Banister reflects on playing ball in Russia

Texas manager part of touring group in 1989; Gallo back in lineup Saturday

July 7th, 2018

DETROIT -- When reporters stepped into manager Jeff Banister's office early Saturday afternoon, he had the World Cup playing on his TV. The tournament is being played in Russia this year, and seeing famous Russian landmarks flash across the screen got Banister thinking about the time he played and taught baseball in Russia.
Banister was part of a group of players from the Double-A Eastern League who went on a 16-day tour of the Soviet Union in 1989 to put on baseball clinics and play games against the Russian national team.
"I had a blast," Banister recalled. "I loved it."
The games were played in soccer stadiums in cities including Moscow and Kiev. There were no benches for players, and there was no backstop, leaving fans to dodge foul balls that traveled straight back.
The Russians were trying to get good enough to field a team in the Olympics. Though baseball had been played during the Olympics before, it didn't become an official sport until the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
"These were giant athletes," Banister said. "Great athletes. Boxers, track stars, javelin throwers, ice skaters, hockey players."
The Russians were lacking in skill, though, and didn't get a hit the first few games they played. In an effort to bolster the struggling Russians' spirits, Banister had the idea of gifting them a hit. As the first baseman, he played close to the foul line and told second baseman Steve Scarsone to let the ball go through the hole between them.
The opportunity came.
"Maybe it was their first baseman," Banister said. "He was a big, huge, behemoth of a man. He shanks this ball between Scarsone and I. Base hit. They erupted, right?"
But Banister and Scarsone hadn't told the right fielder of their plan, and he was playing closer than usual because the soccer stadiums made for a short right field.
"He catches the ball and fires it into me," Banister continued. "I catch it and I'm like, 'Oh, now I have to touch the bag.'"
The batter stopped three-quarters of the way to first and belted our something angrily in Russian that none of the American players could understand.
"From that point on, we never played one on one," Banister said. "We mixed the two teams, so it became a little more competitive."
Worth noting
• Joey Gallo was back in the lineup Saturday after being scratched Friday when he collided with in the outfield during batting practice and injured his left eye. Gallo said he initially thought it was going to be more serious because he couldn't open his eye, but he felt better throughout the night.
"I'm not shagging anymore," he joked.