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Whole New Ballgame for Them : Three Learn to Play the American Way in Angel Organization

August 21, 1993|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MESA, Ariz. — What you notice first about Ilya Bogatyrev are the sunglasses. They definitely make a fashion statement, even when he's fielding ground balls.

Although the sight of a baseball player wearing trendy sunglasses during practice is not unusual, the idea of a Russian citizen sporting $140 shades is a little out of the ordinary. After all, back home a fraction of that amount would be considered a decent monthly wage.

But there was Bogatyrev, one of three Russian players in the Angels' organization, going through his workout, sunglasses firmly in place, just like many of his Mesa teammates.

"I kid him all the time about that," Mesa Manager Bill Lachemann said. "I asked him, 'Last year you were out here busting your butt and you didn't need sunglasses, what's going on?' He told me, 'It's American baseball.' "

Bogatyrev has learned it, all right, right down to the latest in glare-wear.

A year ago, he and countrymen Yevgeny Puchkov and Rudolf Razhigaev ere a novelty. They were the first Russians to play professional baseball in the United States. Some put it down as a publicity stunt. The Angels called it a long-term project.

But for Bogatyrev, Puchkov and Razhigaev it was an opportunity of a lifetime and they have made the most of it. They've absorbed everything, from bunts to banter. Nothing has been overlooked.

"Baseball was born here," said Razhigaev, a pitcher. "You've played it for over 100 years. It's your culture. Every detail has been perfected. So to get the chance to come here and learn this game was beyond my dreams."

Razhigaev, in fact, had to pinch himself right up to the moment he stepped on the airplane in June of 1992.

"It finally hit me, 'Wow, this is really happening,' " he said. "I could never imagine Americans being interested in Russian baseball players."

Russian music blared from a tape deck in Bogatyrev's room at the Rodeway Inn in Mesa. On the wall is an enlarged baseball card of Razhigaev, Puchkov and himself in Angel uniforms, a photo taken last year in Mesa.

Bogatyrev nervously cleaned those sunglasses while struggling to communicate in English, a language he has learned in the last year.

"I began playing baseball five years ago," Bogatyrev said. "I read an ad in a newspaper announcing tryouts in Moscow. I didn't know what baseball was, but it sounded interesting. I got there and they started telling us, 'This is a ball, this is a glove, this is a bat.' Our first practice was very bad. It wasn't organized. It wasn't baseball. I can't believe how much I've learned since then."

Bogatyrev, a 24-year old shortstop, is hitting .276 for Mesa, the Angels' rookie league team. He has no home runs and only six runs batted in.

Puchkov, a 24-year-old third baseman, started the season at Mesa, but was moved up to Cedar Rapids, a Class-A team. He is hitting .097 with no home runs and one RBI.

Razhigaev, a 25-year-old left-hander, also opened the season at Mesa, then was moved to Boise, Ida., a Class-A team. He is 0-0 with a 6.35 earned-run average.

The numbers are nothing to write home about. But no one was expecting them to become stars.

"You have to crawl before you can walk," said Bob Fontaine, the Angels' director of scouting. "We're very pleased with the way these guys have approached things and what they've learned."

Fontaine, the man responsible for signing the three Russians, said he doesn't expect the country to churn out any major league prospects for at least another decade.

This, he said, is the first step and the Angels are in on the ground floor. The three players will eventually return to Russia and become coaches, helping to train the next generation, according to Fontaine.

A nice plan, but Bogatyrev, Puchkov and Razhigaev had other ideas, at least when they arrived in June of 1992.

"They got here with the attitude that they were going to be big league players," Lachemann said. "There were no ifs, ands or buts about it. Now they've seen what kind of competition they are going against. These guys aren't dumb. They know where they stand."

Bogatyrev is considerably older than his Mesa teammates, most of whom are 20 and younger. In fact, the Arizona Rookie League rules allow each team only two players older than 20. The Angels received special permission last season to have the three Russian players on the same team.

The three were able to see just how talented young American players are, giving them a gauge on their own abilities.

"American baseball players begin when they are very young," Bogatyrev said. "They play all the time. They understand the game when they are young. I'm still learning."

So what if dreams of big league glory were crushed? It didn't slow their efforts. They came to the United States to polish their baseball skills, and polish them they would.

It wasn't unusual for the three to work out with their interpreter, Angel scout Bob Protexter, after their teammates had hit the showers. Bogatyrev and Puchkov would field ground balls for a while, then Razhigaev would pitch.

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