The Next Generation of Velocity

Astonishing. Prodigious. Remarkable. Incredible. Ludicrous Velo. Fascinating. Overwhelming. Over the top. Loads of trouble for hitters.

These are the responses provided by in-the-know baseball people when asked what they would think of a player that threw a ball faster than they ever dreamed. Right now the absolute ceiling for a major league fastball is 106 mph by Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman. That, however, may have its days numbered as the top fastball ever.

The player that may just end up eclipsing Chapman’s mark isn’t in the minor leagues. He isn’t in the NCAA. And he isn’t in a place where any major league player has ever started a career. He’s actually from a place where less than 2000 people know the game of baseball even exists. To find him we have to travel thousands of miles from the United States, outside even the farthest reaching circles of the baseball world. We have to go to Turkmenistan.

Believe it or not, this far-off land is host to a man that could be the next great sensation in baseball. The one-time Soviet satellite now thrives in its traditional ways and traditional sports. Horsemanship is Turkmenistan’s national pastime and practiced by a great many people there. Soccer is a comparatively newer sport but still the largest spectator sport in the country. While thousands pack stadiums to watch soccer, only dozens ever see the fledgling Turkmenistan National Baseball League and its biggest star, Nikolai Mibalzic.

The 21-year-old is the grandson of a former Soviet state security officer (Soviet intelligence) who, at the fall of the Soviet Union, was recruited to perform the same function for the new independent Turkmenistan government. The family remained in the capital of Ashgabat and established itself in the country’s upper class. Nikolai’s father, Vladimir, went into the Armed Forces of Turkmenistan and has risen to the rank of colonel. His mother, Mara, is an international import/export broker. This, along with the status of his grandfather, afforded young Nikolai with a lifestyle decidedly above most of his countrymen and the ability to dream big dreams.

Young people in Turkmenistan are encouraged to get into sports at an early age. Not liking soccer, Nikolai was drawn to track and field and became enamored with throwing the javelin. At age six he started throwing but there were no kid-sized javelins, so he used the few designed for women that could be found. When those became too beat up and damaged to use, he turned to those meant for men to throw. The heavier spears worked to strengthen Nikolai’s arm and he quickly rose through the ranks of throwers. At the age of 17 Mibalzic made his first world class throw of 72.34 meters (243.78 feet). While he continues to train for the javelin, Nikolai spends a great deal of time in his new pursuit of baseball.

In his third year at the Turkmen National Institute of World Languages in Ashgabat, Mibalzic found a great fascination with American culture. So much so that he changed his minor field of study to English after his second year. The International Business major met Jerry Stockbridge, a guest instructor at the university who was from the United States. The student spent a portion of every day picking the brain of his American friend and his interest became a near-obsession. Due to the highly effective international marketing of basketball, he became a dedicated NBA fan until his mentor told him about America’s traditional national pastime: baseball. And that’s where the amazing part of this story begins.

Stockbridge had his time in baseball playing in high school and two years at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Florida and considers himself a lifelong fan of the game. “In the US my baseball experience is run-of-the mill, but here I’m just about the greatest authority on the game,” the English and Economics professor admits. Many of his students studying English showed interest in American culture and he began sharing his love of baseball with them. His waxing poetic about the game led to their desire to try playing. Their first attempts took place in pastures typically reserved for livestock but those fields were abandoned due to uneven terrain and the pre-fertilized state they were in. Stockbridge talked a local soccer club into letting the baseball students use an often unused back field and more interested “players” began showing up. Equipment was purchased off the internet or begged for from anyone possessing any gloves, bats, caps and baseballs. What little equipment was in the country was pretty much collected.

Mibalzic was among the first to jump at the chance to try the uniquely American game. He had abandoned his love of the NBA upon learning that Michael Jordan had once quit basketball to try baseball. The young javelin thrower would try his hand at the American game. And it didn’t take long for Stockbridge to realize that there was something truly special about his young friend.

