Posted on 12 August 2009.
RUSSIA – It’s the bottom of the ninth, but there are men on base and sluggers on deck as baseball enthusiasts in Russia go into bat for America’s favorite pastime.
“The situation is slowly, but surely, changing for the better despite the obstacles,” said Yury Kopylov, head of Russia’s baseball and softball federation. “This year we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of baseball in Russia.”
While Russia has reaped success in sports that were practiced little during the Soviet era — tennis and curling, for example — baseball is still very much on the sidelines.
This surprises some, since the ancient Russian game lapta — a sport involving a stick and a ball that was popular for centuries — is governed by rules closely resembling modern baseball.
Baseball made its debut in Russia in the 1930s, when US migrants fleeing the Great Depression made their way to the Soviet Union hoping to find a better life — and a place to play baseball.
The Communist powers at the time even went so far as to classify baseball as a new “national” sport in the Soviet Union.
The Kremlin’s apparent willingness to play ball in the early 1930s came to an abrupt end in 1937, however, with the start of the internal security crackdown of the Great Terror.
Suddenly, baseball players were viewed with official suspicion, arrested and accused of espionage while the sport itself was re-classified as a bourgeois pursuit alien to Soviet morality. The sport was later totally banned.
It was only in the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union itself began to fall apart, that the sport started to make a timid reappearance in the fields of Russia.
It was then that baseball was included in the program for the Summer Olympics, giving the Kremlin the ideological cover it needed to ease restrictions on the sport.
The Soviet national federation of baseball and softball was established and the first national baseball championship took place in 1989, with 24 teams battling for the title.
Baseball began to take root again in Russia, with the number of national league teams gradually expanding to 50 along with a steady growth in the numbers of actual players.
Despite the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia continued to cultivate baseball.
But development of baseball in Russia then took another hit, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) striking the game off its list of sports for the 2012 Games.
Kopylov, who admits he faces an uphill struggle to promote baseball in Russia, lamented the IOC’s decision, noting that baseball competitions in recent Olympic Games had been hugely popular.
“The exclusion of baseball from the Olympic program was a mistake,” he said. “It is a very democratic and dynamic game and I hope it will soon regain Olympic status.”
Photo courtesy of Natali Gutovskaya M-SPORT
SOURCE: AFP MOSCOW