Vadim Balan: A Dream, An Opportunity And Taking One Last Chance
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs, Twins Daily (photo of Vadim Balan)But let’s start earlier in telling the Vadim Balan story.
One of Balan’s earliest memories of the game of baseball occurred with his father in their home. “I was sitting in front of TV, watching the last inning game of MLB World Series between the Yankees and someone else. Yankees won the World Series. I clearly remember how they were celebrating the win, and I fell in love with this game. I was four or five years old.”
However, it was at that same time when he realized that baseball was not popular in his country. Balan explained, “I asked my dad if we have this sport in our country. He answered, ‘Unfortunately, we don’t play this sport in Moldova.’ He didn’t know that we actually had a couple of teams for 25 to 30 year.”
He learned that teams had traveled to the USA a couple of times and once finished as high as fifth place in Europe. Moldova even won the Soviet Cup in 1988. These are all things that Vadim learned later, of course.
In his research, he learned that when the Soviet Union dissolved, Moldova was in a major financial crisis. Because of that, baseball was put on hold for nearly a decade. However, some of the former players decided to try to bring the sport of baseball back again. They became coaches and started teaching baseball in schools in Tiraspol, the home of the Balan family.
One day when Vadim was at school, a classmate came over to him. “He asked me if I would like to go out for a baseball practice. I was shocked! Baseball in Tiraspol? No way! You must be kidding me!”
It was true. The coaches were looking for kids who wanted to play baseball. Vadim was thrilled and, of course, happy to join the practices. “I was very excited.I went home from school, grabbed my training stuff and went to my first baseball practice in my life. First step to my dream.”
Before turning 18, he played some in left field and a little bit at third base too. His team played Little League and Senior League in tournaments in Poland and Germany, and in the Ukranian Baseball Championships.
Vadim wanted to play other positions, but his early coaches would not let him. “I was asking my coaches to try to play the pitcher position, but they always told me that it is not for me. ‘You are not gifted enough, so don’t ask me about it anymore. Go and play like we tell you too’ they would say.”
While he was “so mad and destroy to hear those words from my coaches,” Balan didn’t let it affect his play. “At the same time, I became a good outfielder, one of the best in Moldova.”
Even with all the baseball practice and travel, it wasn’t always in the plans for those around him. When he was growing up, he played soccer for a couple of years for a couple of different teams. He also studied in a music school. Balan wasn’t a fan. “For three years, I didn’t like it. I was bored. I had too much energy at that time to just sit in class playing the piano when other kids were playing outdoor sports. Finally, I quit playing the piano. My father was mad, but I said I don’t want to do what I don’t like.”
By the time Vadim Balan was about 15, baseball was starting to become more popular with children in Moldova and their traveling team was finding more success. However, with the country still feeling some economic issues, baseball hadn’t been able to jump to the next level. According to Vadim, “The government doesn’t have the desire to invest in fields and players.”
Baseball had become a very expensive game for the people in Moldova because of all of the travel that is required to play in these tournaments. “Year-by-year, it became harder to play and practice baseball in my city. Sports departments reduced their finances for the sport. We were paying for all the trips. It was expensive so many players stop playing baseball.”
It was at that time when Vadim needed to determine how to move forward as a baseball player. “After my last senior league tournament in Poland in 2011, I realized that our team will not be playing anymore. Nobody has the desire to play in that condition. I started thinking what to do because I wanted to play more. At that moment, I was 18 years old.”
Vadim sat down with a small group, including his brother Petru, for a very important discussion. “We had a long conversation with my brother about our future, what to do, what is the next step, and most important, what is the main goal?”
They decided to leave their team and go work with another coach, someone they felt could help take them to the next level. They didn’t have to look far. They decided to work with Alexander Moiseenko, Petru’s javelin coach. Moiseenko was a former javelin thrower who then played baseball ten years. He then became the main coach for the Soviet Union baseball team from Moldova. He only started coaching the javelin when baseball was on its hiatus.
Even before joining Moiseenko, Vadim did a bunch of research. He searched the internet for any information on how to play in a pro league, college ball or even in a European club team.
“I found information about the MLB Academy, that they were selecting the best 51 players from Europe and bringing them all together for three to four weeks. Some of the best former MLB players like Barry Larkin, Bruce Hurst and others are working with players and helping them to sign pro contracts.”
However, to be invited to the MLB Academy they need to go to an MLB tryout to show their skills, and if good enough, get an invitation.
“I realized that this is my chance to try to reach my dream. But the main problem was that I was completely unprepared for it at that moment. But that didn’t stop us.”
They discussed this with their coach, so that he knew their situation and their goals. Moiseenko was honest with them, saying he couldn’t guarantee they would be selected to the academy or even sign a contract. However, he promised to do his best for them. It was October, and the tryout was in May. They had eight months to work. Remember, he had not pitched because he coaches told him he couldn’t.