“It was like the movie The Rookie with Dennis Quaid. When Nikolai threw the ball the popping of the mitt made such a sound that I found it stunning,” Stockbridge said. “It was uncanny.” Having  been away from the US for a few years, Stockbridge couldn’t get a solid read on how hard Mibalzic was throwing but he knew it wasn’t common. And as workouts became pick-up games it became evident that Nikolai was at a level well beyond anyone around him. The thunderous fastballs continued to dispatch would-be hitters and Stockbridge began to suspect something miraculous was afoot.

Stockbridge organized a league for his players, now numbering 68 in all. Four teams comprised of university students and intrigued locals each play four games a week with Stockbridge as the League Commissioner. (He found that his managing a team was a hugely unfair advantage due to his superior knowledge of baseball strategy over the soccer and gymnastic coaches that were willing to try managing other teams.) As the league’s chief statistician Stockbridge couldn’t ignore Mibalzic’s unreal stat lines as a pitcher. In 2018 the right-hander made 18 starts and accumulated 131.2 IP, 78 H, 16 ER, 122 walks and an eye-popping 290 K’s. That’s 290 strikeouts out of the 395 outs he recorded. An ERA of 1.09, a 16-0 record and striking out the side 63 times compelled Stockbridge to see just how hard his young friend was throwing.

“I had to know,” the 47-year-old commissioner said, “It was like watching a big league pitcher throw to little leaguers. It was no contest when Nik took the mound.” Of course the mound was a pile of dirt that wasn’t packed not all that tightly, the bases were pillow cases stuffed with old rags and discarded clothes and the baselines weren’t chalk but ever-fading spray paint because the league couldn’t afford to buy more. Almost all the players had practiced or played the game less than two years and, on its best days, the level of play equaled that of American Legion leagues in this country. On its worst days Stockbridge described the level of play as “unbearable”. But the one thing that never failed was that many people showed up to watch Mibalzic pitch. In an effort to do a little guerilla marketing and spur more interest in watching his star performer play, Stockbridge did some fast talking with Nikolai’s father and arranged to borrow a Ukrainian model Sokol X band radar gun from the military. And Stockbridge confessed to his jaw dropping and difficulty breathing after utilizing it.

In a game last June, Mibalzic threw ten straight pitches at just over 188 kilometers an hour, or 117 miles per hour. 117 mph! Still in disbelief, Stockbridge took more readings during Mibalzic’s next start in early July and got similar results.

“I thought Rod Serling was going to appear and tell me I was in the Twilight Zone,” Stockbridge said via a FaceTime feed. “I guessed he was around a hundred but never dreamed that fastball was anything like it turned out to be.” Diagnostics on the radar gun confirmed that it was in proper working order, so the 117 mph reading stands as official.

For his own part, Nikolai is decidedly humble about his abilities likely not yet realizing just how incredible his achievement is to those in his newfound favorite game.

“I speak difficult English still,” the 21-year-old said, still working to grasp the finer points of the language after a year of study. Although he speaks Turkmenistan’s native language of Turkmen and Russian, Mibalzic is finding English to be a challenging tongue. “Jerry says my pitching is special. I trust him. I want to go to America someday and pitch for Red Sox.” The influence of Stockbridge, an Orlando, Florida native and dedicated Rays fan, is unmistakable in listening to Mibalzic. “No Yankees. Red Sox.”

Were he a resident of North Dakota, the Dominican Republic, Panama or even South Korea, Nikolai Mibalzic would have scouts crawling all over him already. But being from a part of the world where baseball occupies the same cultural significance as glow-in-the-dark wingtip shoes do in the United States means that there is no support network for the young hopeful in his quest to one day be a big leaguer. Regardless he continues to train and get ready for the upcoming season in the TNBL which will get underway in early May and hope for the opportunity to pursue his ultimate dream. And we can only hope that he gets that shot at the big time so we can all get a look at a truly unbelievable fastball.

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