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Catching Up With UConn Baseball

A weekly blog from the University of Connecticut Baseball team


Entry #8: Tuesday, April 1, 2008

From Russia with Arms

For a long time now, I’ve felt like a kid with a secret so big. It has been absolute torture keeping quiet over the last few months, but it is finally time to spill the beans. Today my wife Brooke and I are thrilled to announce the adoption of two young boys from Russia.

In January of 2007, Brooke and I ventured to Regensburg, Germany. I was asked by International Sports Group to do a clinic for German baseball coaches, and in between some great sightseeing, dining, and baseball instruction, we met a guy that will forever change our lives and the future of UConn baseball.

Yuri Ott was one of the few attendees from outside Germany in attendance at the clinic. He was with the Russian Federation of Baseball, and we decided to meet for coffee after the clinic ended for the day. It was there that I first learned of the twin boys from a tiny village outside of Kazan, Russia on the Volga River. The twins have a very unique story.

Yuri told me that the boys were orphaned the previous summer. Their father had been an agent with the old Soviet KGB and was killed in a car accident in July of ‘06, and Nikolai and Leonid were being cared for by the Russian government in a type of orphanage on the outskirts of Moscow. He explained that Andrei had spent years undercover in the States prior to meeting his wife and having the boys.

During his time here, he developed an infatuation with the U.S., and in particular, baseball. After his wife’s passing of cancer in 1996, when the boys were just five years old, Andrei was forced to be the primary caretaker for his sons, and he exposed his twins to the game at a young age. The boys would return home after school and play catch all afternoon before their father would return from his new job with the Russian Ministry of the Interior. Yuri also explained the boys were extraordinary students. Nikolai was interested in engineering, while Leonid wanted to study pharmacy.

So, when the clinic was over, Brooke and I flew home, and I thought I’d seen and heard the last about the Gufanov brothers. About a week after returning, Yuri sent a box with a videotape to my office in Storrs. Brooke and I were blown away by what we saw. We knew at that point that we needed these boys in our lives just as much as they needed us.

I quickly began corresponding with Yuri again. We wanted to bring the boys to Connecticut. After many long conversations with Yuri, we began the process to secure visas for Leo and Nik. There were just a few bureaucratic hurdles to clear, but thanks to some help from a couple of old contacts from when I worked in DC in the mid 90’s, we got it done.

The twins were ecstatic about coming to America. While they wouldn’t be able to get here for the fall semester, the boys would be enrolling in school for spring ’08. As luck would have it, I got another invitation by ISG to do a clinic in Sweden this past January. It would only be a week before the semester began, but I arranged to stay a couple of days after the clinic, and made my way to Moscow to meet the twins. Their English was excellent, and both were eager to show me what they could do with the ball and bat.

We shoveled a spot from which they could pitch in their boots, and Nik threw first with his right arm. The radar gun (borrowed from an off-duty Moscow cop) read, “156”. I brought along my metric conversion chart. The 156 kilometers per hour was equivalent to 97 miles per hour. With the left arm, he was only up to 95! Leo was better with his left arm. He clocked in at 98 with his left, and 96 with the right. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Everything they threw was a strike. They made a couple halfhearted attempts at breaking balls, but it really wasn’t necessary. My mind was made up. These guys would dominate the Big East. Nikolai could start on Friday with his right arm. His brother would start Saturday with his left. Nikolai could then come back on Sunday with the other arm, and vice versa. Our rotation would be set for the next three years, until the scouts would gobble them up after their junior years.

They’ve both been throwing bullpen sessions, since they arrived two weeks ago. With the off-day after the Georgetown series, I was even able to pick them up myself as soon as they got off the flight at JFK. I’ve kept them out of sight from the team, because I just didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up until it was really a done deal. The boys have adjusted to our family and to Connecticut very well. Brooke found an Eastern European grocery store in the south end of Hartford, and she’s heated some decent canned borscht for the guys as they wean themselves onto some more American offerings.

My knees are holding up a lot better than my swollen left hand, as I’ve had to catch Nik and Leo behind our house in Wethersfield, and now with all the NCAA qualifications met, they’ll be getting the ball this weekend against Cincinnati. They’ll join the Olt brothers as another sibling tandem on our club later today when I finally get to introduce the boys to their new teammates. I cannot wait to see them in action. It has been a long 15 months since my meeting with Yuri D. Ott in that German café, but here we are. What a day. I’ll never forget it, April 1, 2008.

With apologies to George Plimpton, Sports Illustrated, and the legendary Sidd Finch, Happy April Fool’s Day!

- Jim Penders                                                                                                 

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