The Dream Begins

Baseball in Greece owes it’s birth and persistent existence to the International Olympic Committee’s 1997 decision to award the hosting of the 2004 Olympic Games to the city of Athens, Greece.

As the organizing nation, Greece had the opportunity to field representative teams for all the team sports included in the then Olympics program such as soccer, basketball, volleyball, softball, field hockey, and baseball.

The International Olympic committee stipulates how many teams will participate in each team sport competition and the corresponding sport’s federation determines which countries will participate.

For baseball, the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) had no intention of inviting a team from Greece.  Their argument was logical and simple:  in 1997 Greece had no baseball whatsoever and there was no practical hope that the country could ever build a team that could possibly compete at the Olympic level within seven years.

However, they were wrong.

How Greece accomplished what seemed impractical, if not impossible, is a story worth telling.  It is worth the effort to tell because it is a story that reflects the true nature of Greeks whose modern descendants continue to embrace the traditional ideals, morals, and values of their ancient ancestors and are worthy heirs to the legacy and glory of that great people we today refer to as “The Ancient Greeks”.

The following is a general chronology of the events and facts that summarize the Greek Baseball Adventure:

1997      Athens was selected to host the 2004 Olympic Games. The Hellenic Amateur Baseball Federation "HABF" was created.

Dimitri Gousios (left) Chris Karalekas (middle) Panos Mitsiopoulos (right)

2000     Panos Mitsiopoulos, President of HABF, has his first meeting with MLB International in New York at Mickey Mantle's restaurant.

HABF organizes the first Greek Baseball Championship which includes 6 teams. Many of the players were Greek Americans and Greek Canadians but mostly were local Greek athletes with little exposure to the sport but full of heart and excitement of trying something new.

2001     During the 2001 Greek Baseball Championship, the President of the “International Baseball Federation”, the late Aldo Notari, visited Greece in order to get a first hand opinion as to the caliber of the Greek player pool in Greece.  He easily and quickly recognized that the level of play among the local Greek players was noticeably inferior to that of other countries and that it would be realistically impossible for Greece to field a team that could stand on the same field with any of the other Olympic teams.  Such a Greek team would make a complete mockery of the sport, of Greece, and of the Olympic Games.

Future MLB'er George Kontos and 'Team Greek-Americans' win championship.

2001     Panos Mitsiopoulos, the President of the HABF, approached the United States Ambassador to Greece, Nicholas Burns for help.  Ambassador Burns was an avid baseball fan and had earlier shown sincere interest in helping the Greek baseball effort.  He contacted Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes for any help that he could bring to bear on the project by rallying support among the diaspora Greeks of America.

As luck would have it, Senator Sarbanes was a personal friend of the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, Peter Angelos, and he immediately alerted Mr. Angelos about the problem being faced by the Greek baseball effort.

Peter Angelos, being very proud of his Greek heritage, immediately accepted the challenge and embarked on a long and costly personal journey (having donated and spent over $1 million of his own personal resources) whose destination was the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

Meeting between the Hellenic Baseball Federation, Major League Baseball and the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards (2003)

Birth of a Team

Lou Angelos (middle right) Tom Marudas (right) at MLB Offices in New York

2002     Peter assigned his best scout, Robert Derksen, with the task of seeking out any and all qualified baseball players who were of Greek descent and who could obtain Greek citizenship so that they could potentially play for Greece in the Athens Olympics.  He also appointed his son, Lou Angelos, to serve as the General Manager of the team with Tom Marudas on board handling the legal issues involved.

Robert Derksen travelled all over the United States, Canada, Australia, Greece, and even some other European countries in search of high quality baseball players of Greek descent.  By the spring of 2002, Rob had accumulated a list of over 75 names including retired Major Leaguers, active roster Minor Leaguers, Independent Leaguers, College Ball players, and some very talented high school prospects.

In July of 2002, Robert Derksen enlisted the aid of some other coaches including former Pomona College Coach Mike Riskas, White Sox scout John Kazanas,  Los Angeles Dodger Vice President of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos, and former University of North Florida Coach Dusty Rhodes.  Together they selected 22 North American players of Greek descent and 2 players from the local Greek league and travelled to Hungary in order to play in the European Qualifier Championship.  The winner of this tournament would secure that team’s right to participate in the 2003 European Seniors Championship that was also the Olympic Games qualification tournament for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.   This meant that the Greek team had to win the tournament in order to maintain any hope of playing in the Olympics.

Rob Derksen led the Greek National Team to 7 consecutive and easy victories defeating all opponents by mercy rule scores and breaking almost every previous European Qualifier Championship record.

Panos Mitsiopoulos (left) Rob Derksen (right)

2003     Robert Derksen, his coaches, and the Angelos family immediately began work on assembling an even better team that would be able to secure Greece’s participation in the Olympics by taking either 1st or 2nd place at the 2003 European Seniors Championship, which took place in The Netherlands in August of 2003.  Thus, the Greek National Team went to Amsterdam with a mission and played the game of baseball as well as any of the other European teams at the tournament.  The Greek team defeated Italy 2-1 on its way to the semi-final game against Spain whom they defeated 10-0.  This semi-final win secured Greece’s Baseball team’s participation in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.  The Final game was against the home team “The Netherlands” and with our hitters on a bad day lost that game by a respectable score of 2-0.  However, the main objective had been secured and a Greek Baseball team would play in the 2004 Athens Olympics.  As an added bonus, the Greek team also qualified for the 2006 World Cup of Baseball.

