A (Future) Red October

Left-hander Anton Kuznetsov posted a 0.36 ERA and 2.24 FIP in his first season state-side. (via Angelina Miro)

It’s 2017. The Phillies finish the regular season with the best record in the league. An All-Star lefty out of the bullpen leads the way with an 0.36 ERA. He is from Russia.

Wait. The Philadelphia Phillies finished the regular season with the third-worst record in the majors.  And there are no Russians on the roster, or anywhere in baseball. So the best record in the league and a Russian lefty on staff? Is this a New York Times best seller? A Hollywood box office smash? Alternative facts? No, this is real news.

Are the Russians meddling in American politics? Maybe. Are the Russians taking part in the American pastime? Yes! What’s next, vodka and borscht at your local ballpark instead of cold beer and hot dogs? Matryoshka dolls instead of bobblehead dolls? Caviar instead of Crackerjacks? ‘Da’…well maybe. The Phillies’ Russian is 19-year-old left-handed pitcher Anton Kuznetsov. He just finished his first season as a professional baseball pitcher with the Gulf Coast League Phillies, the parent club’s Rookie League team that plays in Clearwater, Fla.

A snapshot of the summer season takes place on Aug. 16. Kuznetsov makes his way from the bullpen mound to the game mound after being summoned from the dugout for another relief appearance. The game is at their home park, in the Philadelphia Phillies spring training complex. It’s the top of the seventh inning, and there is one out. The Phillies are up two runs, but Kuznetsov inherits two men on base. It’s white-knuckle time.

The Russians did it. That’s a pretty common phrase you hear these days.

This Kuznetsov, the Russian, is not a political operative. He is not a crafty former KGB agent. He is not an elusive spy. He does not work in the shadows of the Kremlin. And he does not engage in international espionage. Mr. Kuznetsov’s deceptiveness is in his pitching repertoire. He engages in elusive sinking change-ups, a crafty downward acting curveball, and an 89 mph tailing fastball that’s tough to hit. All in the hopes of getting the next hitter out, all in the want of defeating the opposition on the baseball diamond. All with the goal of pitching in the majors someday. In this case of “The Russian doing it,” we are talking about strikeouts. We are referring to double plays. We are talking about minor league baseball in America.

Rookie ball and the Gulf Coast League in Florida is the first level of affiliated pro baseball here in the United States, and is composed of the youngest and some of the brightest up-and-coming players the game has to offer.

This Phillies club is managed by Roly de Armas, 66, a <Miami native of Cuban decent. During his seventh inning mound visit to change pitchers, de Armas is speaking Spanish with exiting pitcher Denny Xaviel Martinez, 17, of Bolivar, Venezuela. As the lefty Martinez hands the ball to the entering Kuznetsov the mound conversation, still in Spanish, turns to catcher Rafael Marchan, 18, of San Cristobal, Venezuela. The the language now shifts to English as de Armas begins with Kuznetsov and, but this is in a slow, deliberate, and very clear tone.  The game is on the line.

Kuznetsov is from Moscow. His native tongue is Russian. Kuznetsov’s Eastern Slavic accented reply in English is: “Yes, I understand.” The Phillies are leading the Toronto Blue Jays rookie team 5-3. There are men on second and third, and it is late in the game. Words are carefully chosen so there is nothing lost in communication; nothing lost in translation, and Kuznetsov repeats: “Yes, I understand.”

The Phillies win! On this 88-degree, hot-and-steamy Florida summer day there is a slight breeze coming in from right field. Eighty-eight degrees is a hot day for a Russian. Kuznetsov gives up one run in 2.2 innings on his way to his third save of the season. On this day, the Phillies are the GCL Northwest Division leaders, and owners of the overall league’s best record.

The Clearwater home crowd reaction was hushed as Kuznetsov entered the game. That is because there were only 20 or 30 people in attendance, all scattered out. This low down on the farm, there is no official attendance record. There are no turnstiles at the gates, admission is free, no beer is sold, and there are no t-shirt cannons. There is just a lot of baseball. Games start at noon Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. on Saturdays.

Yet there are rings at stake even at this level, and championships to be had. These young Phillies who  just beat the Blue Jays rookies head down the stretch of the last two weeks of the season eyeing the early September playoff picture in the GCL. A pennant race in Florida with a Russian and a couple of Venezuelans being led by a Cuban Miamian. International intrigue at its best.

