Baseball clings to existence in Greece after 2004 Olympics
(Photo by Marley Paul)
ATHENS, Greece -- On hearing the news that the baseball field in the Hellinikon Olympic Complex would be sold and transformed into a soccer pitch, Tom Mazarakis decided immediately to head over to the former Olympic site for his final farewells while the diamond remained in tact.
He was too late.
Upon arriving at the stadium he saw that construction had already begun. All the grass had been dug up. The infield had been ripped out removed and reconfiguration for the new turf was underway.
Although the venue had not been used since the 2004 Athens Games, the sale of the facility in 2007 was a crushing blow to hopes of seeing the growth of America’s pastime in a country steadfast on its soccer and growing basketball culture.
“To me, it was a crime, “ said Mazarakis, now voluntary general manager of the Greek national team, ”but you know, I had no say in the matter and that was that.”
Hellinikon Olympic Complex was one of four sports complexes built in the Athens area for the 2004 Games. According to the Wall Street Journal, the five-venue complex, which also hosted softball and field hockey, cost about $212 million. In total, roughly $7 billion was spent on Olympic-related expenses by the Greek government, according to the Ministry of Finance.
“It was really painful for me personally and everybody,” Mazarakis added, ”especially when you consider the fact that Major League Baseball was very interested in taking over the field and maintaining them and bringing to Greece MLB baseball teams to play tournaments [during] spring training.”
In 2009, renowned baseball groundskeeper Murray Cook, who has nearly 30 years of experience as an MLB consultant and organizer for international competitions, inquired to Mazarakis about the venue for possible use by the Americans, which could have included hosting the World Baseball Classic.
“The ballpark in Athens is a sad story,” Cook said, “a great venue for the game but not a ton of interest by the country to invest in the sport. We had hoped to help out in some fashion but there was not a firm commitment from the government to meet us halfway.”
Having American major league baseball hold its Opening Day baseball in Athens – as had been done in Tokyo and Sydney, among other cities – was once a vision. But the loss of the newly built stadium put an end to that dream and has relegated baseball in the entire country to just two fields near the Hellinikon complex, located a few miles south of Athens.
After being used as a soccer field for roughly two seasons, the baseball field in Hellinikon is once again vacant and abandoned. Now, the stadium, in addition to the adjacent former Athens Airport, disused since 2001, is being used to temporarily house thousands of the refugees fleeing the war torn Middle Easy who have poured into the country.
At least two other former Olympic venues were also used to house refugees as early as October 2015, including the former sites of taekwondo, table tennis and rhythmic gymnastics.
That wasn’t part of the original plan. Several venues used in the 2004 Summer Games now remain deserted. In the days immediately following the closing of the games, looters pillaged the unguarded venues, which had been left unguarded with abrupt expiration of the security contract.
“They went in with trucks and they ripped out air conditioners, computers, furniture, power sockets, anything they can get their hands on, they just ripped it out and hauled it away, “ Mazarakis recalled. “Why? Because there was absolutely no thought given to: ‘OK, what happens the next day?’”
Dr. Tatiana Chalkidou, who worked in marketing served for the International Olympic Committee 2004, concedes that while planning for life after the Athens Games was not done, the disuse in venues also lies in the indifference most Greeks feel to the foreign sports that were played in the facilities.
“We built the stadiums for sports that we have no culture,” she said. “We developed leagues and teams and federations but it’s not in our blood – baseball and softball – so as you can imagine after the Olympics ... ” she said, snapping fingers to illustrate the conclusion.
The Hellenic Amateur Baseball Federation was founded in 1997 after the announcement of Athens’ winning bid. Wanting to showcase as many sporting events as possible, the government sought to introduce the foreign sports and groom homegrown talent.
The inaugural local baseball season was played in 2000 at two old baseball fields built by the United States on the grounds of its old air force base in Elliniko, occupied by the Americans from 1945 to 1993 as a part of Cold War era U.S. military aid to Greece.
These two fields served as the practice facilities for the eight competing baseball teams in the 2004 Olympics.
Six teams were fielded for the first season. Mazarakis said the one club that dominated consisted largely of Greek-Americans who already had an understanding of baseball. Two years later, 19 teams were participating, including a handful of teams from outside of Athens, some requiring ferryboats and extensive bus rides to make their way to the field.
Why the sudden interest? Money.
In order to gather enough talent to field a credible team for the 2004 games, the government spent freely.
“Their annual budget reached a point of about 500,000 euros (about $550,000) per year. That was quite a bit of money for a new sport,” Mazarakis said. “With that money, they pretty much financed the transportation, hotel and meals for any team coming out of Athens.“
That enthusiasm, however, failed to yield anything close a formidable roster, and unbeknownst to the government, Mazarakis said, the country had to qualify for the Olympics via the 2003 European Baseball Championship.
