Ukraine's Empty Fields of Baseball Dreams
The budding sport, nurtured by Americans, is just another casualty of Russia’s brutal invasion.
Nowhere do dreams fly higher than in Spring Training, before the reality of a long, grueling baseball season sets in. And so it is in spades with Basil Tarasko, one of a small group of Americans who’ve long been nurturing baseball in Ukraine.
Building interest in the game was always an uphill climb, of course, in a nation delirious about soccer. But the growing participation of thousands of Ukrainian youngsters in baseball over the years has given Tarasko, the son of Ukrainian immigrants who is Little League’s district commissioner for Ukraine, reason to believe the sport has finally caught on. He’s been involved in baseball there since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Today, of course, the fields of his dreams lie untended and empty, another casualty of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even with Russian artillery and troops ravaging the country, however, Tarasko, a former Major League baseball scout and New York City-area college coach, was clinging this week to a thin hope that things would get back to normal before too long.
“My three championship schedules are still on the calendar,” he told me by email a few days ago. “Will go to Ukraine when WAR IS OVER.”
Desperate messages from Ukrainian coaches indicate that won’t be soon.
“I am quite sure that each person is doing what he or she can to help during this Horrible WAR,” he said via email.
“I get hard, heartbreaking texts from people talking about how ‘they bombed my building,’ with video looking out the window and seeing bombs going off,” Van Schley, another American involved in Ukrainian baseball, told SpyTalk. “No one's been hurt yet,” he said of his baseball friends there last week. “There’s just devastation and anger, pretty much the stuff that you see on TV.”
A celebrated artist who once aspired to the bigs as a player, Schley has long partnered with actor Bill Murray in the ownership of a number of independent and minor league baseball teams across America. A few years ago, he and other baseball friends who had been promoting baseball across Europe found fertile ground in Ukraine. In 2018, Schley and an organization called Baseball for Good, which includes former Texas Rangers prospect Luke Salas among its backers, committed to help build a ballpark for adult-level play in Bohuslav, about a 90-minute drive south of Kyiv.
“They built a ball field with 500 bleachers in it,” Schley told me. “It's got very, very good looking dugouts, which look very, very Eastern European. And they have a quality infield with great drainage. They have everything that a good college field in the United States has.”
As of a few days ago, the field there was “untouched,” said Tarasko. "There are no kids around, people have left. That means the Russians are in that area.” At the Volyn Lyceum in Kremenets in Western Ukraine, a school that is the home to the Ukraine Little League baseball championships, “there are currently 170 displaced children from Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere who are sheltered in need of food and clothing,” he said.
Peter Caliendo, a legendary coach and longtime international ambassador for youth baseball, has been fielding desperate messages from his Ukraine friends.
“Brother, it’s good to hear from you,” one wrote to him this week.
“I'm sorry that I don't always answer, there are my own problems... last night they bombed so non-stop that they thought the house would collapse.... but we don't panic, we have ways to get away from here if they come closer.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Tarasko and misplaced the location of a school sheltering children. We regret the errors.