Kuznetsov, who stands 6-foot-1, signed a minor league contract with the Phillies organization in 2016 as an 18-year-old international free agent. He walks like a Wild West gunslinger, has a strong-jawed look, and before you hear his accent you’d think he was from Texas. A Russian pitcher incognito.

Ray Robles, the assistant director of international operations for the Phillies, says he is impressed with  Kuznetsov: “I consider Anton a respectful, hard worker, and a determined young man. He came in not knowing what to expect, with probably some fear of what is to come his way but he grabbed this opportunity by the horns and never looked back.” Robles rates his first professional year a success.

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This August day’s pre-game conversation in Clearwater between de Armas and starting and winning pitcher Ethan Lindow, 18, the club’s 2017 fifth-round draft pick out of Locust Grove, Ga., moves along at a much faster English pace, but complete with a southern drawl. A modern day baseball manager’s job is part linguist, front of the line communicator, and part United Nations mediator.

Héctor Mercado is Kuznetsov’s pitching coach. Mercado is a lefty as well, and is from Catano, Puerto Rico. The pair have created a good bond with two basic things in common; they are both southpaws and for both English is their second language. Mercado pitched in the big leagues. Kuznetsov wants to pitch in the big leagues. Kuznetsov has topped out at 90 mph several times this summer. That is fast, but with 100 mph being the new 90, is it enough? The Phillies at this developmental stage believe that velocity can come with age, strength and maturity. And if the velocity does not come, a strikeout is a strikeout and Kuznetsov averaged just shy of a strikeout an inning, and sported an ERA below 1.00 this season. He was a GCL all-star.

The Phillies and other interested clubs had watched the young Kuznetsov progress during the last couple of years in European tournaments. A Cincinnati Reds scout gave him a business card. A Pittsburgh Pirates scout talked to him. A Los Angeles Dodgers scout took his personal information.  A New York Yankees scout commented that he was “throwing well.” The Baltimore Orioles inquired about his team’s pitching rotation to see when Kuznetsov would be pitching. They all watched.

In these last couple of years, he has developed into a quality lefty pitcher with a swing-and-miss curveball, good location with his change-up, and a fastball that moves. Kuznetsov had been clocked in the upper 80s through last summer. That is impressive for an 18-year-old, especially when said 18-year-old is Russian.

Kuznetsov was signed by Phillies Italian scout Claudio Scerrato last September just prior to the European Championships. Add Italian to the mix of speech exchanges. American scout and Phillies international consultant Gene Grimaldi provided a big assist in the scouting and signing process. Grimaldi has a wealth of international experience, Russian experience. While with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 1990s, he assisted Jim Stoeckel then their director of international scouting, in signing Russian pitchers Alexander Toropov and Roman Bessonov. Then, as Grimaldi moved to the Minnesota Twins as a scout, he was involved in the mid-2000s signings of two Russians (not relatives),    left-handed pitcher Andrei Lobanov and left-handed pitcher Nikolay Lobanov.

Stoeckel is now with the Reds as their director of global scouting, and says that a number of his team’s international scouts and consultants who’ve seen Kuznetsov reported being “especially impressed with his athletic ability and competitiveness.”

Grimaldi first saw him in July 2015, in Ostrava of the Czech Republic, and recalls this first encounter. “Kuznetsov pitched five innings with great poise in a losing cause versus the Czech National Team. He struck out 12 and had a compact and clean delivery. His fastball velocity was above average for his age and that day his plus curveball gave him most of his 12 Ks. He seemed highly competitive and his coach, Misha Kornev, an old baseball friend of mine, also projected Anton as a prospect for professional baseball.”

Grimaldi adds in the “intangibles” area: “He’s a big city kid. He’s from Moscow.” Tidbits such as this still add context to scouting report and are often important in judging a player’s makeup. Moscow is a city of some 12 million people. Daily ridership on the Moscow Metro is close to seven million people. Competing with even a fraction of seven million people every day just to sit down on the Moscow Metro gets you labeled as a “competitor” in a scouting report.

