Russians overcome obstacles to play at Little League World Series

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Overlooking Little League's Howard J. Lamade Stadium, 11-year-old Alexey Kobrinets said the biggest difference between baseball in the United States and back home in Russia isn't the well-kept fields or the high-quality equipment.

It's the attitude.

''Nobody cares about baseball in Russia,'' Kobrinets said through manager and translator Vladimir Eltchaninov. ''Everyone is playing soccer.''

Thanks to a team from Moscow, that might soon change.

Ten years after a failed coup ushered in a new political era in the former Soviet Union, Kobrinets and his teammates are writing a new chapter in Russian sports history as the first team from the region to compete in the Little League World Series.

The Khovrino Little League from Moscow is the leading edge of a new age in Russian baseball, said Eltchaninov, who learned the game in New York when his parents worked for the Soviet government. It began in 1986, when the Soviet Union created a baseball federation to support Olympic competition and grew when the first Russian Little League was formed 10 years ago.

''There were some Russian players before,'' Eltchaninov said. ''Most came from other sports, like (team) handball. There's still not many, and in Moscow there are only maybe eight teams.

"But maybe this will make more people interested.''

The barriers to competition in Russia can be substantial. Eltchaninov's team practices and plays its games in an open field in a city park without backstops or baselines, where they sometimes have to stop play so that pedestrians and their pets can cross.

''Compared to this one, we don't have a field,'' said infielder Sergei Volkov, looking at Lamade Stadium.

The Russians arrived in South Williamsport without baseball shoes, with only one set of catcher's gear (teams can't warm up a pitcher unless there's a catcher in full gear) and without a light bat for the smaller players. So locals and parents from U.S. teams, led by a group from Oceanside, Calif., pitched in to buy the team nearly $1,000 in new equipment.

They got this far not by wearing the best shoes, but by playing good baseball. At the Europe Region qualifying tournament in Kotna, Poland, the Russians defeated Georgia 12-2 to win the World Series berth. In eight games, they outscored their opponents 74-12.

Nikolai Lobanov, a fastball pitcher, gave up only four runs in 16 innings at Kotna, and shortstop Kirill Chermoshentsev is one of the best fielders at the series this year. Catcher Tatiana Maltseva also has become a fan favorite as the only girl in this year's series.

''I don't underestimate those kids,'' Guam manager Ramon Aguon Jr. said after his team beat Russia 5-0 Monday. ''They play their hearts out, and they're well-disciplined. We committed three errors, and they didn't commit any.''

Russia didn't fare well in the competition, opening Saturday with a 5-1 loss to Canada, then losing to Guam. Russia lost its final game Tuesday, 2-0 to Mexico.

This might not be their last chance. Chermoshentsev and Kobrinets are two of four team members young enough to return next year. Only one team, Panama, has more players young enough to return.

''We feel that our team is good enough to play with these teams,'' Eltchaninov said.

If the swimming pool and the video games are a distraction, that's OK, said Eltchaninov, who would like to take his team to a New York Yankees game before they return to Russia.

''All our kids are not focused on baseball now,'' Eltchaninov said. ''But we don't think that's bad, because they're not professional ballplayers -- they're just kids. This whole trip is a good experience for them.''

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