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Greek baseball team, made in the USA

As the Games' host, Greece can field a team in any sport without qualifying. But where to find a cleanup hitter?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 18, 2004



ATHENS

Mention "Homer" to a Greek, and he thinks Odysseus, not Hank Aaron.

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But the Greek national baseball team, conjured up from scratch for this year's Olympic Games, hopes to change all that. Success at the games, officials say, would boost the popularity of a sport almost as unfamiliar to modern Greeks as it was to the Ancients.

Not that many of the players on the Greek team are what you would normally call Greek. In fact only one member of the 24-man squad actually has a Greek parent and lives in Greece (and he is called Chris Robinson, thanks to his American dad).

But when Greece won its Olympic bid in 1997, and with it the right to field teams in every sport without qualifying, Panos Mitsiopoulos decided that "now was the time for people here to love baseball." And thereby hangs a tale.

Mr. Mitsiopoulos had become a baseball fan on a trip to America. In his homeland, however, the only sign of the game in those days was a weed-choked diamond on an abandoned US Air Force base outside Athens. Undeterred, Mitsiopoulos and some like-minded friends founded the Hellenic Amateur Baseball Federation, registered it with the authorities, and called the US ambassador for help.

They were in luck. The ambassador at the time, Nicholas Burns, describes himself as "a confirmed, unconditional, rabid fan of the Boston Red Sox," and he was delighted to join in the fun. He roped in Peter Angelos, the Greek-American owner of the Baltimore Orioles, and also rallied Major League Baseball's International Division to the cause.

Introducing baseball to Greece, recalls Mr. Burns (now US ambassador to NATO), "was a joint venture between America and Greece, and it was one of the best things I ever did as ambassador."

Mitsiopoulos, meanwhile, aware that he couldn't turn a nation of absolute beginners into a world-class baseball contender in six years, won permission from the Greek government and the International Olympic Committee for any man with one Greek grandparent to qualify for a summary passport and a place on the national team.

He also won them exemption from the 18 months' military service normally required of Greek males.

In North America, scouts combed minor-league and college teams for players with names like Theodorakos and Koutsantonakis (though Sean Spencer and Lawrence Heisler would do, since they were at least one quarter Greek). At home, the infant federation began establishing local teams into a league.

It was a slow business. Mr. Robinson, who had played fraternity baseball at Eastern Kentucky University before returning to his maternal homeland, did not even hear about Greek baseball until 2000. "It wasn't making the biggest impression," he recalls with a laugh.

But Major League Baseball and the Orioles sent over coaches and ran clinics and spent money on bats and gloves and baseball fields, and today 18 teams play in two leagues.

"It's gotten much better," says Robinson, who pitches and plays shortstop for the national team. "Maybe 40 per cent of Greeks know now that baseball exists in Greece."

This pool of developing talent, however, is not yet ready for the international stage, says Mitsiopoulos. "It's impossible for a guy who started playing five years ago to be as good as someone who's been playing since he was eight," he insists. That, he says, explains why the Greek national squad includes only two players from the local leagues. The rest come from the US and Canada, and though some of them speak some Greek, most are having difficulty reading the road signs.

This situation leads to some peculiar turns of phrase. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime," said Pete Maestrales, third baseman for the Newark Bears. "I am so excited to play for my heritage."

It has also led to an almighty row in Greece, where local players feel spurned. One of the national coaches even threatened to resign over the issue, saying the selection of so many Greek-Americans was "unfair."

"Most Greeks believe more local players should have been used," says Robinson. "That's my wish too, and a lot of kids here are sad about this and even mad about it. But they don't know what the coaches have in mind."

Wherever the players come from, they have done well. In their first international appearances, at the 2002 European championships, they wiped the floor with the competition, albeit competition of somewhat dubious extraction such as Belarus and Bulgaria.

Last year, promoted to the top European Championship pool, Greece came second to the Netherlands, Europe's best team. And though they have lost their first three Olympic games, they lost by only one run to powerhouse Cuba Monday. Today they face off against Canada.

In the back of Mitsiopoulos's mind is the smash success here of another American sport, introduced to Greece by Greek-Americans 40 years ago, at which the Greeks are now world-class: basketball. "It is my dream that baseball will become as popular here as basketball is," he says.

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