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Host Greece Sports Unlikely American Roster
By John Manuel
Erik Pappas swore that when his baseball career was over, he wouldn’t try to drag it out as a weekend warrior.
The Chicago native played parts of three seasons in the big leagues with the Cubs and Cardinals, his last season coming in 1994. That would have been enough. Before he found out about the Olympics.
“I was playing absolutely no baseball; I had no interest in playing in those over-30 leagues,” Pappas said as he drove to a workout in Sarasota, Fla. “I heard about the Olympics and Greece maybe having a team about five years ago, and thought, ‘That’s great. I’ll be 38.’ I didn’t think the team would concern me.”
He was wrong. Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a Greek-American, took interest and decided to help finance a team for Greece, which automatically gets a spot in any Olympic competition in 2004 as the host nation. Angelos and the Orioles put a notice on the team’s Website to find players of Greek heritage and helped establish the Greek Baseball Federation.
The Orioles’ international scout, Rob Derksen, was picked to coach the team and found Pappas, whose father was Greek and whose grandfather lived in Greece. Under international rules, that’s enough for an athlete to become a dual citizen in international play. (Other countries have also taken advantage of the rule. Greece lobbied successfully to have the rule reach back to the great-grandparent threshold.)
Slowly, Derksen found players. Greece won a European Group B tournament in 2002 and finished second to the Netherlands last year in Europe’s Group A championship, with a team featuring players young (Orioles 2003 first-round pick Nick Markakis) and old (Pappas).
Some of the players were obvious finds because of their names—Dodgers farmhand Nick Theodorou, for example, or Athletics minor leaguer Vasili Spanos—and Pappas, whose mother was Irish. Elsewhere, however, Derksen had to dig. He discovered players such as lefthanders A.J. Brack and Sean Spencer, and veteran utility player Clay Bellinger, who were just Greek enough.
“I’m like a lot of the guys on the team,” Pappas said, “in that I’m not real Greek. Rob did a great job finding a lot of guys who have Greek mothers. You never would know they were Greek.”
Derksen, who was Australia’s manager in the ’96 Olympics, attended conventions of coaches and the Winter Meetings, and blanketed the minor leagues, colleges and even Greek churches with letters. He assembled a preliminary Olympic roster with a solid mix of depth, experience and youth-.
The team is Derksen’s lasting legacy. He died in June of a heart attack at 44, leaving North Florida coach Dusty Rhodes and White Sox scout John Kazanas as the team’s co-coaches.
“We’ll hang Derk’s jersey in the dugout, and we’ll definitely miss him,” Kazanas said. “He did a fantastic job of finding players that should help us be competitive.”
The Markakis Question
Markakis could also be Greece’s most dominant pitcher, but whether he’ll pitch remained up in the air. Markakis was Baseball America’s Junior College Player of the Year in 2002-2003 as a two-way player, and the Orioles drafted him seventh overall last year. While most organizations had Markakis projected as a pitcher due to his low 90s fastball and loose arm, the Orioles preferred his bat.
Derksen was lobbying to have Markakis pitch in the Olympics, and injuries to minor league veterans such as Kevin and Troy Pickford decimated the staff. So Greek team officials went to the Orioles, and Markakis, who was hitting .301-11-60 at low Class A Delmarva, began throwing bullpens in July.
“It was exciting, but I was kind of surprised,” he said. “All of my focus has been on being a hitter since last July. This is the first that I have pitched since then.”
Greece could use Markakis in relief with Diamondbacks farmhands Alex Cremidan and Peter Sikaras. Greece will need its bullpen, with the likes of 37-year-old Clint Zavaras, who pitched with the Mariners in 1989 and has been out of baseball for a decade, slated to be one of the team’s starters.
A native Greek, one of several who will be on the final roster, was expected to log innings in the round robin as well, just to keep the team from taxing its few top arms. The Greek baseball federation was agitating for more Greeks on the final roster, pointing to the nation’s shocking victory in the European soccer championships as proof that it didn’t need help in international sports. The federation also claimed it was one of many Greek Olympic governing bodies that was short of cash as July came to a close, throwing the team’s travel plans in doubt.
“We sure could use Derk right now,” Pappas said, “to smooth a lot of this stuff out. We’re a few weeks away and we don’t know who’s going and who’s not.”
Greece preliminary roster
** Banned from play – tested positive for banned substance