Baseball imports serious medal prospects

TORONTO – Rob Derksen has crossed paths with many Greeks who could tell him about Homer but who had no idea how to hit one. That did not deter the baseball manager as he spent four years wandering the world gathering his troops on an Olympic Odyssey. Derksen has traveled from Athens, Georgia, to Athens, Greece, seeking out that mythical pitcher armed with a Greek passport and a 95 mph (152 kph) fastball. Now Derksen is ready to lead his men to Greece in August on what would seem an unlikely quest for an Olympic medal. For most members of this Greek Olympic team, cobbled together from baseball’s backwaters and North American minor leagues, it will be a journey to a homeland they have never seen with a language they cannot speak. Clay Bellinger, a Baltimore Orioles prospect and a utility infielder, qualifies for the Olympics on his considerable skill and his grandmother’s Greek birth certificate. Clint Zavaras is also eligible for a trip to Athens because of his Greek grandparents. He made his major-league debut in 1989 with the Seattle Mariners against the Texas Rangers and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, though he has not pitched professionally for almost eight years. But Mel Mellehes, a full-time salesman and part-time pitcher with Guelph of the Intercounty League in Ontario, Canada, has the edge over most of his Greek teammates – he has visited Greece on his honeymoon. «It’s very strange,» admitted Mellehes, who was drafted out of high school by the New York Mets but never made it to the Major Leagues. «I can’t even say it’s a dream come true, I don’t know how you could ever dream something like this.» «A Canadian kid playing for the Greek national baseball team is just not something you would ever dream of.» Greece’s only baseball facility, a dusty, rundown diamond outside Athens left behind by United States servicemen, hardly inspires «Field of Dreams» images. Yet that is exactly what this Olympic baseball event represents to Peter Angelos, the multimillionaire Greek-American owner of the Baltimore Orioles who is bankrolling efforts to field a Greek team. With baseball one of the sports being considered for the Olympic chopping block, Major League Baseball has seized on the opportunity as a chance to spread the baseball gospel. The Greek government did its part by waiving mandatory military service for athletes who obtained citizenship in order to compete in the Games. «For Mr Angelos, it’s a chance to give something back to his heritage,» said Derksen. «He ran with the ball, he hired me to manage the team and his son Lou Angelos actively sought players through the Orioles’ website, scouring the rosters of all college and pro teams to see if there were any Greek names.» «We originally started with players with parents or grandparents born in Greece, (then) we went to great-grandparents and that really increased our volume.» Medal shot Taking on seemingly hopeless challenges is nothing new to Derksen, who managed Australia’s baseball team at the 1996 Olympics; then four years later tried to get Guam to Sydney. But Derksen says his collection of Greek imports has no intention of becoming the Summer Games version of the Jamaican bobsled team, content to just provide the feel-good story of the Olympic fortnight. Instead, this team of American and Canadian Greeks believes they have a legitimate shot at a medal. When Derksen’s team marches into the Olympic stadium for the opening ceremonies it will be carrying the Greek flag but with it the medal hopes of two countries, Greece and the United States, which shockingly failed to qualify for Athens. Baseball is America’s national pastime and the country suffered the ultimate embarrassment last year when it was beaten by Mexico and denied the chance to defend the gold medal it won in Sydney. «A lot of people are saying, ‘You’re Americans,’ but I tell them our flag is only blue and white. That’s the flag we’ll be carrying and the people we will be representing,» said Derksen. «And I definitely think we have a shot at a medal.» «The only thing that could hurt us is if we lose some of these guys going to the big leagues.» «When I first got involved, I wasn’t sure the guys were going to get behind this. But the camaraderie has built up in a very short time, the guys really relish their heritage.» «They gotten in touch with the families they never knew they had. It’s been really interesting the way it has evolved.»