“We worked every day, sometimes twice a day. I was struggling. My mechanics weren’t good. We were working on it, and at the same time, we tried to work on the fastball to impress the scouts since I was already 18, never was a pitcher. It will be really tough to show something interesting.”
When they started, he weighed just under 160 pounds. By the time of the tryout, he was up over 35 pounds. When he started he was throwing just 77 to 80 mph.
They received an invitation for a tryout in Prague. One day later, he was on the mound. “I was so nervous, so many people around me, radar guns, scouts, 300 players were watching me. So much pressure!”
He continued, “I started my bullpen. When I finished, my brother, coach and father told me I touched 92 mph. It was the top velocity of the tryout. My brother touched 89.” Scouts and coaches came and had me fill out papers for MLB clubs. At that moment, we didn’t realize what was going on.”
They headed back home, and the next day “the main scout from the Yankees called us and said that they are ready to sign us after the academy. Boston, the Rays, Twins, Reds sent us e-mails stating that they are interested in us. It was unreal and unbelievable.”
They were selected for the MLB Academy in 2012. It was in Italy.
“We learned a lot of new things. Coaches worked with us every day. But, mentally, we weren’t ready for it. So much pressure, scouts, players. My brother played very well. Me? Not. No experience. No zone command. That was my dark side. So we didn’t sign in 2012. We kept working for a new tryout for the next season, to go again and try to be selected again to be part of the academy.”
At the next tryout, Vadim hit 95 mph. Again, that was tops in the tryouts. He was again selected to the academy. “I was very excited and proud. At that time, I worked in the offseason on my strike zone and secondary pitches.”
He continued, “I played a hundred times better than in 2013. In played in four games. Scouts talked to me every day and said they were ready to sign me. The Boston Red Sox scout came and told me, ‘if you will touch 95 in your last game, we will sign you for a very good bonus.’”
That last game was a couple of days later. He didn’t sleep. He was so excited.
“Game day, I started good, and then my mind destroyed me. I tried to show more than I can. No team signed me. It was my big mistake and it closed my doors to sign in 2013.”
With another season at the academy complete, it was back home for Vadim and Petru. He rested a bit and again prepared for the next year’s tryout and academy. He was now 20-years-old.
And then came another obstacle, another hurdle.
“During my offseason, I got seriously injured. I hurt my back and wasn’t able to work and practice anymore. At that moment, I realized that my path to my dream was over. Doctors said I need to quit sports if I want to be healthy in the future.”
Vadim listened. “So I quit, stopped practicing. My coach was upset that we were so close and now everything is over with me.”
Balan went back to the gym to work on his back muscles, just to be in a good shape. But in his mind, the dream was over.
“That’s it. No more baseball in my life.”
During that time, Petru kept working and going to tryouts and the academy. It was also his dream. He wanted to sign.
Two years later, Vadim decided to travel and see his brother. He wanted to see how he was preparing with his coach for the academy. That day, Petru was working and checking his radar gun readings.
Vadim was impressed. His brother was throwing very hard. At the same time, the coach was jokingly asking, “Do you want to make a couple of throws to see how hard you throw after a two year break?”
Vadim took it seriously. During his two years of working in the gym, he had developed some powerful arms but he hadn’t picked up a ball that whole time.
Balan got loose by playing catch and then made about ten to fifteen pitches. “My velocity that day was consistently 97 mph. It was a thunder through my whole body. ‘No way!’ I said.”
The next couple of days, he again couldn’t sleep. He was trying to figure out if he wanted to give it one more try, one last shot. “My coach told me, ‘Sit and think really good. You haven’t touched the ball for two years. Now you had 97. It can change your life, and you can reach what you didn’t two years ago. Or, you can keep doing what you’re doing now and also can achieve other goals.”
“I decided to give myself the last chance!”
It was April. The tryout was in May, in just a couple of weeks.
Vadim and Petru went to Prague. Vadim stepped on the mound, and “96, 96, 96, 95, 96, 96. Changeup was 87, 88. Slider was 85.”
The Rays, Reds and Pirates called me the next day. So did the Twins. Then came the offers, and teams told him he had a week to think about it.
As you know, Vadim Balan chose to sign with the Twins. “They offered me the best option. I was very glad and proud to be part of this big family, especially with my brother (who signed about 15 months later). First baseball players who ever signed pro contracts from Moldova, brothers.”
And all because he decided to take one more shot to take one last chance.
“The was the best choice in my life, to trust in myself until the end and give the last chance. When you think it’s over, it’s only the beginning!”
Vadim pitched in one game for the GCL Twins at the end of the 2015 season. He got five of the six batters that he faced out, four of them on strikeouts. He missed all of 2016 with a stress fracture in his back. He’s currently working in extended spring training, looking for an opportunity to continue living his dream.
Same with this story. Check back in coming weeks as we get to know more about Petru Balan’s rise from youth ballplayer in Moldova, following in his brother’s footsteps and more. His story, and his perspective, is also very unique. It’s not your typical prospect story.
So feel free to discuss.
- James, chaderic20, brvama and 8 others like this