Greek-American Backs National Baseball Team
When Greece decided to create its own Olympic baseball team, it turned to Peter Angelos, Greek-American owner of the Baltimore Orioles. Angelos and the Greek Diaspora are now playing ball, providing cash and sluggers
Greece is known for playing soccer, and lately, basketball. But when the country was awarded the 2004 Olympic Games and thus a spot in the Olympic baseball tournament - it got its chance to play ball. All it needed was players, coaches, equipment and a place to play.
In 1999, the US ambassador to Greece Nicholas Burns, an ardent baseball fan, was contacted by the Hellenic Amateur Baseball Federation (HABF) and asked for help. Burns passed word around American Baseball circles that Greece was interested in fielding a team for the 2004 Olympics, but the country wasn’t going to be able to because the game was simply not played there at a level that would permit recruitment of such a team. And the only ball field in the country was a weed-choked lot on an abandoned army base near the old Athens airport.
When Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos got word of Burns’ efforts, the Greek-American attorney volunteered to assemble a team. “Being of Greek extraction, it was something we felt pleased to do,” Angelos said, “and also, in a sense, obligated to.”
The Baltimore Orioles have been working with the HABF since 1999 to develop a team to compete in the 2004 Games. Angelos assigned one of the Orioles’ scouts, Rob Derksen, to work with the HABF and its director, Panos Mitsiopoulos, as well as with the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee (ATHOC). Derksen and Dimitris Gousios from the HABF are the Greek team’s coaches.
In the meantime, Major League Baseball (MLB) has been working with several European federations to help with field construction, coaching and team development. Major League Baseball International (MLBI) will contribute some $500,000 to the HABF by next year’s Games. The money will go towards uniforms and equipment, such as bats, balls and gloves, as well as towards the construction of practice fields. The Orioles are also contributing to the Olympic baseball stadium construction.
The current US ambassador to Greece, Thomas Miller, also supports the Greek baseball team. A shipment of 1,000 pounds of equipment is due to arrive in September from the U.S. and MLBI has hired a full-time youth development official for Greece, former US college coach Mike Riskas, who speaks Greek.
Angelos and Mitsiopoulos are committed to establishing the sport in Greece beyond 2004, but this needs developing youth leagues. That’s where Riskas comes in. Major League Baseball is counting on youth development to build interest in hopes of future expansion of the sport to Europe.
According to Angelos’ son, Louis, who is helping coordinate the Orioles’ efforts, the team assigned Derksen, who has experience in international baseball, to take charge of the effort to develop the team.
Baseball in Greece has gained quite a bit of popularity considering the fact that it’s a new sport for Greeks. There are eight men’s teams in A division and 10 teams in B division. The Greek national baseball team came close to beating the champions of the 2003 European Championship on July 19 in Haarlem, Netherlands, losing 2-0 to a Dutch team managed by former New York Mets Davey Johnson. Greece were 6-2 in the tournament, taking second place.
Establishing the sport
Orioles’ management wanted to make sure their involvement would help establish baseball in Greece on a permanent basis. Angelos supports Major League Baseball’s efforts to expand internationally.
“With the Orioles and Major League Baseball, we can get Greek-Americans who love baseball and have a passion for it to assist with donations, and perhaps go to Greece and play in these leagues or coach these kids,” said Louis Angelos. “Some of the kids we met in Athens were American-born, whose families had moved back to Greece, and they brought baseball with them.”
Although baseball is relatively new to Greece the first league was formed in 2000 by expatriate American youths the Greek team’s good showing at the European Championship was due in large part to participation by players from the Greek diaspora, particularly the United States and Canada. Those players were mostly college-level athletes with a few former Major League as well as Minor League players.
National team players from outside Greece will be awarded Greek citizenship in order to participate in the Olympics if they have at least one Greek grandparent.
A total of 30 ball players will be recruited from a core of 100 diaspora Greeks by the Baltimore Orioles. An additional 15 will be native Greeks. These 45 ballplayers will largely be selected by the end of this year, and will form the Greek team participating in next year’s Games.
As for that old weed-choked field, it’s been brought back to life thanks to towers lights and bleachers and the work of a professional grounds crew. And the new Olympic baseball complex is sprouting from the old Hellenikon airport.
Angelos, 73, is an attorney who represents thousands of worker clients injured by asbestos inhalation on their jobs. His wife Georgia is also Greek-American. Angelos’ parents, John and Frances were both born on the island of Karpathos. Angelos said his father emigrated to the US at the age of 15, just before World War 1, with only a $5 bill in his pocket.
The return of the Olympics to Greece will have special meaning for the entire Angelos family, Louis Angelos said he hadn’t really felt a connection to Greece before, but the baseball project has solidified his feeling of being Greek.
“This has enabled me to make a very special connection, just the idea being able to connect to Greece and really look at it and really be identified as a Greek-American,” he said. “These ballplayers will have a much stronger connection with Greece because of this experience, and I think all Greek-Americans will, too, because of the Olympics.”
His father agreed. “When you’re of Greek descent, and you look back at the history of the Greeks, that’s a heritage you can take pride in, and that never leaves you.”