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Angels seeking comrades in arms in Russia


ANAHEIM, Calif. -- They are on our side now, these Russians. Our enemy is their enemy: the evil umpire. Ronald Reagan would be proud. So would Branch Rickey.

Baseball's last frontier, California Angels scouting director Bob Fontaine Jr. called it. Who could have imagined, Russia potentially a breeding ground for America's pastime?

"What if we do find some players here?" Fontaine asked wistfully during a recent scouting mission to Moscow.

They have embraced baseball in the Commonwealth of Independent States. They've been playing for about five years, however rudimentarily, and, as the Soviet Union, even sent a team to compete in the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle.

On March 28, Fontaine flew to Moscow, where he spent a week and found some players of limited potential, a trio that will break ground, if not Hank Aaron's or Nolan Ryan's records. Shortstop Ilya Bogatyrev, third baseman Yevgeny Puchkof and pitcher Rudolf Razhigaev will report to the Angels' Arizona League entry, the Mesa Angels, in July.

It is a vision, mostly. Fontaine is looking ahead a dozen years, maybe more, to a time when a Russian-born slugger might hit one out of Anaheim Stadium, a borscht belt heard halfway 'round the world.

"I just hope people understand that this is a long-term project," Fontaine said last week. "We have to start somewhere. This isn't going to happen in five minutes. Australia has been at it for 25 years, and they're just now coming around.

"These guys have been playing for only five years. But look at what they've done in other sports, in hockey and basketball, once they decided they wanted to play. They accelerated development as quickly as possible. One thing we do know: They have athletes. Nobody can dispute that."

The notion that some of those athletes might opt to play baseball occurred to Fontaine when he scouted the Goodwill Games and observed what then was the Soviet Union national team. He filed away in his mind this scouting report: good athletes, good size, enthusiastic.

"It was intriguing to me," he said. "At that point, they'd just finished playing their third year. I thought it was phenomenal that they'd gotten that far in such a short period of time."

Fontaine and Bill Bavasi, the Angels director of minor league operations, began ruminating about the possibility of one day employing Soviet baseball players. "But with the government situation the way it was, it was not something we gave a whole lot of thought to," he said.

Then the Iron Curtain came tumbling down, and suddenly anything was possible, even the collapse of the Soviet Union and finding left-handed pitchers from Siberia, comrades with arms.

Fontaine and Bavasi took their idea to Angels vice presidents Whitey Herzog and Dan O'Brien, who gave their endorsements. Fontaine then obtained an official invitation to visit Moscow, courtesy of the efforts of Bavasi's sister-in-law, Judy Bavasi, wife of former baseball executive Peter Bavasi and a teacher at Moscow State University.

Inclement weather greeted Fontaine and moved workouts to an indoor soccer facility, yet he saw enough to know that prima and donna were not part of the Russian vocabulary.

"Their work ethic and enthusiasm were there," Fontaine said. "I think it's kind of exciting to know they want to learn everything. They are receptive to everything because baseball is in its infancy there."

Fontaine's idea was to select three of Russia's best young players and bring them to the United States, provide them professional instruction, and "find out where they are, how quickly they adapt," he said. His choices:

* Razhigaev, 23, a left-handed pitcher born in Siberia. "Mechanically, his arm action is very good. He has a chance to end up with a decent delivery."

* Bogatyrev, 21, a shortstop with the Moscow Red Devils and the leadoff hitter with the National Team. "He's a catalyst and one of the best defensive players they have."

* Puchkof, 21, a third baseman with the Red Devils. "He has a chance to swing the bat a little bit. He's one of their better offensive players."

"We wanted younger guys, people who could be helped, who looked like they could really improve and someday be beneficial to the game," Fontaine said.

The idea is not that they advance through the minor leagues en route to major league careers and Sandberg-like 700 million-ruble-a-year contracts, but that they return home with knowledge to pass on to the next generation.

"They understand the future of baseball is getting young kids interested," Fontaine said. "If these three kids came over and played two months and never came back, wouldn't they still be premier coaches there? When I was there I realized that we can't just send people over a week at a time [to conduct clinics] and expect them to get better. It isn't going to happen. This is the way to do it."

The players were offered $1,500 signing bonuses and the standard minor league contract of $850 a month, a czar's ransom to those making 4,000 rubles a month (about $40) for playing professionally in Russia.

"They'd never seen a contract before," Fontaine said, though he dismissed as erroneous a Wall Street Journal report that they did not know what a contract was. "They know more about American baseball than most people realize."

They know that a foul line is not a line in which they have to wait, and that American players can afford to wash down beluga caviar with the finest Russian vodka any time they wish.

"They understand there's money to be made in the U.S.," Fontaine said. "But they understand where they are in baseball, too."

The neophyte stage is light-years removed from Broadway. Or the Game of the Week. Fontaine will say only that the level at which the CIS national team plays is better than that played by American high school teams. Fontaine explains that employing their better players now is putting a down payment on the future.

"Hopefully, this will [one day] pay dividends for the Angels, if it works," he said. "As one of the first clubs in there, we should have the benefit of getting their better players. There's a lot to name recognition there. And they have a sense of loyalty."

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