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Krejci finds receptive baseball audience in Russia

Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 11:33 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, March 27, 2014 2:23 p.m. CDT
Southwestern athletic director Bill Krejci (center) leads a baseball clinic for coaches and young players at an indoor practice facility in Russia during a recent trip on behalf of USA Baseball.

There have been free baseball coaching clinics presented in Creston by Bill Krejci in which only a portion of the league’s coaches bothered to attend.

Two weeks ago, a 22-year-old coach from the peninsula of Vladivostok near Japan traveled 5,700 miles to Moscow, Russia, to hear Krejci talk baseball for two days.

That’s just one example of the warm reception the Southwestern Community College athletic director and former baseball coach got during a recent series of clinic demonstrations in Russia for USA Baseball.

The hunger to learn more about the game is strong for a small pocket of baseball enthusiasts in Russia, Krejci said. Although it is not currently an Olympic sport, the Russian Baseball Federation is trying to develop the sport.

“What really impressed me about Russia, like some other countries I’ve been to with USA Baseball, is that you hear they supposedly don’t like us,” Krejci said. “Well, that’s more of a government thing. When you go there and meet the people, they couldn’t be more friendly. They want to be us! As soon as they hear you speak English, or see the USA Baseball shirt, you are like a rock star to them.”

He couldn’t have been treated better.

“Now I have friends in Russia!” Krejci said. “This guy, I had worked with his kid, and he said ‘when you come next time, you stay at my house.’ I gave his kid a USA pen, and a practice jersey, and you’d think I’d just given him a gold bar.”

Krejci, longtime Southwestern coach, has been affiliated with USA Baseball as an advisor, coach and trip administrator since 1996. As the national governing body for amateur baseball in the United States, representatives such as Krejci are frequently asked to be ambassadors for the game in nations where the sport is growing.

Iowa colleague

In this case, Bob Protexter of Sioux City, a former Los Angeles Angels scout who lived in Russia for seven years, paved the way for Krejci’s appearance and served as his translator. Krejci has done clinics in Sioux City for Protexter.

“A friend of Bob’s in Moscow said we’d like to bring in an American coach, and Bob said he had just the guy in mind,” Krejci said. “The schedule worked out perfectly for me. Club coaches from the various academies were there. Some of them first learned the game from Bob and they were really happy to see him, and I couldn’t have been treated better.”

Political stress

Although the timing of the trip worked well during a lull in Southwestern home athletic events, it didn’t come at an ideal time, politically. President Obama and other international leaders are dealing with reactions to Russia’s military takeover of the Ukranian province of Crimea.

The people of Russia were not paying much attention to the issue, however.

“The only conversation that came up about it was when I asked one of the guys from the Russian Baseball Federation,” Krejci said, “and the only thing he said was, ‘it is good for us. We get more baseball players.’ So, it really didn’t seem like it was a big deal to them.”

To help alleviate the fears of his family, however, Krejci talked to a former player affiliated with the Secret Service, who made contacts in Russia and assured him the trip should be safe.

Krejci said American players have more access to proper equipment and baseball fields than Russians, especially in the congested city of Moscow, which has a population of 14 million. To have 90 minutes at an indoor facility for a clinic was a special treat, he noted.

“I’d love to go back in the summer sometime, and work with teams outdoors, and let other coaches come and watch what we do to teach how to play the game,” Krejci said. “In some cases this time, we were trying to demonstrate things in a classroom.”

He said young Russian players have physical attributes indicating their athletic skills, but very rudimentary hitting and throwing techniques. He knew that from observing the USA against a Russian team in the 12-and-under world tournament in Chinese Taipei last year.

“We beat them 19-0, and it probably could have been 35-0,” Krejci said. “It’s just that they haven’t had the time to practice and they have some sloppy technique. And it’s tough to get any money from the government when it’s no longer in the Olympics.”

Olympic outlook

Like wrestling’s restoration last year, Krejci said baseball leaders would like to see the sport return to Olympic venues in the future. But the IOC doesn’t like the fact that Major League Baseball players are unlikely to attend during their own season.

“They want the best from each sport in the Olympics,” Krejci said. “Other professional leagues around the world suspend play for the Olympics. But Major League Baseball has a different ownership structure that would hesitate to lose two weeks of their revenue and operation. There’s even a lot invested in those Triple-A players, so it might not even be feasible to say the top minor leaguers could play. I don’t know, there’s an effort to get it back, but it probably doesn’t have the push, or the long Olympic roots, that the sport of wrestling had.”

Krejci concluded his trip by working with small groups of players and attending an awards banquet, assisting in presenting awards. There, he was treated like a celebrity.

“I probably spent 30 to 35 minutes signing autographs,” Krejci said. “They see somebody with USA on his shirt, and to them, that’s baseball, you know? They asked all kinds of questions about baseball, and the American players. All they know is from what they’ve seen on YouTube or the Internet, but there’s some passion for the game there.

“I’d love to go back.”

In the meantime, Krejci’s travel plans are a little less extensive in upcoming clinics for youth coaches in Creston and Afton.

“You know me, I enjoy teaching the game wherever I can do it,” Krejci said.

Even if it’s 4,700 miles across the globe, in the middle of political unrest.

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