|Posted by daniel.venn on June 8, 2016 at 4:30 PM|
A Little League game being played on one of the two remaining baseball fields in Greece.
Greece needed a baseball team. Fast.
In 1997 when Athens was announced as the host of the 2004 Olympics, Greek officials realized the country would need to field a baseball team to represent their country in the games.
To put it simply, there was no baseball in Greece. The only fields in the country, built on an American Air Force base in the early ‘90s, had been turned into gravel parking lots during renovation. The Hellenic Baseball Association, the only baseball league in Greece, had folded quickly after its creation in 1992 when enough players to form two teams to play against each other couldn’t be found.
With only seven years to produce a world class baseball team, Greek officials scrambled to form a baseball league in the country. Panagiotis Mitsiopoulos, a successful local entrepreneur, was put in charge of organizing Greek’s Olympic baseball efforts, despite the fact that he had little knowledge of the game himself. A country-wide search for athletes ensued, not just for ones who would be talented players but for players and coaches who simply knew the rules.
It took three years to put six teams together into a loosely-organized league. In 2003, the year before the Olympics, a lack of participation led to the cancellation of the league’s championship, an ominous sign for Greek’s hope to participate in the upcoming Athens Games.
Although host countries often receive automatic entry into Olympic events held in their country, the International Baseball Federation, recognizing Greece’s struggle to even organize a consistent baseball league, did not extend an invitation to the country to participate in the games. If Greece wanted to play baseball in the Olympics, they would need to win their way through a serious of international qualifying tournaments.
Knowing the motley collection of baseball players in their ragtag league would not be able to qualify, Mitsiopolous sent scouts to North America to search for players of Greek descent who would be willing to play for the Greek National Team. After searching high schools, colleges, minor league teams, and independent leagues, they returned with a team stocked with American talent. With future major league stars Nick Markakis and George Kottaras on the roster, as well as a collection of former professional players from the major and minor leagues, the Greek National team won the Pool B qualifying tournament and placed second in the Pool A tournament, earning entry into the 8-team Olympic tournament.
Even with their qualifying success, the Greek Olympic team entered the Olympic tournament as the odds-on favorite to finish last. The ace of their squad was 37-year-old Clint Zavaras, a former major leaguer who hadn’t pitched professionally in a decade. Even with their imported talent, the team won just one game in the seven game round-robin tournament.
Following the Olympics, interest in Greek baseball waned. The league formed in anticipation of the Games attempted to continue playing but has since folded. The government condemned the fields built for the games, stating condominiums would be built in their place once the fields were bulldozed.
The Greek Olympic baseball stadium during the 04 Games (left) and now (right).
Today, Greek baseball is on the verge of extinction. No one has been allowed access to the baseball stadium built for the Games since their conclusion. The stadium’s foundation is rotting and the field is too overgrown to be repaired. The only trace of the sport remaining is a Little League program organized and run by Greek coach Spyros Konofaos that plays on the two remaining practice fields next to the stadium. After years of speculation, the Greek government recently sold the complex, the remaining fields included, to an urban development company. The baseball fields will be destroyed as part of their construction plan for the area.
“We are waiting for the bulldozers to come and bring everything down,” Spyros says about the two fields his Little League teams play on. “If the fields go, baseball dies forever in Greece.”
Spyros is determined not to let that happen. Despite being told by the government that construction could begin at any time, he arrives each day at the fields to hold practices and games and maintain the only remaining playing surfaces in his country. He has started an international petition to save Greek’s baseball fields and continues to work to secure equipment for his players and bring in well-known Greek athletes to hold clinics for his players and bring attention to baseball in Greece.
“We have five Little League teams in Greece involving approximately 100 kids ages five to sixteen. The kids love it. They come running to every practice, rain or shine, with smiles on their faces. For the kids, I will do anything and everything to preserve baseball in my country.”
Greek coach Spyros Konofaos (left) with some of his players
Spyros’ involvement in Greek baseball started by chance but has evolved into his passion. Following a business trip to Chicago in 2012, he returned with a pair of gloves, balls, and bats for his two sons. He had played the game while attending college in the United States decades earlier and wanted to share the game he often talked about with his sons. His boys fell in love with the game and began playing with their friends. They encouraged Spyros to organize a team in their neighborhood. As the game quickly spread and more children became interested, Spryos organized a five-team Little League. As those original players outgrew Little League, a five-team Junior League was also formed to allow them to continue playing. A ten-team men’s league followed.
As baseball spread across Greece, Spyros was named the District Administrator of baseball in the country by Little League International. He was appointed as the leader of the Greek Baseball Federation and tasked with forming a youth national team for the country. However, the government has since closed the federation. Funding has been nearly impossible to secure. Spyros purchases most of the equipment for the different leagues out of his own pocket, often having to have it imported from Holland, Italy, or Germany because it is not available in Greece. All of the maintenance on the fields is done by Spyros and his players to keep them in playing shape.
If the fields are destroyed, Spyros knows Greek baseball will go with them. In response to his lobbying, the government has promised to provide new fields for the children to play on. However, following their decision to disband the Baseball Federation and a long series of broken promises he has received, he has little hope it will actually happen. He has tried to secure space on local soccer fields for his players, but knows that playing baseball on soccer fields is not a viable long-term solution.
“The fields mean so much to my players. Baseball means so much to my players. All we can do now is hope.”
When reached for comment, the players openly expressed the impact the game has had on their lives.
“Baseball means everything to me. Baseball is my life. If I didn’t get to play, I would be at home sitting, watching TV. It’s even fun working with my teammates to maintain our fields.”- Jason K.
“Baseball not only changed both my physical and mental state, but also the way I see the world.”-George K.
“Baseball means to me exactly what oxygen means to life.”-Peter N..
“I eat and sleep only so I can have enough energy to play baseball.”-Lefteris S.
“For me, baseball is the best way to have fun. I love the teamwork and the passion in the field.”-Vasilis G., 12.
If Greek's baseball fields are destroyed, Jason, George, Peter, Lefteris, Vasilis and hundreds of other young children will lose access to the game they love. To support Greek Little League baseball and to help save the last two baseball fields in Greece, please sign Spyros’ petition.