Give ‘em Hellas: The Story of Greek Baseball

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While baseball’s popularity may be experiencing a bit of stagnation in the United States, the greatest game of them all is still thriving on the world’s stage. Established international powerhouses like Japan, South Korea, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic have been met by a new wave of up and coming competition from the likes of Israel, Colombia, the Netherlands and Australia. Even nations like Germany, South Africa and Lithuania who have little baseball infrastructure have produced recent homegrown major leaguers in Max Kepler, Gift Ngoepe and Dovydas Neverauskas, respectively. Suffice it to say, the game is seeing steady, encouraging signs of growth at the global level. However, one nation that still has yet to fully establish itself in the baseball world is Greece. As a fledgling baseball nation, Greece rarely makes headlines, but has a much more interesting history with the game than one might think.

The one and only time that the Greek National Baseball Team showcased itself on the world’s stage was in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. As the host nation, it became very important to the Hellenic Amateur Baseball Federation (HABF) to field a competitive team in order to play at their home Olympics. Up to that point, Greece had been entirely off the baseball map, with no thought whatsoever being given to allowing a Greek baseball team to compete at the Olympics. However, HABF president Panos Mitsiopoulos sought to change that. Mitsiopoulos worked tirelessly to develop a nationwide league, the Greek Baseball Championship, that would help develop homegrown players. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Mitsiopoulos sought to develop connections in the United States.

John Bissylas, a longtime high school baseball coach in Toronto who was born to two Greek parents and spent most of his youth living in Greece, was recruited by Mitsiopoulos while vacationing in Athens. Bissylas just so happened to be staying in the hotel Mitsiopoulos owned, and the two men struck up a friendship based on their mutual love of baseball. During their initial conversation, Mitsiopoulos asked Bissylas for his help in establishing connections in North America, and presenting the Greek case to MLB International in New York. Bissylas recalls, “I went to their [MLB’s] office and I introduced myself as somebody who was helping out the Greek National Team in getting ready for the 2004 Olympics. And that was the first time they had ever heard of that.” Despite the bewilderment upon his arrival, Bissylas’ efforts laid the groundwork for future success, as MLB International succeeded in putting the Greek team in touch with the Greek-American owner of the Baltimore Orioles, Peter Angelos. 

Angelos proved to be the wealthy benefactor that Team Greece desperately needed, as he donated over $1 million of his own funds to the effort. In addition, Angelos tasked his most trusted scout, Rob Derksen, with traveling the globe turning over every rock in search of elite-level players of Greek heritage with which to field a competitive team. The support of both men paid off in spades, as the eventual 2004 Olympic roster included seven former and future major leaguers, including 2018 All-Star outfielder Nick Markakis, as well as a gluttony of high-quality collegiate and minor league athletes. However, piecing together a team was only half the battle, as Team Greece still needed to earn its spot in the competition.

“Hellas,” as they affectionately named themselves, which is simply the word “Greece” in Greek, needed to run the table in European tournaments in 2003 in order to secure a berth in the 2004 Olympic Games. First up was the European Qualifier Championship, where the team steamrolled their competition, racking up seven straight mercy rule victories. With the first hurdle cleared, it was on to the European Seniors Championship, where the top two teams would receive invitations to the Olympics. Hellas started out by beating Italy 2-1 in a nailbiter, before trouncing Spain in the semi-finals 10-0. Despite a respectable 2-0 loss to the Netherlands in the championship game, Team Greece still managed to punch its ticket to the Athens Games.

However, not all was smooth sailing for Team Greece, as they faced some serious trials in the lead up to the Olympics. Only three months before the competition started, three quarters of the team’s starting rotation went down with injuries, leading to a mad dash to replace them on the roster. Then, tragically, the team’s manager, Rob Derksen, died of a heart attack two months before the Games commenced. The heart and soul of the squad, Derksen’s sudden passing was a severe jolt to the Hellenic team, and they made their way to Athens with heavy hearts. Still reeling from the recent tragedy, Hellas managed only one win out of their seven Olympic contests despite playing well throughout the competition, and even holding the eventual Gold Medal winning team, Cuba, close in a 5-4 loss. While Hellas failed to win a medal, simply competing was victory enough, as the underdog team had put Greece on the map, and given millions of Greeks around the world a reason to cheer for the country they loved so deeply.