When asked about signing with the Phillies, Kuznetsov says, “I was very happy, very glad that I was going to be play for professional club [in America].” Currently, he is the only Russian-born player playing affiliated minor or major league baseball in America. (For the record, Anton is of no relation to either the NHL’s Washington Capitals Evgeny Kuznetsov nor the famous Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov).

“When I stayed here maybe first month I don’t understand American jokes (or pranks),” Kuznetsov says.  “Russian and American humor are different things…but now I try to understand.”

Opening Day major league 25-man rosters in 2017 boasted a record high 259 players born outside the 50 United States, or 29.8 percent of those rosters. These foreign players hailed from a record 19 countries and territories, including Germany and the Netherlands. The game is growing globally. It’s America’s game, but the world has been invited, so it really shouldn’t be that big  a surprise that Russia would be getting in on the action.

In November of 1986, the State Committee for Sport in the Soviet Union made baseball an “official sport” in the USSR. This proclamation came immediately on the heels of the International Olympic Committee’s vote that year to make baseball a gold medal sport in the Summer Olympic Games beginning in Barcelona in 1992. The “official sport” status would allow for government funding in the Soviet Union, a key element to make this sport a success countrywide. The Soviets were to chase gold in this new sport, and they would start the game of baseball from scratch in their giant country, with games beginning in the summer of 1987.

Confidence was high, as the Soviets already had great successes in previous decades in hockey and basketball under similar circumstances. Then in 1991, the USSR fell apart, dividing these Olympic baseball dreams into the 15 countries that were carved out of the 15 republics of the USSR. Baseball would limp along, and without a solid foothold, life has been tough for America’s pastime in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Then came another blow as the IOC voted baseball out of the Olympics for London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016, but the IOC reversed all that by reinstating baseball for the Summer Olympic Games in Japan 2020. Regardless, the ball had begun to roll, and baseball is still being played.

The Soviet team at the 1990 Goodwill Games, just before the USSR fell. (via German Gulbit)

Kuznetsov was born in 1998, so his only recollection of the USSR is from family stories, TV shows, sickle and hammer remnants sold on the streets and, of course, history books. His concentration is not on this past, but on the future and becoming a major leaguer someday. To get there for the Phillies, he has now toiled in the heat of the Florida sun in the long days of extended spring training and the sweltering days of GCL summers.

Not that he minded. “I think it’s very cool, I have never seen this good of fields and this good of organization,” Kuznetsov said, reflecting back several months to his April arrival to Florida. “Phillies coach teach me what we need to do in game. Every time, every day we have morning meeting and talking about last game.”

This was Kuznetsov’s third baseball trip to the United States and first as a member of the Phillies. The other two trips were to Florida as a young teenager on youth baseball teams.

Kuznetsov’s entry into professional baseball was extended spring training. a collection of mostly young players and many foreign players during April, May and part of June at the Phillies’ spring training site. The days consisted of training, developmental practices, intersquad scrimmages and a light schedule of games against other area major league-affiliated clubs.

For Kuznetsov and the other foreign players, development also includes English lessons. The Phillies knew he had a foundation in English, so instead of hiring a dedicated on-field interpreter they concentrated their efforts on language progression and hired a Russian-speaking English teacher for Kuznetsov. For him, the hardest thing about English was the pace. “American guys talking faster and I can’t understand hard words,” he exclaimed.

The instructor is Ilya Malkov, an economics tutor at St. Pete College who came from Russia to the U.S. at an early age. Robles pointed out that Latin players have Spanish-speaking coaches in the system who help their cultural transitions. A Russian doesn’t. “

The Phillies are committed to language education and acculturation,” Robles said, “and we wanted to give Anton the same opportunity as his counterparts by teaching him English and the U.S. customs.  With the help of Ilya, and the patience of the coaches, I’m amazed at how much he’s progressed this year on and off the field.”

Kuznetsov has been taking English classes since grade school, although practice of the language with native speakers in Moscow does not come around very often. With his language foundation, Kuznetsov has been a fast learner with 24/7 practice in Clearwater. “If I going to play baseball in America, I must understand English so that I know what I am supposed to do,” he says. “Not just on the baseball field.”

Kuznetsov pitched one or two innings at a time in extended spring training. He even struck out then-Detroit Tiger big leaguer J.D. Martinez while Martinez was on a rehab stint in Florida. That is a nice notch in Kuznetsov’s belt, but he still has a long, long way to go.

