Making Strides in Ukraine
Source: South Williamsport, Pa.
Date: Thursday, August 26, 2010 ET
The game of baseball is often referred to as “America’s Pastime”. No doubt it is a staple of Americana. As James Earl Jones said in the movie Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years…has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”
The game has been growing nationally – and on an international level – for some time, ever since Abner Doubleday stepped on the field. The expansion of television and the Internet certainly has sped things up.
In the Ukraine, an Eastern European country along the north edge of the Black Sea, baseball is becoming big. Little League Baseball, that is.
Basil P. Tarasko, the Little League District Administrator for the entire country, says there are now 15 chartered Little Leagues that include 80 teams and roughly 900 children. There are also 17 orphan leagues, six of which are not yet sanctioned but could be soon.
The numbers aren’t bad considering Tarasko helped bring Little League to the country in 1993. Each of the four baseball divisions – Little League, Junior League, Big League, Senior League – now have participants. Little League Softball as yet to get off the ground.
“The kids are getting better,” he said. “They’re starting to play at an earlier age. Many players start at age nine now. They play better as they get older. That’s why the 13- and 14-year-olds, the kids look like ballplayers. They’re not big, but they act like ballplayers. The 11- and 12-year-olds are a little clumsy.”
Tarasko, who travels to Ukraine three times a year, said the main competition for baseball is the game of soccer.
Baseball has a lot of catching up to do, to say the least.
“The top athletes get sucked up by soccer,” he said.
“Everything is geared toward soccer. Who does baseball get? The so-called ‘leftover’ kids. We don’t get that kind of talent.”
Since being able to host its first national tournament in 2000, Ukraine has sent two Junior League teams and one Big League squad to their respective World Series. The Kirovograd Center/Rivne Little League won the Europe/Middle East/Africa region (EMEA) this year to advance to the Junior World Series in Taylor, Mich. These All-Stars defeated a team from Canada 4-3 in their first game before suffering a 13-0 loss to eventual champion Chinese Taipei, a 3-0 setback to Mexico, and a 3-2 loss to Mexico.
“It was like they won the world championship,” Junior League tournament director Greg Bzura said of Ukraine’s win over Canada. “It wasn’t ‘What are we doing here?’ They were here to play. They won their first game, so it made their entire week.”
“They were competitive,” he continued. “ It was a very, very competitive team.”
The Kirovograd Center/Rivne Little League also had a team at the 2007 Junior League World Series, going winless in four games. The Khymelnytskiy Little League from Kiev sent a team of All-Stars to the 2001 Big League World Series in Easley, S.C., going winless in three contests.
Not to go unnoticed, the Little League Baseball team this year went 3-1 to finish second in Pool A play in the Europe Region. The All-Stars from Kirovograd Center Little League then lost in the semi-final round to England, 10-0.
“It’s amazing what we’ve done in terms of the teams advancing to the World Series,” Tarasko said. “Reaching the World Series three times is credit to their desire to succeed at the world level.”
A major part of Tarasko’s efforts in Ukraine is collecting equipment for the kids to use. He said you can’t buy baseball goods in the country, and that you have to go to Czech Republic and Germany instead. Even then, the equipment is expensive and the quality is not great.
It circles back to the United States, where Tarasko has many contacts that will donate gloves, helmets, bats, and balls. Pitch in for Baseball, a non-profit baseball equipment company based in Philadelphia, is one such contact (www.pitchinforbaseball.org).
Tarasko, whose parents are natives of Ukraine, was a long-time baseball coach at City College of New York before turning his attention to Little League, specifically Little League in Ukraine. He would now love to see a team reach the pinnacle of youth sports in South Williamsport, but the overall goal is to see the game grow there.
“We just want to give kids an opportunity to do something with their time,” he said. “There are so many negative influences on them. Kids are drifting, so we want to give them the opportunity of baseball. We just can’t give up.”
You CC That?
Margie Sabathia-Lanier, mother of Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, threw the ceremonial first pitch prior to the Hawaii-Georgia game on Thursday. Sabathia-Lanier was named Little League Parent of the Year in July, and was brought to South Williamsport to be honored.
“This is so awesome,” she said. “Unbelievable. So kid-friendly, so much fun.”
Sabathia-Lanier, who threw right-handed, bounced the pitch in front of Georgia catcher Jacob pate.
“I didn’t want to bounce it, but that’s ok!” she said.
CC’s father is also right-handed. Margie said that CC only pitches left-handed; everything else he does is right-handed.
Matthew Lang will be missing an important event in his brother’s athletic career Friday night.
Georgia outfielder Matthew Lang will be missing an important event in his brother’s athletic career Friday night.
Ryan Lang, who helped Columbus, Ga., to the 2006 Little League Baseball World Series title, will make his first start as quarterback of Columbus High School’s football team against Manchester High School. Ryan went 1-for-7 with five runs in the World Series as Georgia’s starting right fielder.
Matthew will still be in Williamsport on Friday hoping to win another World Series for Columbus. The Southeast champions lost to Waipahu, Hawaii, 7-4 Thursday night, setting up a rematch Friday afternoon for a spot in the US Finals.
Not Done Yet
Though only five teams are left standing in this year's World Series, other squads are still playing baseball at the birthplace of Little League. Canada and Germany took the opportunity to play a "friendly game" today. Canada won the match, but both squads were primarily enjoying being out in the sun having fun. Both teams' managers were happy to use pitchers who hadn't pitched much this summer or at the World Series.
Canada manager Pat Chaba called Williamsport "Disneyland for baseball" in a post-game press conference the other day. One can safely assume he enjoyed himself on the field today.
"Don't tell me that!" said Hawaii manager Brian Yoshii when notified of the visiting teams' success. "I just chose home during the coin flip [for Friday's repeat game with Georgia]!"
"I like visitors for many reasons," he continued. "I chose visitors [tonight]. But now that we know them, now that we know their schedules, and now that we know how they're going to juggle their pitching and so forth, I chose home."