The Greek National Baseball Team achieved a remarkable feat on Saturday morning, as the squad was crowned the Group-B winner of the European Championship Seniors Qualifier. While this might not mean much to the average baseball fan, it is quite an accomplishment nonetheless, as the victory vaults Hellas into the European A-Pool; the highest level of international competition on the continent.
A Tournament to Remember
Hellas came out of the gates hot, shutting out Poland in their first game 7-0. Next up was Romania, who proved to be no match for the Greek squad, as the game was called at 14-0 due to mercy rule after seven innings. Hellas hit a bit of a speed bump in their last game of the first round, as they narrowly lost 9-7 to a very talented Lithuanian team. However, guided by the steady hands of Manager Rye Pothakos and Third Base Coach Kim Karabatsos, the Greeks came storming back the next day with a decisive 8-4 victory over the very same Lithuanian team in the Group-B championship game.
The stars of the tournament were Jonathan Kountis (who was voted the top pitcher), Tom Roulis (top hitter), and Tournament MVP Dimitri Kourtis. Longtime Hellas coach John Bissylas, who was unable to be with the team during the tournament, but watched from afar due to strict COVID-19 regulations, heaped praise on left fielder Nick Halamandaris as well, saying, “His swing is as smooth as butter. He hit a couple home runs, and every at bat he just hit the ball well. He was instrumental.” In addition to Halamandaris, Bissylas applauded the steady play of brothers Antonio and Alejandro Torres, the team’s starting catcher and center fielder, respectively, stating, “Tony’s a frontline catcher and we needed somebody dependable behind the plate. He threw out half the runners [attempted base stealers], nothing got by him and he hit the ball really well… Alejandro was our leadoff hitter and he was a big spark. He got on base fifty percent of the time and stole a ton of bases. He also got a couple of key hits. Those two brothers were very instrumental.”
From Lithuania To Italy
While the Greeks are taking some well-deserved time to celebrate, the work is far from over for this year. They just punched their ticket to the A-Pool tournament, which will be held in Torino, Italy from September 12th-19th. Hellas will be competing in the tournament’s A-Group, taking on Belgium, Austria and regional powerhouse Italy. As this is another round-robin competition, the top two teams in the group will move on to the winner’s round, where a 2021 A-Pool champion will be crowned. It is important to note, however, that the two lowest finishing squads in the entire 16-team tournament will be relegated back down to the B-Pool; a fate Hellas hopes to avoid.
Team Greece is confident that it will have more than a four-month stay in the European A-Pool, as a talented crop of reinforcements is on the way. Old Dominion University right-hander Nick Pantos will add a power arm to the pitching staff, while former Division II All-American Tom Walraven provides an experienced infield glove and a contact-oriented approach at the plate. Hellas Manager Rye Pothakos has even been in talks with former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew Lambo, who could potentially fly through the paperwork and be ready to suit up in September due to his father being a Greek citizen.
Nothing But Clear Skies Ahead
The future looks brighter every day for Greek baseball, as the added prestige and notoriety of advancing to the A-Pool leads to more connections and more funding. John Bissylas sees a clear path to success, saying, “We’ll stay in the A-Pool. We’ll elevate our profile and move up in the world rankings. Then we’ll be in a position to add some more highly talented players… It [succeeding in the A-Pool] will attract funding from the Greek community. Maybe the Greek government will start providing some funding.” And even more importantly, the game of baseball itself will continue to grow in Greece. Every tournament win brings more eyeballs to the program, and the Athens Training Group, a camp developed to teach the fundamentals of the game to young Greek players, helps lay the foundation for a new generation of homegrown talent. The goal for Hellas is not simply to win games, but also to help grow baseball in their home country. One day Pothakos and Bissylas hope to see Greek-born players in the major leagues.
Hellas has proven to be a true Cinderella story, given that as recently as 2017 the team found itself relegated down to the C-Pool, and without enough players to field a full roster. Things have changed drastically in the ensuing years, as Manager Rye Pothakos, alongside Coach John Bissylas, and longtime General Manager Tom Mazarakis, has completely overhauled the Greek Baseball program. A renewed emphasis was placed on scouting and recruiting, with Pothakos and Mazarakis digging up new players from all corners of the globe, including Greece, Canada, the United States and even Australia. Now, the team has close to forty eligible players from which to choose, with even more high-quality minor leaguers, college kids and independent league veterans on a pathway to citizenship.
The team’s remarkable turnaround is far from over, as the A-Pool isn’t the end of the line. Sustained success in A-Pool play will allow Hellas to apply for spots in future Olympic and World Baseball Classic qualifying events, where the eyes of the world will be watching. If the team can reach these heights, it’s possible we could see household names like former Braves All-Star outfielder Nick Markakis, as well as Reds infielder Mike Moustakas and Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger wear the blue and white. Hellas has proven that they can beat the odds and reach untold heights, and for this team the sky’s the limit. While many more games still need to be won, Greek baseball is in a better spot than ever before, and it looks destined for long term success.