Greece, Poland, Romania and Lithuania. What do these four nations have in common? They make up the four baseball teams in Group B of this month’s European Championship Seniors Qualifier. An under the radar event, this tournament allows four out of the eighteen competitors to move up into Europe’s A-Pool, the highest level of international competition on the continent. With the pool of eighteen being broken up into four smaller groups, each group’s champion will gain the honor of moving into the A-Pool, which will hold its next tournament in 2022. Team Greece hopes to become the B-Pool champion.
Team Greece, or “Hellas” as they refer to themselves in Greek, will begin the competition on June 30th in Utena, Lithuania, facing off against Poland. The next two days will see them take on Romania and Lithuania, respectively. If all goes well Hellas will advance to the Group B championship game, which will take place on July 3rd, with the winner moving on to Europe’s A-Pool. Hellas has a strong chance to succeed in this endeavor, as the four Group B teams are ranked quite comparably according to the World Baseball Softball Confederation, the baseball world’s highest authority. Lithuania is the highest-ranked in the group, coming in at number 34 in the world. Next is Poland at 38, then Greece at 40, while Romania brings up the rear at 49. With all four teams within only 15 spots of each other, there isn’t a clear favorite, or underdog, in this competition. Hellas manager Rye Pothakos sums up his squad’s pragmatic mindset, stating, “I don’t think we’re a favorite [or an underdog]. I think we just have to go there and play the game right. Anything can happen in baseball.” While Pothakos obviously has faith that his players can win the tournament, he’s careful not to let his team become overconfident, reminding them that, “even in the major leagues, the best teams can lose two out of three to the worst team in the league.”
Given the fact that baseball is very much a niche sport in Greece, Hellas will rely heavily on the contributions of Greek-Americans and Greek-Canadians to win their pool. The Greek squad consists of a nice mix of seasoned veterans, including 2004 Olympian Pete Maestrales and Frontier League Hall of Famer Jonathan Kountis, as well as up-and-coming prospects like College of Charleston first baseman Ari Sechopoulos and Old Dominion right-hander Nick Pantos. If Hellas is to succeed in the event, they’ll need every player, young and old, to step up.
While the Greek roster currently consists mostly of independent leaguers and college kids, a trip to the A-Pool, and the subsequent prestige, could help the team land a household name or two. “We’ve had a little bit of dialogue with [longtime San Francisco Giants pitcher] George Kontos.” Rye Pothakos says, “And I spoke with [All-Star outfielder] Nick Markakis’ agent and let him know that any time Nick would like to get involved we’d love that.” Securing a berth in Europe’s A-Pool certainly doesn’t make acquiring major league-level talent a given, but it most definitely bolsters their sales pitch. Not only does the A-Pool bring more publicity and prestige, it also would put Hellas a heartbeat away from future Olympic and World Baseball Classic qualifying events. The A-Pool is littered with notable MLB veterans, ranging from Italy’s Chris Colabello, to the Netherlands’ Roger Bernadina, and even Israel’s four-time All-Star Ian Kinsler. Suffice it to say, competing, and hopefully succeeding, against competition of this caliber would show the world that Hellas can hang in there against the best of the best. While the future certainly looks bright for Hellas baseball, they must first crawl before they can walk, and that journey begins with victory in one week’s time.