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Monday, October 15, 2001

Athens 2004

Greece Tries to Build It, But Will They Come?


Greece has finally reconciled itself, not to one, but to three American bases near the old airport at Elliniko, the coastal suburb of Athens – but they’re for baseball, not military bases. The US Air Force base there closed in 1990, but some facilities are still being used for cultural and other activities run by local residents and Athens-based clubs and societies. Of all those facilities, it is the baseball field that has gotten the most regular use, as the staging ground for bringing baseball to Greece.

Baseball took off only a few years ago in Greece, but it quickly received a major-league boost thanks to the Baltimore Orioles. Efforts in Greece to develop “America’s national pastime” attracted the attention of Nicholas Burns, who until recently served as US ambassador to the country. Eager to offer assistance to Greece’s baseball pioneers, Burns – an avid baseball fan – contacted Greek American Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles. He suggested that Angelos help coordinate a new type of US aid to Greece: Greek American baseball players who would play for the Greek national team.

While this project is obviously not as weighty as the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan that shaped Greece’s course after the Second World War, it almost seems to be as urgent for some people. Instead of ensuring Greek adhesion to the Western alliance, however, the task at hand now is to help Greece avoid humiliation in the baseball competition at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004.

Greek baseball, begun as a recreational pursuit by a handful of people, would have remained in obscurity had not Athens been awarded the 2004 Olympics. One of the privileges accruing to the host country of the Olympics is that it automatically plays in the finals of all team sports. All other national teams have to compete in qualifying rounds over a period of several months, as the Olympic finals can accommodate only a limited number of participants in team sports.

Getting a bye on all rounds up to the finals may be good news for Greece’s national teams in established sports; it is mixed news at best, however, for team sports that are still very new to Greece. The increasing emphasis on exercise, and on playing a variety of sports other than the two major spectator sports of soccer and basketball, has seen the growth of many new sports in Greece (volleyball, for example, or a form of racquetball played on the beach called “raketes”). While it is safe to say, however, that the latter activity will not make it into the Olympics in the near future, sports new to Greece such as baseball, canoeing/kayaking, field hockey, softball, triathlon, and women’s soccer will be part of the program in 2004.

The small groups of pioneer enthusiasts in each sport will be competing against the best teams in the world, therefore, with a very thin line dividing the potential for a glorious underdog performance from a crushing and humiliating defeat. In order to forestall a public-relations setback at the 2004 games, the Greek government has taken an earnest and unprecedented interest in the new sports. It has appointed administrators of newly created “federations” to run and finance them and, above all, to organize Greek “national teams” for each one.

The baseball federation organized its first tournaments in the season that spanned 1999 and 2000. Marousi 2004 won that initial championship and Spartacos Glyfadas won the cup. These tournaments are now an annual event that involve 18 teams from Athens, Patra, Thessaloniki, Kefalonia, and Aigio.

The tournaments have taken place at the Elliniko baseball field simply because there are no others in Greece. The teams practice on makeshift fields in open lots or on soccer fields. The federation covers the travel costs of the teams outside Athens. Officials from Italy, a country where baseball is fairly strong by European standards, have gone to Greece to umpire the finals.

Most Greek baseball players are homegrown, a testament to the slow but steady spread of the game across the globe. When Srdjan Milosavljevic became manager of Thessaloniki’s team, Baseball Club Petritsi, he found that his players were mostly locals, with only a smattering of players who had played in the United States, Canada, or Germany before their families re-emigrated back to Greece. Milosavljevic, an expatriate Serb, learned to play the game in the former Yugoslavia.

Ambassador Burns was taken by baseball’s arrival in Greece, but he was also very concerned that the creation of a government-sponsored federation in itself would not be enough. As a Bostonian, Burns knows all about lost causes on the baseball field. The legendary Boston Red Sox have not won the “World Series” (US baseball’s championship) since the First World War. Greek amateurs needed some help with the Olympics looming on the horizon. The Greek national team’s first games, against Italy and Israel, resulted in losses. In the Olympics, it may come up against baseball powers such as Cuba, Japan, or the United States – hence Burns’s call to Angelos, whom he contacted through Maryland’s Greek American senator, Paul Sarbanes.

Angelos has warmed to the task of locating talented Greek American ball players in the minor professional leagues, as well as on top-level college teams. The Orioles have already identified a long list of about 90 Greek Americans who could play for Greece. They are being assisted by Major League Baseball, which runs professional baseball in the United States and is interested in spreading the sport globally. Major League Baseball International (MLBI) will reportedly contribute some $500,000 by the time the Athens games arrive, and it is also shipping baseball equipment to Greece.

In addition, it has named a full-time youth development official, Mike Riskas, a former college coach and Pomona College professor of physical education. Riskas is upbeat about baseball’s prospects in Greece and says that the “Greeks are wonderfully motivated and excited about learning how to play baseball. The advent of baseball-experienced American, Canadian, Australian, and Italian Greeks and others will help contribute to the growth of our great game.” Meanwhile, other Greek Americans are contributing. Greek American businessman Chris Karalekas, a lifelong New York Yankees fan, has formed Baseball Acropolis, a group that aims to raise funds for Greek baseball.

A recent ruling by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) paves the way for many Greek Americans to play for Greece. The IOC and the Greek government have agreed that any person of Greek descent who has at least one grandparent (from either side of the family) born in Greece qualifies to participate in the 2004 Olympics. This relaxation of the usual criteria of nationality offers college and professional baseball players of Greek descent a unique opportunity to represent their ancestral homeland in the Olympics.

There is even talk now of Greece hosting the upcoming European “B” level baseball championship in Athens. This, however, would require acceleration of plans to construct baseball fields in the area of the old airport at Elliniko. The field on the old US Air Force base is smaller than regulation size – there simply would be too many home runs batted over the heads of outfielders and beyond the field’s perimeter. If the new fields can be built in time, hosting a European tournament would alert the Greek public to baseball’s arrival. To date, baseball’s Greek pioneers are laboring in obscurity.

In the summer of 2001, the Orioles invited the Greek national team to train at their home field in Baltimore, the famed Camden Yards. Reporting on the visit, writers scrambled for appropriate puns: “Beware of Greeks bearing bats,” “Greek baseball bring the Home-r to Greece,” and the inevitable “It’s Greek to them.” However, US baseball know-how and material “aid” added to Greek American talent can make observers change their tune. Greek athletes have been winning more and more distinctions in the Olympics across a range of sports. Thanks to Greek America, they may even do so on the baseball field.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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