Kuznetsov was assigned to the GCL Phillies in June. He sported jersey number 17. The team’s uniforms are the same style and designs of the big league Phillies. The Rookie League team competed into early September, and finished with a 36-22 record. Baseball all summer long, the dog days of August, and the adjustment to Florida. Not that it was all bad. “Clearwater has beach, Moscow doesn’t have beach…because Russia every time is cold,” Kuznetsov says.

Phillies teammate and roommate Justin Miller, a 19-year-old right-handed pitcher from Fresno, Calif., playing in his second year after signing as an 11th-round high school pick in 2016, speaks well of Kuznetsov. “Good roommate, quiet, not dirty,” Miller says. Arriving in the clubhouse earlier this year, Miller was shocked to hear he would be having a Russian teammate. “I didn’t even know that Russia played baseball.”

As for Kuznetsov’s communication skills? “He is definitely picking up more and more, and definitely learning faster, and definitely getting better in that department,” Miller says. “Anton acted pretty much like a normal American that didn’t know English.”

Kuznetsov prepared for the heat of the American summer in the heart of the Russian winter by taking that crowded Moscow Metro to practice. Several nights a week this past winter, there were indoor bullpen pitching sessions in a dimly lit gymnasium near the Metro Station Voykovskaya. On a particularly cold night this past January, there were just three people concentrating on all the promise the upcoming summer had to offer, on all of the lure that this splendid opportunity has to offer. It is Kuznetsov, Coach Mikhail Kornev, and his catcher. Kuznetsov is working on his fastball. The wind up. The pitch. The ball pops and the mitt echoes. It’s a strike. Over, over, and over again.

Kuznetsov has a dream of one day donning the big league red Phillies pinstripes and playing in beautiful Citizens Bank Park. It is a long, long way to get there, and the Metro does not run Moscow to Philadelphia. At the most basic of levels, Kuznetsov’s quest to play major league baseball will be limited primarily to his abilities on the baseball field, just like any player. This journey, however, is not just in terms of distance and talent. He will have more to cross than just miles. There are cultural and political and language barriers. It is hard enough for an American citizen to become a major league baseball player. For one from Moscow, it’s an extreme improbability. However, talent, hyper-diligent work habits, and an above-average lefty fastball just might help Kuznetsov overcome all of these obstacles.

There’s also this — for all the practical obstacles, there must be a first. Kuznetsov and others like him are trying. Perhaps MLB hopes the next Willie Mays will be from Moscow, China or South Africa. Or Pennsylvania, right in the Phillies back yard. The state or country of origin is not important. Results are important. World Series rings are important.

When asked what the biggest difference is between his team in Russia and his Phillies team in America, Kuznetsov simply says, “My team in Russia is all the same nationality, and here [the Phillies] there are Venezuelans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Americans, and Canadians…(laughs) and one Russian.” With his daily improving English, Kuznetsov likes the international flavor his team in America has, though he does admit that sometimes communication is difficult.

Kuznetsov started playing baseball when he was just seven years old. One of his school teachers suggested it. He liked it. He kept playing it. At 16 years old, he played for an adult team, cutting his teeth against much older players. He has played all of his years inside of one club, the Moscow North Stars, for Coach Mikhail Kornev. Club programs in all sports are vital in Russia, as there are no high school sports or intercollegiate athletics. The club programs are like a second family for these players.

During past Moscow summers, Kuznetsov would watch major league games on the internet a world away from America. “I think my favorite team in MLB; Yankees!” Kuznetsov said last spring. Signing with the Phillies last fall changed his “favorite team” status in a hurry. Like never before, internet and streaming video services enable fans from every corner of the globe to watch their favorite major league team and dream the dream.

Baseball’s first foray into Russia in search for future big league hopefuls came in 1992, just months after the fall of the Soviet Union and just a few short years after the inception of baseball in the vast country. The Angels and scouting director Bob Fontaine Jr. signed three Russians: in third baseman Yevgeny Puchkov, shortstop Ilya Bogatyrev and left-handed pitcher and former Soviet Army paratrooper Rudolf Razjigaev. The Angels would go on to sign three more players from this part of the world in the next four years; a Russian, a Georgian, and a Moldovan. It is no wonder that Fontaine is now employed by Major League Baseball in its scouting bureau department, since he has dedicated so much time and effort to  international scouting.

