While colloquially known as "America's Pastime," baseball has a rich international tradition that has been on full display this month. Last week featured World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Mexicali and Panama City, and on Tuesday, the Rays traveled to Cuba to play a historic exhibition in Havana with President Obama on hand.
If you span the Spring Training landscape, you'll find the Ngoepe brothers of South Africa in Pirates camp, and Lachlan and Alexander Wells, twins from Australia, pitching for the Twins and Orioles, respectively.
And this weekend, the Padres and Astros will travel to Mexico City for a pair of exhibition games, which are the first in the city since 2004, and this comes on the heels of MLB announcing an expanded presence in Mexico.
In that spirit, it seems fitting to revisit one of baseball's most ambitious -- and largely unknown -- globalization projects, which began 30 years ago.
In October 1986, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to make baseball an official Olympic sport. Less than a month later, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) adopted a resolution to develop baseball. America's pastime was already huge in Fidel Castro's Cuba, a Cold War ally of the Soviet Union, and that love of baseball was on full display earlier this week when the Rays took on the Cuban national team in an exhibition in Havana. Now, thanks to an IOC decision, America's pastime was set to infiltrate the Iron Curtain itself.
Bob Fontaine Jr. entered the scene in 1990. The director of scouting for the California Angels was always thinking outside the box and outside the border. He and the Angels' farm director, Bill Bavasi, wanted to find new talent for their Major League team ... anywhere.
Fontaine read about the fledgling baseball program in the Soviet Union and remembered how quickly that country had become a world power in basketball and ice hockey once the commitment had been made.
So he sought out the advice of a former college baseball player in Iowa turned baseball coach in Moscow named Bob Protexter, and embarked on a long-term plan to build a pipeline of scouting and player development that would eventually pump fresh talent from Red Square all the way to Anaheim.
It was the beginning of one of baseball's greatest overseas adventures.
CHAPTER 1. THE VISION: 1990-92
In 1990, the Goodwill Games were held in Seattle, with baseball played at Cheney Stadium in nearby Tacoma. Fontaine and Bavasi talked it over, agreeing that Fontaine should go.
Fontaine reveled in secrecy, pretending he was there to see the American team made up of elite collegians when the only reason he attended was to scout the Soviets.
Joe Maddon, Chicago Cubs manager (Angels roving Minor League instructor in 1992): The fact that Russia had so many great athletes in the past, he thought it would be a wonderful place to begin. So Bobby got involved.
Bob Fontaine Jr., assistant director, MLB Scouting Bureau (Angels director of scouting in 1992): I went to the Goodwill Games ... and [the Soviets] certainly didn't embarrass themselves. ... And then when you found out that so many of these kids had only played two or three years and in some cases one year ... you go, "Wow. What would happen if they devoted all their time to playing baseball?"
Tim Mead, Angels vice president, communications (head of public relations in 1992): This was not a publicity gimmick or anything such as that. It was something very important -- that we wanted to try to expand baseball and take it into Russia.
Bob Protexter, Angels translator/scout in 1992: In 1988, I was working in an ice cream factory in Iowa, at 3 a.m., and my brain told me that I was going to coach baseball in the Soviet Union. I had read about it in magazines and became interested, so once I decided to do it, I contacted Richard Spooner, who was an American already heavily involved in Soviet baseball. We began a dialogue that eventually led to me pursuing the opportunity. I got there on March 3, 1990, to help coach the team of the Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology, better known as the Moscow Red Devils. I was paid 250 rubles ($38) a month. Immediately you land and you know you're in a different country. There were guys with machine guns on the tarmac wearing winter jackets with fur collars and fur hats. I'm like, "I'm not in Iowa anymore."
Rudolf "Rudy" Razjigaev, pitcher: I used to be in the Russian Army, and I finished in 1989 and went back home to Siberia. I told my parents I'm going to go to Moscow. That was the first time I was in the big city. The city was so big it just blew my mind. So I studied at Moscow State and I got into sports. I was a long-distance runner. (Razjigaev's career stats)
Protexter: By Dec. 25, 1991, Gorbachev had dissolved the Soviet Union and I had come back to the U.S. and needed a job. So I'm back at home in Iowa in March 1992 and the phone rings: "My name is Bob Fontaine, I'm the director of scouting from the California Angels. Is this a good time to talk?" I'm like, "Uh ... yeah! That works just fine!"