“It wasn’t that we could lose really badly, it was that we could get hurt,” Mazarakis said, comparing the Greek talent pool to the rest of the world. “There was one guy on the Cuban team that was throwing 100 MPH. If you’ve never seen anything like that then you have no hope of getting out of the way of that ball when it’s coming at you.”
Another helping hand came from the other side of the Atlantic when Peter Angelos, a wealthy Greek-American lawyer from Baltimore who owns the Baltimore Orioles, funded the recruitment and staffing of much imrpoved roster.
Angelos and his family brought in bona fide talents, which included the team’s 2003 first-round draft pick, Nick Markakis, for a silver medal finish in the qualifying tournament to claim a spot in the 2004 Olympics.
“The IBF had no intention of allowing (Greece in the Summer Games),” said Mazarakis, who wasn’t involved with the team in an official capacity at the time. “The Orioles changed that because they sent out their scouts to find players – professional and college players of high caliber who could get Greek passports – and they made it happen.”
Greece would go on to be eliminated, winning one of seven games, in the preliminary round of the 2004 Summer Games. Cuba claimed the gold.
And just like that, government support ended. Funding for the baseball federation, among the others founded for unheralded sports, was halted and the onus to keep the sport alive fell into Mazarakis’ lap.
The pool of active local baseball teams in Greece dwindled. Presently, eight men’s teams are still involved, five of which carry an affiliate little league club, including the Alimos Lions.
The Lions are managed by Chicago native Spiros Konofaos, who has spent the last 20 years in Greece. When he visited the United States four years ago and came back with baseball gloves for his kids, their message to him was clear: “Dad, you should make a team.”
A former little leaguer himself, Konofaos has his two sons on the roster, which features 30 players.
“I make it look interesting for the guys, as much as an experience as it was for me, playing Little League in Chicago,” he said. “So that’s kind of different from anything else they’ve been doing, playing soccer or basketball. So, it’s mostly the coach and how you make it good for the kids.”
Konofaos and his two boys are active baseball observers, holding a MLB.TV subscription, a service that allows access to live games on your cable television and/or mobile devices.
“In my family we watch it (MLB) every night,” he said, “and the hours are terrible.“
Greece is six or seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, depending on summer or winter daylight savings.
“Me and the kids were watching the World Series, we would have to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and they would go straight to school and I would go straight to work.”
In addition to the time difference, Konofaos believes the seemingly endless Greek financial crisis has made expanding the sport more challenging.
In 2014, the then-Minister of Sports decided to merge the baseball federation under the control of the gymnastics federation, arguing the sport was not popular enough to stand-alone.
As a result, the International Baseball Federation no longer recognizes Greece’s baseball federation.
“It affects us as being able to organize games officially, we can’t,” Konofaos stated. “We can only play friendly games and also it affects us European-wise because we can’t be part of any European championship without a federation.”
Baseball in Greece is now limited to those two fields, which are maintained by the players themselves, for over a decade. After practice, the Lions spend more time in the maintaining the grass.
Those fields may be gone in the near future however, as the government actively shops the old airport real estate airport, a prime location near the beach and a five-minute walk from the Athens subway, the most tangible benefit to Greece of the Olympics.
“Where we’re standing right now should be a shopping mall, when that happens, they promised to rebuild (a baseball stadium) somewhere else,” Konofaos said, “but I’m not holding them to that. I have a petition to save the fields.”
“Athens is so highly active, it’s a lot of people here. It’s not like we have a lot of free space to go out and make a field. If we were living in the countryside in Greece, there’s a lot of space, I could have done it myself like Kevin Costner did the ‘Field of Dreams.’ Just go to a place and fix it by yourself, that’s fine. But here, it’s not going to happen.”
Until eviction, the government’s inaction means more action on the baseball fields for the handful of Athenians interested in the sport. Baseball was voted out of the Olympics by the International Olympic Committee in 2005, but might return to the 2020 Games in baseball-mad Japan.
Los Angeles is currently one of four cities bidding for the 2024 Summer Games.
“If it wasn’t for the (2004) Olympics we wouldn’t have ever had baseball in Greece,” Mazarakis said of the recent Athens Games, which made it the second-most frequent summer location. “So from a selfish point of view I applaud the fact that we had the Olympics and created baseball.
“But from a nationalistic point of view and a realistic point of view, we should have never done that. It was a huge mistake. It’s just too small of a country to assume an Olympic event. It just wasn’t realistic.”