No Wrong Way to Swing Bat
Published: October 31, 2003 (Issue # 915)
Vladimir Filonov / The St. Petersburg Times
A "server" tossing up the ball for the waiting batter at the Belgorod championships.
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.
Batters employ different hitting strategies depending on the situation. If several runners are lined up, the batter will start his swing between his legs and try to hit the ball as high up in the air as possible to give his teammates more time to run. If a defenseman catches the ball in the air, it is worth one point, but it is a small price to pay if runners are able to make it back to the endline for two points. A standard baseball swing is often used for the same purpose, especially for male lapta players, who tend to hit the ball higher and deeper.
If there are no runners, a batter will typically start with the bat above his head and try to smash the ball into the ground to avoid allowing the defense to catch the ball in the air. He will become a runner anyway, so there is no use in risking a point.
Lapta is played by time - two 30-minute halves - and the winner, naturally, is the team with the most points when the official blows the final whistle.
If this is not entirely clear, don't worry. In an informal survey taken on the streets of Belgorod, five out of five people had heard of lapta, while zero out of five said they knew the rules.
Fokin said there are still some kinks that need to be worked out in order to give the game more integrity.
"There is no real punishment for not hitting the ball well," he said. "I would like to see that change, but that's one of the things that makes it such an egalitarian game. Everybody gets to participate until the very end. No one has to return to the bench."
Furthermore, lapta would benefit from creating its own ball rather than using a tennis ball, Fokin said, though care would have to be taken that the size and weight of the new ball would not drastically change the game.
He also noted that a 10-second time limit for pitchers to toss the ball up has been instituted in order to speed up the game and make it more viewer-friendly.
Tuesday's games at the Yunost Children's Summer Camp 10 kilometers outside of Belgorod were certainly that, especially the heated battle between the girls' teams from the Voronezh State Physical Education Institute and the Chekhovsky Mechanical-Technical Institute from the Moscow region.
Both teams were jawing back and forth the entire game, with the Chekhovsky batters talking trash to the Voronezh servers and the Voronezh team complaining that Chekhovsky servers were illegally twisting their wrists on their tosses.
The animosity came to a head when a Chekhovsky runner and a Voronezh defenseman exchanged shoves. The Chekhovsky player offered her middle finger and a barrage of English swear words to her opponent, whose team went on to win 18-16.
Lapta has received official status as a traditional Russian sport from the State Sports Committee, and lapta players certainly take the game seriously.
"It's our game, a Russian game," said Chekhovsky player Tanya Kapustina, 17, when asked what attracted her to lapta. "And it's very exciting."
"Lapta combines elements of all kind of sports," said Sergei Martinchenko, 17, who plays for the Belgorod State Technical University. "Athletics, gymnastics - everything is there."
Many of the tournament's participants expressed interest in other sports, but they made it clear they were not about to betray their favorite.
"Soccer involves only your feet," said 15-year-old Belgorod player Zhenya Bakhturin, "and baseball is just a reworked version of lapta."