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No Wrong Way to Swing Bat

Published: October 31, 2003 (Issue # 915)



  • A "server" tossing up the ball for the waiting batter at the Belgorod championships.
    Photo: Vladimir Filonov / The St. Petersburg Times

BELGOROD, Central Russia - Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez might not chalk up so many strikeouts if he were forced to stand next to the hitter and gently toss the ball straight up, and Giants slugger Barry Bonds might not be threatening baseball's career home run record if he had to start his swing with the bat between his legs.

But these are the pitching and hitting techniques of Russian lapta, a game that some claim was the inspiration for America's national pastime, and since Sunday, 15 teams - 10 boys' and five girls' squads - have been duking it out in this traditional stick-and-ball game at the Russian College Lapta Championship.

Lapta is an ancient Russian sport - wooden bats and leather balls dating back to the 14th century have been discovered in Veliky Novgorod, according to the Russian Lapta Federation - and though historians generally credit New York bank teller Alexander Cartwright with inventing baseball in 1845, lapta fanatics like to point out Russia's contribution to the Grand Old Game.

"Our theory is that Russian immigrants or Jews from Odessa brought lapta to America, and baseball evolved from there," said Sergei Fokin, the federation's vice president. "Lapta is a much older game, and there are so many similar concepts: tagging runners out, hitting and catching fly balls, for example."

An explanation of lapta can be as disorienting to the uninitiated as an explanation of cricket to an American or baseball to a non-American.

Here are some of the gory details: The game is played on a field roughly half the size of a soccer pitch with five strategically placed defensemen and one "server." The server stands next to the batter on the endline and tosses a tennis ball straight up with a straight arm for him to hit with a wooden bat.

The hitting team has a six-man batting rotation. The batter has two tries to hit the ball over a 10-meter line, but even if he doesn't, he moves over to the left of the batting circle and becomes a runner.

The ensuing batters try to hit the ball so that the runner - or runners -on the endline can run to the other end of the field and back, earning two points when he returns to his point of departure. But his path is made difficult by the defensemen, who retrieve the ball and try to plunk the runner before he scores. The defense moves to offense when they successfully "tag" a runner and make it back to the endline without being re-tagged.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in “Downton Abbey” if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russia’s best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russia’s most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkin’s, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontov’s short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library System’s website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Club’s weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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