2004 Olympics

2004     After qualifying for the Olympic Games in Athens, Robert Derksen, his coaching staff, and the Angelos family immediately went about the task of assembling an even better team in order to play in the Olympics at the highest possible level.

However, several incidents of bad luck all of a sudden plagued the team.

2004 Hellas Olympic team with Rob Derksen's #19 jersey in loving memory

Within 3 months of the Olympics, three of the team’s four starting pitchers were seriously injured and had to be removed from the roster. As if all this was not enough, the team’s architect, Robert Derksen, suddenly died of a heart attack on June 16, 2004, only 2 months before the games were to begin.

Despite the team’s bad luck and the tragic loss of Robert Derksen, the Greek Olympic team, consisting of 19 Greek Americans, 2 Greek-Canadians, and 2 Greeks from the local Greek league, played in the Athens Olympics and played very well. Greece may have only won one game out of the 7 they played, nonetheless they consistently played well and in no way embarrassed themselves, the sport, Greece, or the Olympic Games.

2004 Summer Olympics Bobby Kingsbury at bat vs Netherlands during Game 4 at Olympic Baseball Centre. Ellinikon, Greece 

Probably the highlight of the Greek Olympic Games experience was the game against the eventual Gold Medal team of Cuba. In that game, Greece kept the Cuban bats relatively silent allowing only 5 runs, while the Greek hitters managed to score 4 runs. A very close game that was far too close for the Cuban manager’s comfort. The story of Greece’s near defeat of the Cubans made sports news all around the world!

A pre-Olympic game at the Hellinikon Stadium in Athens, Greece

Post Olympics

The team continues to compete in annual tournaments after an honourable showing at the Olympic games.  The camaraderie that has been built over the years, and the desire to keep the goal of establishing baseball as a sport for all Greeks, keeps the effort going despite the many challenges it faces.

2005     Greece participated in the 2005 European Seniors Championship where limited funding allowed only 7 Greek-American and Greek-Canadian players to be recruited while the remaining players were selected from those players who play in the Greek league. Greece placed 9th in that tournament, which at least allowed Greece to retain its membership in the “Seniors” of Europe.

2006     The Greek Ministry of sports curtailed all funding to the HABF. Consequently Greece withdrew its participation in the 2006 World Cup of Baseball. The Czech Republic gladly took our place.

2007     The Greek Ministry of sports again did not deem it necessary to provide funding for Greece to participate in the 2007 European Seniors Championship and Austria took our place. Greece’s refusal to participate in this tournament resulted with Greece’s automatic demotion from the “Seniors” of Europe to the status of “Qualifier”.

2008     The HABF leadership accepted the reality that the Greek government was not in any position to provide any funding for the sport of baseball. Thus, after considerable efforts by the HABF and personal funding by Panos Mitsiopoulos, Greece sent a team to Portugal in order to participate in the 2008 European Qualifier’s Championship. The help of former Major League player and Manager Jim Essian was recruited and a team was assembled of 9 Greek-American players and 11 players from the Greek League. The Greek team won all its games and thus regained its status as a European Baseball “Senior”.

2010     With its victory in Portugal, Greece qualified to participate in the 2010 European Seniors Championship, that was to be played in Stuttgart, Germany. Without any support from the government, the HABF managed to secure a limited sponsorship from The American University of Athens. The President of the AUA, Achilles Kanellopoulos, generously contributed Euros 25,000, and HABF President, Panos Mitsiopoulos, contributed an additional Euros 5,000. These funds were used to cover a significant portion of the team’s hotel costs and meals. However, all the players and coaches paid for their own transportation costs out of their own personal finances. This team consisted of 14 players from North America and 10 players were drafted from the teams in the Greek league. The team played extremely well in defeating Spain, Great Britain, and Sweden in the first round of the tournament. These 3 victories placed us in 2nd place in our group thereby securing our berth in the 2nd round of the tournament. In the second round we won our game against France while losing against Germany and The Netherlands. That result gave us 4th place overall and that placement gave Greece qualification for the 2011 IBAF Baseball World Cup.

2011     IBAF World Cup of Baseball included the 16 best baseball playing countries in the world. Representative teams from the U.S.A., Cuba, Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei, Canada, Dominican Republic, Panama, The Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Australia, Puerto Rico, Greece all gathered in Panama for this prestigious tournament. Fortunately, the organizing country’s federation provided all the participating teams with hotel accommodations and meals. The teams only needed to provide for their transportation to Panama. Through the fund raising efforts of General Manager Tom Mazarakis and Greek Federation President Panos Mitsiopoulos, the Greek team raised enough money to pay for the entire team’s airfare to Panama. The team played well, but was unable to qualify for the second round of the competition as three of the four best teams in the world were all from our first round group including The Netherlands, the U.S.A., and Canada.

