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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Little League Gets Bigger by the Day

You know it's spring when 150 kids pile out of station wagons in drizzling rain on a Saturday morning and convene on the astroturf at Moscow State University. A dozen mothers sitting in the dugout record runs on damp notebook paper. And a sky-blue pitching machine throws the ceremonial first baseball of the season for the Moscow Little League. For generations, Little League has been monopolizing Saturday mornings throughout North America and parts of South America and Asia. Now, as foreign families fly into the city, baseball is one less thing they will have to give up. On the first day of its second season, Moscow Little League has grown from 60 kids to 150 and appears well on its way to becoming a fixture in the foreign community. From his seat in the bleachers, commissioner Bob Hurst can see it all: the parents struggling to capture every swing of the bat on film; the little ones in batting practice across the stadium; the Gothic tower of Moscow State University just past the outfield. "I think it's on its way," said Hurst, who is generally acknowledged to be the father of Moscow Little League. He is also bureau chief for Canadian Television, which has reassigned him to Toronto starting just before the league playoffs, so he is thinking in terms of a legacy. Susan Crawford, who coaches the Moscow Angels -- one of the league's 10 teams -- is adjusting the right side of the infield, yelling her lungs out, and she may be the woman for the job. A former attorney and devoted Houston Astros fan, Crawford calls coaching "my second career" and will take Hurst's post when he leaves in June. Although she never played baseball herself, Crawford is raising three children for the game and seems unfazed by her daughter's loss of a tooth to a baseball in a recent practice. "It was a baby tooth," she said, "It needed to come out anyway." Almost without exception, the fathers on the sidelines Saturday morning are busy reliving their own Little League days. Many of the kids involved -- 60 to 70 percent, Crawford said -- have already played elsewhere, either at home or at another post with a large Western community. Brussels, for instance, has 10 teams, and London's Little League rents out space in Regent's Park. In fact, the ubiquity of the game was one of the biggest incentives for creating the league in the first place. For families that move often -- and particularly those that plan to return to the West when the children reach high school -- a skill like baseball could make the transition easier. Crawford said she wanted her elder son, Tyson, to play high school ball. "If he sits out here for four years without playing, he never would," she said. The Moscow league was born during the winter of 1992-93, when a small group of parents decided Moscow's time had come. They decided to finance the project themselves and to shoot for four teams. They began shipping equipment into the country -- the pitching machine in a suitcase, one load of bats and gloves "in the cargo hold of a Western head of state," as Hurst carefully phrases it. The state-of-the-art baseball diamond beside Moscow State University -- built by the Japanese prior to the 1980 Olympic Games -- was available for $30 an hour. This year, after Hurst made tentative expansion plans, the eight teams he had envisioned became 10. With a treasury accumulated from the $50 enrollment fee, the league may purchase a second batting machine. And grown-ups are joining an adult league, which plays after the kids' games on Saturdays and involves about 100 people to date. For the time being, the players are mainly American and Canadian, with a spattering from other countries that play baseball, such as Korea and Venezuela. Of the 150 children playing, only a handful are Russian. But Crawford and Hurst say they are hoping to involve more Russian children. "It would be nice to get baseball integrated," Crawford said. In fact, some young Russian athletes do play baseball, and some of the Americans trained with them last year. But the foreign children found the training so intense that they were scared off. In the West, "we're into recreation," said Hurst. According to the Russian sports mentality, "If you're going to play baseball, you play four days a week and you do nothing else." Little League in the West and in Asia is not always consistently recreational, though, and as teams reach into the upper levels of competition, parental pressure can become notoriously intense. Bill Kirst, who works for Price Waterhouse, says he hopes this particular league will steer clear of that syndrome. "God knows the world is competitive enough," he said while watching his 10-year-old son go up to bat. Organizers emphasize they do not intend to encourage vicious competition. "But you know how it is," said Will Bobb, who works for USWest and coaches the Angels together with Crawford. "The kids always want to keep score." The kids are not alone: An hour and a half into the season, Bobb pointed out proudly that his own daughter Katie was still batting 1000.