CHAPTER 2. THE PLAN BEGINS: MARCH 1992
The newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States was in operation, so Fontaine was ready for another clandestine mission. He had gleaned information about some of the better Russian players from Protexter.
The problem? Economic instability and general unrest made it difficult for Americans to get there.
The solution? Connections.
• Baseball described in Russian (PDF)
Bill Bavasi, director, MLB Scouting Bureau (Angels farm director in 1992): I got Bobby together with my sister-in-law, Judy, who was teaching English as a second language in Moscow. And Judy knew how to get in and where to go.
Protexter: Two of the players Fontaine liked were [infielders Yevgeny] Puchkov and [Ilya] Bogatyrev. Next thing you knew, he flew to Moscow, and he didn't tell anybody.
Fontaine: I was talking to the Moscow State coach and I said, "When is the workout tomorrow?" He said, "One o'clock." I said, "Great. Should I be there about noon?" He says, "No. One a.m." We drove an hour toward some direction, and it's midnight and we don't have cellphones then so people can keep track of you. Nobody knows where I am. I don't know where I am. And so we get to this little gym. And as soon as it hit 1 a.m., those guys got out in this gym and they're throwing baseballs and hitting ground balls on hardwood. I thought I was inside an old-time pinball machine. Baseballs were going everywhere.
Razjigaev: The baseball team came to the stadium. The coach of that team came to me and said, "Take that ball and throw it to that guy. Can you?" I said, "No problem." He said, "Well, OK, tomorrow at 5 p.m. here, I'm waiting for you." And that was the start of my baseball career.
Fontaine: We figured that it might take a minimum of five groups of players that played for two to three years each before you started seeing results. And we felt that every player that we brought over to the States to play for as long as they could would become better instructors and scouts as well, and they'd all be Angels, and that would give us a foothold. And we talked about building an academy.
Protexter: I was declared a mix of translator/liaison and "we've never done this before" guy. The guys would joke with me. They'd say, "How much are you going to pay us so we don't tell them that we're all fluent in English?"
Fontaine: Of course $1,500 [what the Russian players signed for], when I think the average professor [in Russia] was making something like $100 a month, was a lot of money. And Sy Berger, who was with Topps, gave me some of the standard contracts they give first-year players for bubble-gum cards, and I gave it to Rudy. I said, "If you sign this, I'll give you a check for five dollars." And he says, "For what?" And I said, "Well, a bubble-gum card." [He said] "What's a bubble-gum card?" And I said, "Uh-oh." So I tried to explain it and said, "Just cash the check. Sign it. It'll be good for you." And then he says, "Well, I don't know what to do with the check." So I gave him [a $5 bill], and he looked at it and he started getting a little emotional, like, "Wow. That's a lot of money." And that he was going to be able to do something for his baby. And Rudy said he couldn't wait to get to the U.S., where "they play baseball perfect." And I said, "Pal, you didn't see us play last year." [The Angels finished last in the American League West in 1991.]
Ilya Bogatyrev, infielder: I remember after the cards were released, we spent a lot of time signing autographs. It was a pleasant duty to fill! (Bogatyrev's career stats)
Yevgeny "Zhenya" Puchkov, infielder: The experience with the card was great and not so great at the same time. There are great memories, because we became known and got some money for it. What we didn't like is that the cards were produced not because we were good players, but just because we were Russians. (Puchkov's career stats)
CHAPTER 3. THE TROIKA ARRIVES: JUNE 1992
It was a whirlwind for Razjigaev, Puchkov and Bogatyrev. The Angels flew them to the States and opened up Anaheim Stadium for impromptu workouts and a big league news conference.
Then it was off to Mesa, Ariz., where the players would encounter the broiling American desert while learning the rhythms of American professional baseball and even getting a taste of the Rookie-level Arizona League.
Puchkov: When we flew to L.A., we were greeted by the Angels' general manager [Dan O'Brien]. On the way to our hotel, he asked us what American movies we had seen. I said that I liked "Bull Durham." He replied, "In pro baseball, it's not like in the movie." Later on, I came to the conclusion that he was wrong. The movie was actually pretty close to the realities of pro ball.