Players like Yevgeny Puchkov (far right) and Ilya Bogatyrev (fourth from right) were part of the 1989 CCCP team that took part in the Eastern League’s Diamond Diplomacy tour. (via German Gulbit)

Since the advent of baseball games in the USSR in the summer of 1987,  11 Russian players, including those first Angels and Kuznetsov, have signed minor league contracts with major clubs. The signing teams have been the Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Seattle Mariners, and, of course, the Phillies. Pitching is at a premium so it should come as no surprise that seven of the 11 Russian players signed have been pitchers. None of the Russians have made it to the majors, but there will be a first…some day.

With the USSR being the impetus of baseball in those 15 countries, we can liberally add to that list of Russian minor leaguers one Georgian (Angels), one Belarusian (Pirates), and three Moldovans (Angels and Twins). Two are currently in the minors: left-handed pitcher Petru Balan and right-handed pitcher Vadim Balan. And a Lithuanian (Pirates). All are pitchers.

The Lithuanian  is Dovydas Neverauskas, a right-handed flame thrower from Vilnius. His major league call-up and debut for Pittsburgh came on April 24, making him the former USSR’s historical first big leaguer.

Neverauskas was down on the farm for seven years. He had to make plenty of life adjustments in that time. Now the young Kuznetsov  will do the same. When asked about the adjustment to American life Kuznetsov pauses for a very long time, and says: “USA has big taxes!”

Eating is an important adjustment. Kuznetsov lists McDonalds, Chipotle and Moe’s as his new favorites. Borscht is not on the menu at any of those places. No beet soup, cabbage soup, all kinds of mushroom soup, fish and potato soup, and Okroshka soup with cucumbers, dill, sausage, and hard boiled eggs…a dish served cold — none are regularly on the menu anywhere in America. Soup is the staple of the Russian diet and is generally served a minimum of one time a day, sometimes two or three. “I very miss for soup,” said Kuznetsov during the season. “I want to eat Russian kitchen. I want soup. When I go home, I will have soup.”

When asked the very simple question of whether he likes America, Kuznetsov laughs and replies “Yes. It’s very cool.”

Taxes and fast food and soups and a Russian in America…  and what Kuznetsov is really all about here in the United States is baseball. And about this baseball thing in his blood. When asked the reason for his love of the American pastime, Kuznetsov quickly answer, “because without this sport, I cannot live.”

Yes, a Russian said that. That sounds like your kid here in America. Like the kid down the block playing games every day in the sandlot. Like the kid that you know who sleeps with his glove. You see, we are really all not that much different from each other. And yes, the Russian Kuznetsov is welcome here in America as nothing breaks down barriers like an above-average lefty fastball and passion for the game.

Patience Philadelphia…patience. The world is coming, and yes it just might be a Russian that brings it to you.

‘Da,’ that would be cool.


Bob Protexter is a former scout, coach and player, and is always a baseball coach's son and Batboy Emeritus. He writes about Iowa, Russia, baseball, the Olympics, a taxi driver in Armenia, and other places he has been to. Follow him on Twitter @scbancrofts or email him here.
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87 Cards

“I very miss for soup,” said Kuznetsov during the season. “I want to eat Russian kitchen. I want soup. When I go home, I will have soup.”

I just want to be the first on the record to recycle this quip for Kuznetsov’s strike-out call and yes, I know, it has been used on Sportscenter about non- Russian players: “Kuznetsov says no soup for you!”

Bob, does “Seinfeld” air in Russia in your experience?

szakyl
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szakyl

Can we please have Matryoshka dolls of Bartolo Colon gradually getting younger and skinnier?

Paul G.
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Paul G.
Very cool article and very informative. I’m sure if Kuznetsov gets high enough in the minors, he will find cities that have good Russian restaurants. Are the Russians meddling in American politics? Maybe. Actually, yes. The Russians have been meddling in American politics to some extent or another since there was a United States. For that matter, we have been meddling in their politics as well. And we have all been meddling in French politics, and the French have been meddling in American and Russian politics, but the French do not produce many baseball prospects so that is neither here… Read more »