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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taking Them Back to the Ballgame

One of the problems with being a baseball scout in the former Soviet Union, says the California Angel's Bob Protexter, is that no one believes your stories.


Like the time the umpire got hit by a pitch - and awarded himself first base. Or when a woman led her goats through the outfield during a game in Kirovograd, Ukraine.


Over a year after the Angels signed three Russians to minor-league contracts, Protexter, 26, is the first and only major-league skaut based in the former Soviet Union.


After eight months of scouring the steppes for diamonds in the rough, Protexter is growing weary of the vagaries of Russian baseball, which more often resemble a blooper film than fertile ground for the major leagues. But like most U. S. corporations doing business in Russia, the Angels hope that their early investment will pay dividends down the road.


"People back home are going to say I'm nuts", Angels head scout Bob Fontaine told the Wall Street Journal while in Moscow in April 1992. "But in 10 years or so, I think Russia is going to be producing players for the Angels".


More than a year later, however, the Angel's emissary is not yet convinced.


"It's hard to say what's going to come out of it here", Protexter said.


His pioneering post is taking him all over baseball's last frontier, from war-torn Armenia, which boasts six semi-pro squads, to Krasnoyarsk, an industrial city of nearly 800, 000 located in rolling hills over 3, 000 kilometers east of Moscow.


Protexter rode the Trans-Siberian Railway last July to a round-robin tournament hosted by the Krasnoyarsk White Wolves. He arrived on a Tuesday, a day after the tournament was scheduled to start, but things did not go according to plan.


"Monday, no umpires showed up", Protexter said. "On Tuesday, the umpires showed up. They said the field wasn't ready. It wasn't. The infield was washboarded, and the outfield had real long grass. On Wednesday, it rained".


Protexter, a coach's son from Sioux City, Iowa, taught the locals to dry the grass by dragging a fire hose across it. "On Thursday, they played", he said. "To tell you the truth, it was real disappointing".


The next day he left Siberia without a potential signer.


"I went out more to see what level they're at", he said. "I'm not going to check out a certain player. It'll be nice when that happens, but it won't be tomorrow".


Instead, the Angels are looking at least a decade down the road, thinking that if the Soviet Union had created Olympic medal-winning hockey and basketball teams within 15 years, then baseball could follow a similar schedule.


The Soviet sports machine has fallen apart, but the Angels are helping to fill the sponsorship void, donating Angel's uniforms, equipment, and coaching, including a batting lesson for two Russian minor-leaguers with former Angels great Rod Carew last spring in Anaheim.


Where the former Soviet sports machine and the Angels come up short, enthusiasm is taking over.


Though its popularity here pales in comparison to soccer and hockey, baseball has caught on quickly since the Soviet Olympic baseball program began in 1987. By the end of the decade, the Soviet Baseball Federation reported membership of 50 regional clubs and 1, 500 players.


Describing the team's commitment as "a year-by-year thing", Protexter lists a myriad of obstacles facing the first generation of beisbolisty, including a low level of competition, the draft, and U. S. State Department visa regulations limiting teams to 24 new foreign signees a year.


"It's a lot more complicated than just saying, 'We like this kid; let's sign him'", Protexter said. "There's a list of maybe 10 players that I'd like to have somebody take a look at, and out of that list, maybe two or three are even close to signing".