Fontaine: We had a news conference, and I'm sure a lot of the reporters that were there were saying, "What?" But they came out [onto the field], they worked with Rod Carew and worked with Marcel [Lachemann], and they had a great time.
Protexter: We went to Disneyland, we sat in Gene Autry's office, I threw BP that day. It was like I got drafted, too.
Bill "Lach" Lachemann, manager, instructional league Mesa Angels, 1992: I didn't know what to expect, to be honest. They never really played baseball. So I get them [in Mesa], and ... their makeup, their attitude, their desire ... everything was unbelievable. I'd never seen anything like that. American players take all this stuff for granted.
Bogatyrev: Bill treated us to a meal. We shared some stories, and that's when Lachemann learned we had served in the Soviet Army. He liked the fact we were in the military, since he himself had served in the Army. It was very nice to hear when he used us as an example of hard work.
Fontaine: They were jumping out of airplanes in the Red Army. I remember Lach telling me one day that they'd look over at the empty fields in our complex and they were shocked that guys weren't over there practicing.
Bavasi: They go into the [clubhouse] bathroom, and they're videotaping the sinks that have all the shaving cream and the aftershave and the cologne. I said, "What was that all about?" [Protexter] said, "They were taking a picture of everything you've left on the counters. They can't believe you leave this out and it doesn't get stolen."
Puchkov: In the USSR, we were used to playing on converted soccer fields. Quite often you could see goats or cows grazing the fields during play. In the States, we felt like we were in baseball paradise. We learned more from one day of practice there than we had learned during our whole baseball career before that.
Razjigaev: The first thing was the climate thing. I couldn't believe there were guys playing ball in such [heat]. And I was from Siberia, where it was freezing cold all the time.
Lachemann: They mixed with everybody. The American players liked them. What you wanted to hear was when they took infield [practice], because [Puchkov and Bogatyrev] were infielders and they talked Russian, and it was really cool.
John Farrell, Red Sox manager (Angels pitcher rehabbing with Mesa in 1992): As a kid growing up in the '70s and the differences between the two countries, now all of a sudden you've got someone from there. You tried to find out about the cultures in which they come from, how they live their lives, the things that are more readily available to us, and maybe some of the things that [weren't to them].
Puchkov: I had a friend playing for the Angels in Mesa, Rob Tucker. He was a catcher. One evening he came to our room, about 10 days after we arrived. We drank some vodka and whiskey and then beer. At 6 a.m., we went swimming. Walking back, we were hugging. Lachemann saw us but didn't say a word. The next game, I went 4-for-4, Tucker was 3-for-4 and good behind the plate. After the game, Lachemann asked us, "What were you drinking?" I answered, "Russian vodka." Bill said, "Do the same thing tonight!"
Bogatyrev: In the middle of the season, we had a break in the schedule. Lachemann gathered the players, thanked everybody for putting in hard work, and wished us a relaxing break. But he said that if anyone was seen drunk, he'd release them. He told the players they were allowed to have a bottle of beer. Then, after a long pause, he added, "The Russians are limited to one bottle of vodka." That was hilarious.
Protexter: One day, Zhenya was taking batting practice, and Bobaloo [late instructor Bob Clear] was talking to another coach about his swing. Zhenya was out in front of every pitch, and Bobaloo, wearing a cowboy hat, kept saying to the other coach, "He's [expletive] rushin'! He's [expletive] rushin'!" Zhenya backed out of the box, and he was furious! This American cowboy was insulting him simply because he was Russian! I had to explain the difference in the language to him. We got a good laugh from that one.
Fontaine: I did go to their first game. That was the most important thing to me. I'm a kid that grew up in the Cold War era. ... Most of the time growing up, I never would have thought a Russian player would be a teammate of an American player, and here I am watching three young kids, teammates with Americans, playing our game, under the name Angels. I never thought it could happen.
CHAPTER 4. COMRADES: 1993
After overstuffing their suitcases with trinkets of Americana to prepare for a winter back home, the Russians returned to the Angels the following season.
Bogatyrev, who had hit .196 in 19 games the previous year, stayed in Mesa. Razjigaev (4.91 ERA in six games for Mesa in 1992) and Puchkov (.245/.357/.255 in 33 games for Mesa in 1992) made it to Class A: Rudy to the Boise Hawks of the Class A Short-Season Northwest League, Zhenya to the more advanced Cedar Rapids Kernels of the Midwest League.