2012     Greece next travelled to The Netherlands for the 2012 European Senior’s Championship. Once again, the fund raising efforts made by National Team GM, Tom Mazarakis, provided the needed funds to pay for all the transportation, hotel, and meals for the entire team with critically important assistance from Major League Baseball International (MLBI). Greece fielded a very competitive team for this tournament and secured its position in the A’ Pool of European Baseball with a 7th place finish.

2014     Greece next competed in the European Senior’s Championship in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, fund raising efforts did not generate the needed funding to cover the travel, lodging, and meal expenses for the team. Players and coaches were asked to pay for their own expenses including airfare, hotel, and meals. Consequently, we were unable to field a very competitive team. However, we were able to retain our place in the A Pool of European Baseball by finishing the tournament in 10th

2016    Greece next competed in the European Pool A Seniors Championship that took place in The Netherlands. Once again, fund raising efforts fell considerably short of our target. Not enough money was raised to cover the expenses for the entire team and coaching staff and most players and coaches were asked to cover their own costs. As a result, the team was not particularly competitive. Losing almost all of our games, we finished the tournament in 11th . Unfortunately, that 11th place finish sent Greece down to the 'B’ Pool of European Baseball. This meant that Greece will need to send a National Team to Belgrade, Serbia in 2017 where it will compete in a Pool B Tournament for entry back to Pool A of European Baseball. Greece’s opponents in this tournament will be Israel, Austria, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and Serbia.

2017   The Pool-B Championships in Belgrade was certainly not one of Hellas' better tournaments as they finished in last place with a 1-4 record and a trip to the "Pool C" Championship in 2018.

The one win though came against Israel, one of the tournament favourites, and it sparked a renewed commitment to search for new players that will help the team win in 2018 and then continue moving forward.

Jonathan Kountis, Hellas' hard throwing right-hander, stymied Israel's bats for 9 full innings, racking up 15 strikeouts while going toe-to toe with Israel's pitcher ... until the 8th inning. Entering the bottom of the 8th down 1-0, Hellas was faced with a 2-out situation and runners on 1st and 3rd. Max Warren, Hellas' center-fielder turned shortstop, laced a 2- strike double into the gap in left-centre that scored the tieing run and the go ahead run as Jamie Lekas raced around the bases from 1st base.

The winner of the tournament ended up being Austria who went undefeated and who was then scheduled to face Lithuania from the other B-Pool tournament that was taking place in Poland at the same time. This Best-of-3 series was won by Austria in two straight games resulting in Austria's inclusion to Pool A as its 11th team. The final 12th spot in Pool A will first be determined at the 2019 Pool B Championship held in Bulgaria and Slovakia. The Pool A Championship will then take place later in 2019 as the European Qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Teams that were in our division :  Austria   Bulgaria    Hellas    Israel     Serbia   Switzerland

2018   After the 2017 tournament that demoted Hellas to Pool C, it was decided that a major re-building effort was needed to bring back Hellas to Pool A.  Jim Essian decided to come back and manage the team and recruitment of players was foremost on the agenda. Essian immediately contacted Rye Pothakos in Saskatoon, Canada. Rye is of Greek descent and has 30 yrs of experience in baseball at the collegiate and professional level in various positions from coach, GM and scout and was the best person for the job. As a result, a number new prospects were recruited and added to the team list for 2018.

The 2018 edition of Hellas Baseball was a success at the Pool C Qualifiers where the top 3 teams advance to Pool B.  In their division play that took place in Dublin, Ireland,  the team placed 2nd, losing to Ireland in the finals 10-2 after beating Finland, Slovenia and Norway, and losing to Ireland in round-robin play.  Finishing 2nd was enough though to advance to Pool B. Their 3-1 round-robin record bested Romania's 2-2 record, who finished 2nd in their divisional play which had taken place in the Ukraine. The result. Ireland, Hellas and the Ukraine, who won their division, advanced to the Pool B Championship in 2019.  Months later, Romania and Finland were added to create a 14 team Pool B Championship in 2019.

2019   Hellas places 3rd at the 2019 B-Pool European Championships with a 3-2 record.

In July of 2019, the B-POOL Championship took place in two countries, Bulgaria and Slovakia, with each country hosting a 6-team divisional tournament.

Greek Baseball put together one of their most talented rosters in recent memory, with numerous players making their National Team debuts. After starting the tournament with 2 losses against Israel (14-7) and Russia (14-8), Hellas stormed back to beat Serbia (9-5), Ireland (3-0) and Bulgaria (9-6) and secure 3rd place.  The Greeks got sweet revenge on Ireland after losing to the Irish twice in 2018. The team remains in the B-Pool and is now preparing for next summer's 12-team B-Pool Championship where 2 teams will advance to the A-Pool Championship in 2021.

2021   Greece was placed in the Utena, Lithuania qualifier where the winner would advance to the European Championship. Hellas defeated Lithuania 8-4 in the Championship game to qualify for the top division of European baseball. Hellas went 3-1 on the week behind Dimitri Kourtis' MVP performance including 6 shutout innings in the final game.

The Greeks then played in Torino, Italy for the European championship.