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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

Friday, Dec. 26


Celebrate Boxing Day by playing various tabletop games during the British Book Center’s Board Game Evening tonight at 5 p.m. Spread the Christmas cheer and goodwill by making other people regret their decision to come and try to match their intellectual prowess against yours.



Saturday, Dec. 27


Indulge cultural and material needs simultaneously during the free classical music concert at the Galeria shopping mall in the heart of the city. Starting at 7 p.m., shoppers and mallwalkers will be able to hear the sounds of Tchaikovsky and Strauss softly lilt over the constant buzz of people bustling from store to store, trying to get their shopping done before New Year.



Sunday, Dec. 28


Prepare for the holidays at the Russian Winter New Year’s Fair on Moskovskaya Ploshchad, which concludes today after starting on Dec. 22. Games and attractions as well as numerous performances will be on offer for those looking to get into the spirit while numerous vendors will help make sure you have something for everyone on your list.



Monday, Dec. 29


Learn how the Swedes observe Christmas, or Jul, in their land of ice and snow, during aSwedish Christmas celebration at the Lermontov Children’s Library this afternoon at 4 p.m. Activities explaining and demonstrating Sweden’s cultural traditions will be accompanied by traditional dishes and sweets.



Tuesday, Dec. 30


Today is the final day of the Christmas Market at the Europolis shopping center on Polyustrovsky prospekt. Indulge your holiday sweet tooth by tucking into some gingerbread men, or attend one of the master classes that will teach you about how to make beautiful, festive decorations for your tree using only your hands.



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