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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fans Cheer Debut of Russian Nine

TRENTON, New Jersey -- A sports team consisting of players with last names like Zhirov, Protasov and Kovtoon -- sounds like an ice hockey squad, right?


Wrong. The players on this team are indeed Russian, but they're in the United States playing America's pastime -- baseball -- and are a hit with the fans.


A 12-member team of Russian players came to Bridgeton, New Jersey, this week to play in the 31st Bridgeton Invitational Tournament.


This is the first year international teams were invited to play in the annual semi-professional tournament, which attracts some of the top men's teams from the eastern United States.


But it hasn't been all baseball. There have been field trips to the Atlantic coast, and to nearby Philadelphia for a Houston Astros-Phillies game. The Russians got to go on the field and posed for pictures with both teams.


Bob Rose, the tournament's organizer, said the team has played well so far and has fans rooting for them.


"Everyone's happy," said Rose. "They [the Russians] could win, but the odds are against them."


Baseball was introduced in Russia a mere 10 years ago and has yet to catch on, Rose said. And most of the players took up the sport rather late in their youth.


But that hasn't stopped some players from turning in spectacular performances. Take Yury Zhirov. The 31-year-old javelin-thrower-turned-pitcher led his team to victory over the Cape May, New Jersey squad 7-5.


If the Russians defeat the Vineland, New Jersey team Monday night, they will advance to the championship game Tuesday. That could cause a problem.


"Some of the players are going back to Moscow [on] Tuesday," Rose said, adding that the team was trying to reschedule its flight arrangements.


The team's American accommodations are anything but plush. They are being housed at Bridgeton Middle School and are sleeping in bunk beds provided by the state prisons department. But there are also several televisions so they can watch their favorite programs -- CNN and whatever baseball game happens to be on.


The team's airfare was paid partly by Russian business sponsors, who accompanied the team to Bridgeton, Rose said.


The Russians also brought their business acumen with them. They are selling hats and shirts, arts and crafts at the games, Rose said.


"Someone told me he expects them to sell the shirts off their backs before they go back home," Rose said.