The 2004 Olympics proved to be a watershed moment for baseball in Greece, as it brought the sport into the limelight of a nation that otherwise had no interest in it. With action-packed sports like basketball, soccer and water polo at the forefront, the laid-back nature of baseball didn’t appeal to most Greeks. However, once their country fielded a talented squad in the Olympic Games, it brought a lot of attention from otherwise uninterested citizens. Mitsiopoulos and others capitalized on this newfound success and started a Little League, enabling the game to be taught to youngsters. Currently the Greek Little League consists of three teams in Athens, teaching kids of all ages the fundamentals of baseball, and is accepting equipment donations to further improve the quality of instruction and play.

After the Olympics ended the Greek National Team began a slow descent down the European rankings. With baseball disappearing from the Olympics after 2008, and the team far from a berth in the World Baseball Classic, it became more difficult to recruit high-quality players of Greek descent, and funding from both the government and benevolent donors dried up. However, Hellas did experience one stroke of luck when longtime major league catcher and manager Jim Essian signed on to be the team’s manager. Of Armenian descent himself, Essian volunteered his services due to his nephews Chris, Scott, Mike and Ted Demetral competing for Greece. “Skip” Essian piloted Hellas through 2018, when Saskatchewan native and baseball lifer Rye Pothakos took over managing duties. Pothakos describes the leadership and experience Skip brought to Team Greece, as well as his mentorship, saying, “Jim managed in the big leagues, and he managed a lot of years in the minor leagues, as well. [He had an] eleven or twelve-year big league career as a catcher with some pretty good teams. The gentleman knows how to win, and he’s just a gentleman. I learned a lot from him in a couple years.” Hellas currently finds itself in the capable hands of both Rye Pothakos and Bench Coach John Bissylas; two men who are determined to return Team Greece to its glory days.

L-R General Manager Tom Mazarakis, Current Manager Rye Pothakos, Former Manager Jim Essian and Bench Coach John Bissylas at the 2019 European B Pool Championship in Bulgaria

Despite Team Greece’s success waning in the years following its Olympic debut, the future is looking incredibly bright for the plucky underdogs. Currently relegated to the European Championship’s B Pool, Hellas is only a handful of wins away from getting a crack at the highest level of international competition in Europe. From June 29th to July 4th of this year, Hellas will duke it out with Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Georgia in Utena, Lithuania in a round robin tournament for the right to move up to the A Pool of play. Succeeding would be a massive boon to the Greek squad, as the A Pool marks quite a step up on the competitive ladder. First and foremost, it means moving into a far more prestigious and exclusive level of competition alongside regional powerhouses like Italy and Israel. Additionally, teams in the A Pool are allowed to recruit players that are affiliated with major league organizations; a luxury not afforded to those in lower levels of play. This benefit in particular could be huge for Team Greece, as highly-regarded minor leaguers of Greek heritage like Eli Lingos and Noah Zavolas, starting pitchers in the Indians and Brewers organizations, respectively, would be able to suit up. This, of course, is predicated upon the all-important caveat of citizenship. Something that can at times gum up the works for General Manager Tom Mazarakis when putting together a roster. 

In order to represent Greece at the international level, a player must hold Greek citizenship. For some, this is a relatively minor hurdle, as it simply means having his father who holds citizenship add him to the family file back in Greece. However, for those with a more distant familial connection, for instance a grandparent or great-grandparent, it means hours and hours of digging through family documents and filling out paperwork. Team Manager Rye Pothakos describes the ordeal, stating, “If a player’s father was born in Greece, and he has all his paperwork in order, it would be very simple for that player to become a Greek citizen. But if you start going back two, three [generations] there’s like six or eight steps.” 

While the complexities of the process can seem daunting, it rarely deters a Greek player from representing his heritage, even if the money to pay for this has to come out of his own pocket. Pothakos illuminates the fact that obtaining citizenship isn’t always cheap, saying, “It would cost you around the neighborhood of $2,000 to $3,000.” While that kind of cash isn’t likely to force someone into bankruptcy, it still shows the love and dedication of each and every member of Hellas, as they’re all willing to part with thousands of dollars of their own savings in order to represent the blue and white.

