Aug 17 2004
In baseball, Greeks enjoy what they don’t understand
ATHENS – In the first inning of an Olympic baseball game between Cuba
and Greece on Monday, some poor Greek fan, one who probably just
wanted to sit in his seat down the first base line and watch a live
baseball game in peace, had the misfortune of catching a foul ball.
So, he looked around for a few seconds.
Everyone looked back at him.
Then he reared back and threw the ball back onto the field, where it
rolled to the pitcher’s mound.
“I thought they needed the ball,” he said.
Otherwise, this was a normal game.
Cuba won 5-4. They served hot dogs at the stadium. One fan even
brought a glove.
Oh sure, some of the 6,700 Greeks here kept calling the bat a “club.”
And others asked why the three white “pillows” on the field were
shaped differently than the one on the ground near the catcher. And,
also, some enthusiastic guy wearing a giant blue and white Greek flag
like a super-Greek cape around his neck led the entire stadium in a
traditional soccer song.
Hey, can we work in a “Take two and hit to right?” Still, they sang.
They politely clapped whenever Cuba scored a run. And they danced to
music from the organ. And also, they chanted traditional Greek soccer
cheers that called for them to: “Raise the cup, raise the cup.”
Nobody minded that during the seventh-inning stretch only a handful
people knew to stand and stretch while they played “Take Me Out to
the Ballgame” on the public-address system. Maybe because nobody in
the place knew the words.
Otherwise, this game was as American as, say, apple pie.
“They are very enthusiastic,” said stadium usher Ariana Chris of
Toronto, “but also very uninformed.”
And why not?
Until recently there were two baseball diamonds in Greece. They were
located on an old U.S. Air Force base in Athens. Now, Greece has this
perfect baseball complex, with two perfect baseball fields featuring
perfect green grass and bright blue outfield fences, and concrete
“You’re from the States?” everyone wanted to know. “Is this what
Yankee Stadium is like?”
Yes, I told them.
Down the left field line, in seats that sold for 10 euros (about
$12.25 U.S.), here was 47-year-old Costas Platis, with his
13-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter, Daphne. They rode two buses
and a train to get here from their home in Ionnina in northern
Greece, near the Albanian border.
Said Daphne: “I’m Greek. So all I know about baseball is they go
around in a circle.”
See, just like Yankee Stadium.
And down the right field line was Dimitrios Georgitsas, a 28-year-old
police lieutenant. He is one of the few fans here who actually played
baseball. Well, OK, technically, he never really played. But, as a
teenager, he and his friends watched “The Natural” and then raced out
into the street with a wooden broom stick and an old tennis ball and
took turns pitching to each other.
“We would have played a game, but nobody knew the rules,” he said.
And here is Greece’s third baseman, Clay Bellinger, who played for
the Yankees in the 2000 and 2001 World Series. In fact, Bellinger
played every position except pitcher while in pinstripes. So, since
he’s had a good look around both places, Clay, what do you think? Is
this the House that Ruth Built 2 or what?
“Did you hear them singing those crazy soccer songs?” he asked.
Also, you should know this: On Sunday night in Greece’s opening game,
an 11-0 loss to the Netherlands, the entire stadium jumped to its
feet and cheered wildly after Greek pitcher Clinton Zavaras’ first
pitch was a called strike.
“I mean, they went nuts,” Bellinger said.
Then, Zavaras’ second pitch was called a ball.
“So, they all jumped up and went nuts again,” Bellinger said. “And
Clint steps off the mound and looks over at me and then around the
infield and we all started laughing. I think it’s great.”
Now, understand, there’s a little uneasiness with the players on this
team. But, really, isn’t that just like Yankee Stadium? Only two of
the 23 on the current roster were born in Greece. The rest were part
of the host country’s plan, with help from the International Olympic
Committee, to field a competitive team in every sport.
Greece wanted baseball. So it needed Greeks who could play baseball.
And since nobody here owns a broken-in baseball glove, it looked for
second- and third-generation Greeks from the United States and
“I don’t see the big deal,” Bellinger said.
It’s really not any different than what Armenia did in the 2002
Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, when it put together a team of
Armenian Americans in an attempt to jump-start the bobsled as a
But here, Team Greece baseball players and coaches say they’re
treated differently now by their Olympic committee. For example,
after their opener against the Netherlands, nobody bothered to wash
their uniforms. Stuff like that.
“Also, most of the other Greek athletes in the Olympic Village will
not talk to us,” coach Ioannis Kazanas said.
Strange, but true. Especially considering what the Greeks went
through to get this far.
Remember Daphne, Costis Platis’ teenage daughter?
“Four years ago, the Greek (Olympic Committee) came to my high school
and invited everyone to participate in as many sports as they could,”
she said. “They offered baseball, softball, badminton and encouraged
everyone to participate because we had no national teams in those
Now they do.
Team Greece ended up with two Greek-born baseball players on the
team. And a stadium filled with excited people, one of them wearing a
Jason Giambi Yankees replica jersey. Of course, the fans kept
explaining that their only brush with baseball was seeing a game in
an American movie and wanting to know more about it.
“We’re so ready for this,” Costis Platis said. “Greece is so ready.”
Ready, but is it just like Yankee Stadium?
Sure it is.
Maybe except for the message that flashed on the scoreboard after
that first inning.
It read: “You may keep foul balls.”