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American goes to bat for kids

February 19, 2007, 2:00 3293 Author: Elisabeth Sewall Kyiv Post Basil Tarasko, a retired American college baseball coach of Ukrainian descent, pictured above, promotes Little League baseball in Ukraine in the face of limited funding and facilities

Basil Tarasko, a retired American college baseball coach of Ukrainian descent, pictured above, promotes Little League baseball in Ukraine in the face of limited funding and facilities. Ukraine had the largest Little League in Europe last year.

Despite a lack of playing fields and funding, amateur baseball is finding fertile ground in Ukraine, with programs at schools and orphanages spearheading development.

The city of Kirovohrad, Kirovohrad Region, home to Ukraine’s only professional quality baseball stadium and boasting the largest Little League program in Ukraine, is the country’s major hotbed for the sport.

This June, Ukraine’s Little League program will be organizing the country’s first ever baseball tournament for orphans – the only one of its kind in the world – in Kaniv, Cherkassy Region. It will be followed by the 7th annual All-star Ukraine Little League tournament in Illchivsk, Odessa Region.

The winning team from the tournament will participate in the European championships in Kutno, Poland with a chance at the Little League world championship in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania.

Ukraine boasted the largest Little League in Europe last year, with 22 Little Leagues and 62 teams. Of these, 11 were at orphanages.

A team from Kirovohrad won last year’s Ukrainian championships and represented Ukraine in Poland.

However, according to Basil Tarasko, Little League Baseball’s district administrator in Ukraine, the country’s Little League program and its teams are often hampered by a lack of financial support.

The Kirovohrad team raised $1,400 to cover the cost of travel for last year’s European Championship. Of that sum, $800 was raised by Tarasko.

But sometimes Ukraine’s baseball teams cannot raise the necessary funds to participate in the European championships.

Field of Dreams

Tarasko, a retired college baseball coach from the United States with Ukrainian roots, was invited by the Ministry of Sports to help develop baseball in the Soviet Union in 1991 and started to coach Ukraine’s national team. He has been back and forth between Ukraine and the U.S. ever since, playing a big role in developing baseball in his ethnic homeland. By 1994, he was appointed coach for the country’s first national baseball team, which won an appearance at the European Senior championships in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Ukraine’s national team is currently ranked 10th in Europe.

Tarasko, who organizes the baseball tournaments for children in the 11-12 year old age bracket, says he raises most of the funds to pay for tournament expenses himself by selling Ukrainian baseball souvenirs in the U.S. and receiving donations from private individuals.

Ukraine’s Big League division, for children in the 16-18 year age bracket, faces even larger financial setbacks. Big league European championships usually take place in Western European countries, making the cost of travel and accommodations several times higher than those of the Little League championships, which are often held in Eastern Europe.

A year after the European Senior championships, Tarasko recalls, the number of players on the national team started to dwindle.

“Half of the team was no longer there because the players were older, they had families,” he said.

Tarasko became concerned about the future of Ukraine’s national team.

“I thought to myself... who’s gonna play for the national teams down the road? I decided to spend more time developing youth baseball in Ukraine along with my coaching duties for the national team,” he said.

It has been an uphill battle, however.

While Little League programs are scattered all over Ukraine, the country boasts few baseball fields.

“Many places just use a soccer field or whatever field they can find,” Tarasko said.

The country’s only professional quality stadium is a 900-seater in Kirovohrad. “That’s the center of baseball in Ukraine. That’s where hundreds of kids play, where the game is respected, where the coaches are the best in Ukraine,” Tarasko said.

According to Tarasko, a baseball field costs about Hr 120,000 (around $24,000) to build without dugouts.

Tarasko continues trying to develop the game regionally.

He will make his 44th trip to Ukraine in March to promote and support developing baseball programs around the country, with a trip to Moldova on the agenda as well.

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