Team Greece’s ongoing battle through the European Championship is greatly influenced by the citizenship process, as the more high-quality players that Mazarakis and Pothakos can convince to obtain citizenship directly correlates to their ability to construct a competitive roster. In essence, if a prospective player isn’t willing or able to procure Greek citizenship, then he can’t make the team. However, if Hellas go on a run and show extremely well in the European tournaments, they can then petition to play in the World Baseball Classic Qualifier tournaments. 

Baseball’s preeminent international competition, the WBC features the greatest players in the world slugging it out on a global stage in the name of national pride. The one huge difference between the WBC and other tournaments is that instead of players needing to actually acquire citizenship in order to represent a nation, they need only be eligible to obtain citizenship in order to play. This caveat has famously been used by countries to add foreign-born MLB stars like Israel’s Shawn Green and Canada’s Freddie Freeman. Rye Pothakos hopes that a berth in the WBC Qualifiers could entice American superstars of Greek descent like Mike Moustakas, Mitch Haniger and Nick Markakis to join the ranks. With such potent firepower bolstering their lineup, Team Greece could be poised to make a deep WBC run if they’re given a chance to compete.

Hellas during the 2016 European A Pool Championship in the Netherlands

One player that could put Team Greece firmly on the baseball map all by himself is former National League MVP Cody Bellinger. The two-time All-Star’s father, Clay Bellinger, was not only a big leaguer himself, but captured two World Series rings with the Yankees, as well as represented Greece in the 2004 Olympics. Rye Pothakos acknowledges that chances are the younger Bellinger will be scooped up by Team USA at the next WBC, saying, “I think him being second or third-generation [Greek-American]; he may want to play for Team USA.” However, the option is always there, as the manager is quick to add, “It’d be tough for him to make that decision. But, it’d be neat just to have a chat with him and see what he thought anyway.”

Even if Bellinger decides not to suit up for Greece, the country’s baseball star is still rising slowly but surely. One thing that Pothakos claims was huge for marketing was the support of Cincinnati Reds second baseman Mike Moustakas. Moose was given a Hellas hat and t-shirt by his friends in Greece, and the slugger wore them proudly around the batting cages during his time with the Milwaukee Brewers. With such a high-profile star wearing the team’s colors proudly, “merch has been really selling good lately… You can be sure that the photo of the Moose with the Greek hat on helped,” according to Pothakos. 

That publicity is perhaps just as important as any on-field contributions Moustakas or any other high-profile players could potentially make to Team Greece. With no upcoming Olympic berth to speak of yet, Hellas receives no funding whatsoever from the Greek government, and relies solely on the benevolence of grassroots donors, as well as players and coaches paying out of pocket. Hellas Bench Coach John Bissylas states, “We don’t have any [government] funding. We rely on donations, and merchandise sales from our website. And some of them have been very nice donations, which we’ve appreciated very much… Otherwise, everybody pays their own way, and the funding we do get we use for team equipment and registration fees.” For Team Greece, it’s a David vs. Goliath battle against the deep-pocketed, well-publicized teams in Europe’s A-Pool. With such a difficult task ahead, any additional eyeballs that Moustakas and others bring to Hellas’ journey go a long way towards evening the odds, and just maybe, a future in the Olympics or WBC.

Whether any major funding for Hellas comes through or not, it remains clear that the future is much brighter for Greek baseball than anyone in the past ten years would have anticipated. With high-upside minor leaguers like Zavolas and Lingos seemingly on the cusp of taking up the mantle from established big league veterans like Markakis and Moustakas, Greek fans look primed to have multiple stars to cheer for in the years to come. As for Team Greece itself, Rye Pothakos isn’t putting the cart before the horse when it comes to tournament play, saying, “Our first goal for this year is to get to Lithuania and advance to Pool A. Then once we get to Pool A, to reboot, refocus and do a real nice job where we can stay there. And then the following goal after that is the WBC.”

To learn more or donate to help grow Hellas, as well as baseball in Greece, please visit http://greekbaseball.com/

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