Representing Greece, a diamond in the rough

Baseball: Players from all levels get a crash course in teamwork here.

Olympics

August 03, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

It's difficult to imagine a scenario where Nick Markakis, the Orioles' No. 1 draft pick in 2003, and veteran utility player Clay Bellinger would dress in the same clubhouse and participate in the same on-field drills. They're at completely different stages of their professional lives, separated by two levels of the farm system and 15 years.

The only way they would come together, yesterday in the sweltering heat at Camden Yards, was for a workout with the Greek Olympic baseball team that will vie for the gold in Athens later this month.

For about 2 1/2 hours, they tried to get acquainted with each other and their teammates while also doing the usual hitting, running and throwing. The squad has arranged another workout today and will play an exhibition game at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

"Some of these guys got in late last night and played yesterday," said Greek coach Dusty Rhodes. "We came out here with the idea that we need to get out in the sun. At Athens, it's going to be 100 degrees or hotter."

Rhodes' team, which gathered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in November for a four-day minicamp, is funded by Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos and includes two other players in the farm system, outfielder Cory Harris and left-hander Sean Spencer.

Angelos, who is of Greek ancestry, serves as chairman of a group formed to build the club and work with the Hellenic Amateur Baseball Federation, the organization responsible for developing the sport in Greece.

"We've got minor league guys here because other organizations let them go, and that's a big plus," Rhodes said. "That doesn't happen without Mr. Angelos. Believe me."

Rhodes was assigned as a coach until manager Rob Derksen died suddenly of a heart attack two months ago in New York. Derksen, who was 44, worked as an international scout with the Orioles and as executive director of the Olympic team.

Derksen and Rhodes met while they were managers in the Milwaukee Brewers system and coached together on the Australian team that participated in the 1996 Olympics.

"I've been with him all the way," Rhodes said. "It's a tough thing because he put so much time into it. Everybody on this team, the reason they're here is because of him.

"Some of these players, Rob went out of his way to work them out and give them the opportunity. It's kind of hard to find players of Greek ancestry who played in the U.S. There aren't a lot of them. You have to go looking for them."

Markakis, 20, was playing in low Single-A Delmarva after appearing in 59 games at short-season Aberdeen in 2003. He missed 2 1/2 weeks with the IronBirds last summer so he could join the Greek national team in the European Championships in the Netherlands. The Olympics seemed like the natural progression, "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he said.

An outfielder/pitcher in college, Markakis will mostly play in the field for Greece but also is available as a reliever. He has been throwing for about a month to get ready and faced live hitting yesterday for the first time.

"I felt like I was rushing myself," he said. "My mechanics are a little off right now. The next couple of outings, I should be all right."

Said Rhodes: "Baltimore has been trying to help us out. We lost three starting pitchers to injuries, and they've been letting him throw with the idea that we can use him in relief. He's a great athlete."

The Greek team's roster has plenty of range. It includes players in the lowest levels of the minors and some who are out of baseball. Markakis barely looks as if he needs to shave, but a few lockers down from him sits a player with graying hair.

"For me, it's just trying to get to know the guys," said Bellinger, 35, who appeared in the postseason with the New York Yankees in 2000 but has spent this year at Triple-A Ottawa. "We've got some old guys; we've got some young guys. I don't know if this is a typical mix for a baseball team. Right now we're just trying to figure out what kind of bunt plays and pickoff plays we want to run. We're trying to figure this thing out together."

"It's kind of fun," Rhodes said, "because they help each other out and they're a close group of guys."

But can they win a medal? "For what we have, anything can happen," Rhodes said. "We've got an outside shot. Our pitching's not as strong as the other clubs', but the field over there is a tremendous field, and I really believe the wind is going to make a big difference. This time of year, it blows 25 to 30 mph, 24 hours a day. That's going to keep balls in the ballpark."

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