaded, two out, Steve Richard and Jamie Whiting forced in runs with walks.  The score was 2-2 until the fifth, when the telling split in the game finally became clear: Tri-State errors were going to hurt the American team; Russian pitchers and their defense weren’t giving anything back.  In the top of the fifth, the Russians got another gift error for their lead-off batter and turned it into two runs, when they added a stolen base, a double and a single.  Tri-State scored a run on a lead-off walk by Tim Hamel and an RBI double by McCulloch in the bottom of the fifth, to stay a run behind, 4-3.

But the Russians brought in one pitcher with nasty stuff (7 strikeouts in three innings) and a closer whose heat added three more Ks, and there were just two more Tri-State hits.

An error in the sixth helped Russia to two more runs, and they turned two hits into the final score in the eighth.  One year from now, 10 years from now, Tri-State players won’t remember plays.  Instead, they’ll smile about playing a team that’s going from here to the European Championships and then to an Olympic qualifying tournament.  “If we didn’t think we had a chance, we wouldn’t be here,” said Coach Shlyapnikov.  “It’s something we’ll tell our kids and our grand-kids,” said Tri-State’s Thomson.

The senior Russian National Baseball Team, under the direction of the Russian Olympic Committee will embark on a 2007 U.S.A. baseball tour traveling throughout eastern United States thru August 15th.  The goal of the trip is to fully prepare the Russian National Baseball Team to play in the 2007 European Championships beginning on September 7th in Barcelona, Spain, and the Olympic Qualifier Championship held in Beijing, China where they will be competing for a spot in the 2008 summer Olympics.  The Russian National Team is comprised of the best of the best Russian baseball players.  This year is the 20th year anniversary of baseball in Russia.  Since 1992, eleven players from the former Soviet Union have signed minor league baseball contracts to play in the United States.  In addition to playing the top summer collegiate leagues across eastern United States, the Russian National Baseball Team will also be playing Team U.S.A. and the Chinese National Team during their stay in the United States.