The experiment was still on.
Puchkov: Lachemann called me in and said that Joe Maddon was sending me to Single-A. He said Maddon liked my swing, but he warned I probably wouldn't be playing much. It was true. I didn't play much and when I did, I wasn't good.
Tom Kotchman, Minor League manager, Red Sox (manager, Boise Hawks, 1993): [Razjigaev] was 6-2, probably threw in the low to mid 80s, and so he didn't get a chance to pitch a lot, but it was a great experience for him. It was a really, really good ballclub he was on, the chemistry of it was really good, and Rudy, he learned some of the broken English and he learned how to win and hold a champagne bottle. The guys loved him.
Jamie Burke, former MLB catcher (third baseman, Boise Hawks, 1993): Rudy was probably one of the strongest human beings I've ever been around. He would grab a hold of me, and he was just a big-chested brute. And you were never going to get anything but the truth from him.
Kotchman: We got to Eugene one night after a long bus ride, and they had lost our reservation at the hotel. There was a huge track meet at the University of Oregon, and everything was sold out. The only hotel I could find was 60 miles away at a resort on the beach. The next morning, I wake up and see Rudy out on the beach, carving something in the sand with a stick. It was the names of his family, and it was touching.
Razjigaev: My wife and daughter, I missed them so much. It was like a card from the ocean.
Burke: At the end of the season, we were playing the Bend [Ore.] Rockies. We had to win that game, then sweep Eugene for the title. Kotch pulls out the ring from winning the championship the previous year. He says, "This is what you'll get if we win." And we won.
Razjigaev: Back home, I had bought a box of Cuban cigars, the nice ones, Cohiba. I took them to Boise as a present from Moscow. An illegal present. Then we won and smoked the victory cigars. I still have my ring. People ask me about it, and when I tell them I won a championship playing baseball in America, they go crazy.
CHAPTER 5: THE FALL: POST-1993
The players did what they could, but they weren't long for pro ball in the States. Puchkov hit .116 for Cedar Rapids in 1993. Rudy had a 6.35 ERA in nine games for Boise. Bogatyrev batted .274 for Mesa, but 16 of his 17 hits were singles. All three players were released at the conclusion of the season.
Fontaine would sign more Russian players, but his vision of an academy and a long-term plan vanished. All that remains are the photos and the memories.
Fontaine: Puchkov, if he hadn't started at 17 or 18 but had started at 8 years old, I think he would have been a prospect.
Maddon: To get to Rookie ball's actually pretty good. Athletically, they were very good. They just did not have a great feel for the game. ... They were great kids.
Bogatyrev: At the time of signing of our contracts, we were the best ballplayers in Russia. It remained that way after we came back. We worked hard, absorbed a lot of information and hustled up. Of course we wanted to showcase our improved skills upon returning. It wasn't time wasted playing stateside for two years.
CHAPTER 6. THE LEGACY: 2016
While baseball has yet to make a large cultural dent in Russia, there are other European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, that have started developing Major League-caliber talent. For example, German-born Max Kepler, who signed with the Twins in 2009 for a bonus of $800,000 and made his big league debut last September.
These days, Rudy Razjigaev travels the world as a show business promoter. Zhenya Puchkov is a tennis coach back in Russia. Ilya Bogatyrev is there, too, selling BMWs.
All three recall those two magical years in the sun with smiles. So do the rest of the pioneers who made it happen.
Maddon: I love the concept. Listen, I would always volunteer to go to those places to promote the game.
Bavasi: Bob Fontaine is back at it [with the scouting bureau]. ... We are going to try to open up more ... in Europe, China and all over the world. So as officially as we can, we're trying to get baseball played everywhere. ... So actually that first experience with the Russian players that we signed is coming home to roost.
Fontaine: I think if there's a legacy comes out of it, [it's] that our game really doesn't know borders and that it's such a good game that everybody likes to play ... and it unifies.
Razjigaev: One last thing that I have to say, and please put this in the story: God bless the Angels baseball club. And God bless America. It's from the bottom of my heart.
Tom Singer, who started covering baseball in 1974 and joined MLB.com in 2001, had begun working on this story before he passed away in February. Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.