By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. — It had been more than a month since baseball’s opening day before CNN’s Aaron Brown could announce to his viewers that his program would keep its annual tradition of telling a story highlighting an aspect of the traditional American game. So if GreekNews’ effort in the same vein takes a week more than CNN, well, let’s face it: how many baseball-playing Greeks do you know on the “other side”?
But this week, outside Thessaloniki, in the village of Pagarades, the fences for a baseball field went up. And, in the next month, a team of fifteen players will begin in earnest the tradition of baseball in northern Greece, with the goal of playing a Thessaloniki tournament by summer’s end. These accomplishments and goals are the latest in a series of successful steps leading to the taking root of baseball in our ancestral homeland. The establishment of this team has largely been made possible as a result of a cooperative venture between an organization based in America and a Yugoslav baseball player living in Greece, who had long been yearning to teach Greeks the game.
“Srdjan Milosavljevic and I started talking about improving the skills of baseball players in Greece about four years ago in Athens. He expressed the same kind of enthusiasm for the sport that I had, as well as a similar desire to teach the game to the Greek people,” said Chris Karalekas of Baseball Acropolis.
The two men met again last year at the first SAE Elliniada baseball tournament in Thessaloniki and shared their dream of getting “more to happen” in that area. But they recognized it would take the creation of a baseball field to get the proverbial ball rolling.
With the efforts of the Hellenic Amateur Baseball Federation (HABF) in Athens, the process to create an official Aris baseball team began. It is hoped that it will be as successful here as the Greek-American team that entered last year’s Elliniada in Thessaloniki, where men of Greek heritage from all walks of life and of all ages, from all over the world, competed for the first Championship Cup.
Although they had never before met, let alone played together, these men from such diverse locales as Knoxville, Chicago, Sioux City, Tampa, Philadelphia, Charleston, Ann Arbor, Syracuse and New York City played in the tournament as though they were longtime teammates.
“An outside observer watching the first team practice would have marveled at the seamless way the team worked out,” Karalekas noted. “Even members of the local press in Greece asked how many years had the team been together? Remarkably, it was a surreal testament to the player’s talent, ethic, and an intangible spirit of familiarity. None of the boys could put their finger on it, but it was as if they had played together before.”
After defeating a pool of Hellenes from Australia and Canada, and an all-star team from Greece, the Greek-Americans dramatically came from behind (they were down 8-3 in the 3rd inning) in the final round game to defeat what Karalekas called “a very talented” National Greek Team, 14-8.
Karalekas’ personal love affair with baseball, which began on the same fields in New York as those where such greats as Whitey Ford and Billy Loes put the bat to the ball, led him to found Baseball Acropolis in 1998. In a spirit of cooperation, he and the Baseball Acropolis organization have been strong supporters of efforts to grow the sport in Greece. Their contributions to its development have included supplying equipment, books, and knowledge of the game, holding practice sessions in soccer fields and on basketball courts when baseball fields had not yet been created, and educating the Greek people about the game’s many aspects. Additional efforts, which Baseball Acropolis supported in many ways, including that of recruiting players for a Greek national team for the Olympics, were made by such major “players” as Major League Baseball International; the Baltimore Orioles and the Angelos family, including Lou Angelos and his assistant Tom Marudas; U.S. Ambassador to Greece R. Nicholas Burns; Little League Baseball; Olympic Baseball Coach Mike Riskas, and HABF’s coach Dimitri Goussios and president Panos Mitsiopoulos.
For Karalekas, the American-Greek baseball connection goes far beyond his love for the sport, however. Baseball is used as a tool with which to connect Greek-Americans with the country of their ancestors.
Karalekas remembered the thrill of teaching baseball to young people in his grandfather’s village of Paradiso in the Peloponnese the year after founding Baseball Acropolis.
“They loved it so much that they camped out at my house because they couldn’t wait to play more of that new game,” he said.
In a true show of passion for the game and caring about its taking root, Chris kept his promises to deliver equipment to the kids, both girls and boys, who had attended baseball clinics he held in their villages.
It is a “can-do” attitude that began early in his life that gives Chris the passion to continue to get baseball established in Greece. It is reflected in the story he loves to tell about the “Yes We Can” banner he was invited to carry to a New York Yankees game in Cleveland…invited by none other than the team’s new owner back in the 1970s, George Steinbrenner. The details of that journey and everything it embodied for Chris’s future are described at the Baseball Acropolis Web site, www.baseballacropolis.org
In order for baseball to have a solid beginning in Greece, Karalekas noted, “fields will be needed, seminars have to take place, books and equipment have to be distributed…and games have to be played. Baseball Acropolis is planning a Barnstorming Road Show Tour before the Olympics this summer as a means to stage the game to the masses. Educating and entertaining Greece about baseball can only help what the Baseball Federation is doing,” he added, expressing his desire that the game “take root beyond the Athens 2004 Games.”
Supporting the game in Greece, Karalekas believes, will help Greek-Americans, some of whom have never stepped foot on Greek soil, to kindle a love of their ancestral land. They can accomplish this by contributing money or equipment (there will even be a campaign to collect 2005 pieces of baseball equipment from students for the Greek baseball effort in the upcoming school year) and by taking advantage of a unique opportunity to use the Greek language and cultivate their mutual love of the game with overseas buddies through the Baseball Acropolis Pen-Pals letter writing program.
“We aren’t funded by corporate donors; this is strictly a grass-roots effort,” Karalekas said. He asked that anyone who is interested in helping the organization achieve its goals visit their Web site, www.baseballacropolis.org or send a tax-deductible contribution to: Baseball Acropolis, P.O. Box 2797, Huntington Station, N.Y., 11746-0633.