To Russia with Rake: First Pitcher’s Mound in USSR
With the 2014 Olympics taking place in Sochi , Russia it brought back some fond memories of my tours through this wonderful country. The photo above is actually the first pitchers mound constructed in the USSR. I didnt even know it until after it was built and the countries president of the baseball federation told our entourage. Charlie Eschbach President of the Eastern League at the time, took the hill for the first pitch.
The event was the USSR Diamond Diplomacy Tour . For about a month we took a group of Double AA professional players on loan from multiple MLB clubs to compete in a friendly series of games against a young Soviet Union National team in the fall of 1989. The USSR was still under communist rule so seeing a bunch of Americans walking around the Kremlin for a few weeks was rather odd for the locals. The tour was managed by Sal Artiga President of Minor League BAseball and Eastern league ownership but the core guys were Peter Kirk and Charles Eschbach. The games began in Kiev’s 80,000 seat Dynamo football stadium. I had a fun time explaining the rules of the game and dimensions in Russian but we got through it. Some pretty good players ( Don Buford Jr, Troy Neel, Jeff bannister (now manager of the rangers) Dan Simmonds, Steven Scarzone, Tommy Shields) were on the team not to mention managers Dave Trembley ( Houston Astros) Stump Merrill ( NY Yankees) and even MLB umpire Jeff Kellogg.
The first game was somewhat lopsided with the USA team scoring way to many runs. Something had to change or it was going to be a very long tour. We spent a few days trying to level the field and put up temporary home run fences, backstops etc… After we played in Dynamo stadium we headed to a smaller stadium in Kiev called “Start Stadium” (above) . This stadium had a dark history as it was host to a game during WWII known as the Death Match. The story goes… German’s had occupied Ukraine and in a way of winning over the locals played a Russian team made up of “bakers” who were actually ex-pro players from the Russian leagues. The Russians won the game even though they were warned by the SS not to win.
According to the story we were told in Kiev, after the soccer game about 10 players from the team were placed in concentration camps and several were shot. Well… when the USA players heard this story, they re-thought the game plan for this makeshift ballpark because they were the first American Pro baseball team to play on the field.
After some internal discussion, it was determined to not “go as hard “ for this game. USA won but not so lopsided. It was a good time to show diplomacy in this tour to say the least. After the second series they decided to create the “UNITY” games and hold a mock draft and split the teams up more evenly to the satisfaction of the Soviets and USA.
From Kiev ( in the Ukraine) we went north to Estonia and played in Tallinn (Kadriorg) stadium. Once Again we had to recondition a soccer field for a baseball match. Here is where we constructed the first professional pitching rubber on Soviet soil. ( TOP PHOTO) It wasn’t much, but ESPN and the owners played it up like it was the creation of the Washington Monument. Along the way in each city we made some friends and I still think about them to this day. Most of my groundscrew were 12- and 13 year old kids playing baseball for the club teams.
Before leaving for the USSR, I had read about the trading frenzy the locals had for USA goods. Jeans and shoes were a hot commodity. They wanted to trade rubles for dollars and that didn’t go over very well. I took over a sega game video station an traded for a box of maroushka dolls, hats, etc.. Still have a couple.
After Tallinn we headed to our final stop in Moscow. They actually had the only real baseball field in USSR but timing was bad for our games. We were now in late September and the weather was pretty bad. It started to snow, sleet etc.. which shut down the opportunity on our final days in the country to play on a real field. Weather forced us improvise and set up an indoor soccer arena for the final game. Arena ball at it’s best!!! (PHOTO BELOW) With 25ft tall nets and the entire sides covered, it was perfect. Ground rules were simple… play it off the net anywhere. We used a box of athletic tape to mark off the field dimensions and actually taped down the bases to the turf floor. It was pretty cool. ESPN’s “This Night in Baseball” followed us around the country and did a story. I found the 30 minute show in 2 parts on Utube. Part 1 and Part 2
Although this event was 25 years ago its nice to look back and see where the game has gone internationally. MLBI and IBAF have done so much in recent years to expand the game. Ironically the Soviet Union broke apart about a year after the tour. I guess the diamond diplomacy part worked after all :).
I went back a couple years ago to check out a venue for the Baseball World cup. Jim Baba Canada’s GM of “everything to do with baseball” traveled with me. Just a great guy. We went to see M.V. Lomonosov Moscow State University Baseball Venue and although it had potential, we just didn’t have the time or resources to pull this one off. The game is growing around the world faster than ever thanks to WBSC.