Baseball is not a major sport in Greece, which explains - at least in part - why the Greek national baseball team held a series of important workouts at Camden Yards last weekend.
America's national pastime is largely a foreign concept in the country that will be host to the 2004 Olympic Games, so the Hellenic Amateur Baseball Association looked to the United States for help in forming a competitive team to represent Greece in the Summer Games and in the international play leading up to the XXVIII Olympiad.
That effort, spearheaded and sponsored by Orioles owner Peter Angelos, will take a major step forward tomorrow when a team made up largely of American minor league and college players of Greek descent begins play in the European Championships in the Netherlands.
Angelos, the only major league owner of Greek heritage, has been a driving force in baseball's international outreach since he took the Orioles on a historic goodwill trip to Cuba in 1999. He didn't hesitate when he was approached by members of the Greek sports federation to assist in the development of a credible national baseball program.
"Obviously, one of the goals of Major League Baseball is to expand the game throughout the world," Angelos said this week. "With the Olympics being held in Greece in 2004, it was important to organize a team to participate on behalf of Greece."
The developing Greek national team participated in the European Championships for the first time last year in Hungary. The team that left for the Netherlands on Tuesday has some new faces, including Orioles first-round draft choice Nick Markakis, and a chance to raise dramatically the stature of Greek baseball.
"They were there last year and did pretty well," Angelos said. "This is the second time [the team has competed in the European Championships]. The competition may be greater, but we expect they'll do well."
Greek baseball has come a long way in a short time since physical education coach Dimitri Gousios first attempted to assemble a team in 1997. The first workout - at an abandoned U.S. Air Force base - drew five players, and only one who had ever swung a bat, but Gousios' efforts spawned the growing Hellenic Amateur Baseball Association, which now fields dozens of teams throughout the country.
Still, it soon became apparent that the only way to build a truly competitive team would be to hire experienced coaches and recruit foreign players of Greek descent. Orioles scout Rob Derksen was chosen to manage the team, and the players were selected from a surprisingly large talent pool of college and professional players who have at least one Greek parent or grandparent.
"I have a very good feeling about this," Derksen said. "We know that Italy and Holland are very strong, but I think we're very strong. We've got a good group of minor league players."
Derksen is no newcomer to Olympic baseball. He managed the Australian national team in the 1996 games in Atlanta, so he may have the perfect combination of international experience and American baseball know-how to direct the Greek baseball program.
"It's exciting," he said. "I think the Olympics are more exciting than the World Series. You're not just competing for your team or your city ... you're competing for a country."
It isn't unusual for American coaches and managers to sign on with international teams. The Dutch national team is managed by former Orioles manager Davey Johnson.
The 22-man Greek roster doesn't feature any household names, though it does include former major league catcher Erik Pappas. The Orioles contributed Markakis and third baseman Chris Lemonis from the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx.
Markakis has been in the Orioles' organization for only a matter of weeks. He was taken with the seventh overall pick in the June draft and assigned to the Orioles' Rookie-level team at Aberdeen before being placed along with Lemonis on the minor league temporary inactive list to participate in the European tournament.
Angelos was happy to have a high-profile prospect to add to the Greek team, but he insists that Markakis' heritage had nothing to do with his place at the top of the Orioles' draft list.
"That was a pure coincidence," Angelos said. "He was selected by Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie in concert with [scouting director] Tony DeMacio.
"The fact that he is of Greek descent had nothing to do with it. I had heard the name and heard that he was an excellent hitter and also a pitcher of terrific ability, but that [his Greek heritage] was just a happy coincidence."
Derksen acknowledged that Markakis will be one of the least experienced players on the team, but he might also be one of the most talented.
"He might seem young for this team because we have some Triple-A players and some former major league players," Derksen said, "but we think he's got great tools. He was drafted No. 1 for a reason."
The tournament, known officially as the European A-Pool Championships, runs from tomorrow through July 19. Twelve teams each play five games in the initial round, with eight moving into a second phase and the top four surviving to play in an Olympic qualifying tournament.
The top two finishers there will represent Europe in Athens next summer. Greece, as the host country, is guaranteed a spot in the eight-team Olympic field, regardless of the team's finish this week.