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Wednesday, March 17, 2004
Updated: March 18, 12:38 PM ET
It's not Greek to them

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

A.J. Brack is a 26-year-old New Jersey soil engineer who spent four seasons pitching in the independent minor leagues -- a very, very long bus ride from the majors.

He once pitched for a team that played every game on the road. He once found out he had been released by walking into the clubhouse and seeing another player wearing his number. He once played for a team that arranged for him to spend the season living in a trailer park with someone nicknamed "Cat Woman," because she kept so many pets. (Annie Savoy, she wasn't.)

Brack was a Bluesman, a Pioneer, a Jackal, a Canary and a Road Warrior during his minor-league career. Now, he'll be a Greek. This Sunday he will board a plane for Athens to play in a pre-Olympic test tournament. And this summer the New Jersey resident will pitch for the Greek Olympic baseball team.

That's right. The Greek Olympic baseball team. The U.S. won't have a baseball team in Athens, but by God, the Greeks will. And they just might be good enough to win a medal.

The Greeks may not know hard cheese from feta but as host country for the Olympics, they get an automatic berth in every sport they choose. Taking advantage of a little-known codicil in the Olympic constitution, they are stocking their baseball roster with the American and Canadian children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Greek emigrants. Among those on the current roster are former big leaguers Eric Pappas and Clint Zavaras, plus World Series vet Clay Bellinger and top prospects Pete Sikaris and Aaron Miles (who is good enough that he may have to pass up the Olympics if he's in the majors with the Rockies).

The uniforms may read "Hellas" (the Greek word for Greece) but the labels ought to read "Made in America."

You can compete in the Olympics for a country other than your own as long as you can trace a recent ancestry (generally a grandparent but in some cases a great-grandparent) to it, which is easier said than done. Particularly when you're talking about a great-grandparent who emigrated to the U.S. more than a century ago from a town in Greece that no longer exists. Pascual Perez thought it was difficult getting his Visa in order each spring? Brack has spent the past year compiling documentation tracing his ancestry back to his great-grandfather and he still doesn't have all the documentation he needs.

"Every time you think you finally have everything you need, there are two more things they want," Brack says. "I was almost like, 'Do you want my great-grandfather's finger as proof?' The first couple times I wanted to strangle someone."

This baptismal certificate is completely inadequate. The village priest forgot to sign his middle name. You'll have to come back next week. And bring your great-grandfather's umbilical cord with you.

"I had to do a lot of research," Brack said. "Everywhere you go, they say, 'No, you need to go there instead.' 'Go there,' 'Go there,' 'Go there.' I went to Ellis Island a lot. I started looking through old yellow pages to find old addresses. It wasn't easy. They would change names like they were sneezing. When my mother's grandparents got here, their name was Venechianokus, then Venechianos, then Venech."

At least the Greek consulates generally know about the team now. "Our names are in a matrix," Brack says, "so when we call up they don't say, 'The Greek Olympic baseball team? Don't blow smoke up my ass.'"

The Greek tryouts were held last November, though manager Rob Derksen is still looking for players to add to the roster. The players will play with their regular organizations this season and those who aren't on a 25-man major-league roster in August will play a couple exhibition games in Toronto and Baltimore. Then they'll fly to Athens and try to win a medal for Greece. With the U.S. and Korea out, they just might.

If it seems a little strange that players who may never even have stepped foot in Greece will represent that country in the Olympics, well, you don't understand how important Greek-Americans take their heritage. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" isn't that much of an exaggeration.

Over the past century or so, many thousands of Greeks emigrated from their home to seek their fortune in a foreign land where they couldn't even speak the language. One of those was John Angelos, who came to America with $5 in his pocket. He labored in the mills of western Pennsylvania, opened a Greek diner in Baltimore and saved enough money to send his son, Peter, to law school. And now Peter not only is one of the most powerful lawyers in the country and the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, he is the man who has almost single-handedly funded the Greek baseball venture.

Angelos says this team is his way of giving a little something back to the country of his ancestry and he is so proud of the Greek-American connection that he wants the team to wear the U.S. flag on their shoulder patches.

So while the U.S. officially won't have a baseball team in the Olympics, we will have one to cheer anyway. As Brack says, "I feel like I'll be representing the country I was born in, as well as Greece."

Box score line of the week
Yeah, that steroid controversy is really killing baseball. Last Friday's Cubs-Mariners spring training game drew an announced crowd of 13,366 to the Peoria stadium that has an official capacity of 10,000.So apparently the game is still playing well in Peoria.

The attraction? Greg Maddux making his second start spring start for the Cubs. And the master gave his fans something to remember by striking out eight batters in just three innings. His line:

3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 8 K

"It looked like he was playing whiffle ball out there," Seattle manager Bob Melvin told reporters.

It was the first time Maddux had struck out eight batters in a Cubs uniform since Sept. 30, 1992 when he struck out nine in a game at Wrigley Field with Andre Dawson playing right field. Just 11,547 fans -- 1,800 less than Friday's exhibition game -- attended what would be his final start as a Cubs for a dozen years. Sammy Sosa who had 37 career home runs at the time, did not play.

Lies, damn lies and statistics
Appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated is considered by many to be one of sports' greatest honors, right up there with having a giveaway bobblehead and giveaway duck in the same season. Barry Bonds, one of baseball's all-time greats, made SI's cover for the fourth time in his career last week. That gives him two fewer SI covers than career MVP awards. It also moved him out of a tie for three covers with Babe Ruth (who died six years before SI debuted) and into a tie with Elle Macpherson. He still, however, has three fewer covers than Darryl Strawberry. ... Of course, Barry probably didn't feel any better about appearing on this cover (his frowning mugshot surrounded by multiple headlines about steroids) as he did about the one in 1993 that showed him leaning on a bat with the headline, "I'm Barry Bonds and You're Not." ... What is most interesting about SI's take on the steroids controversy is that in the 10 pages devoted to the subject, it never once mentions Bill Romanowski, who also was named in the BALCO investigation. Then again, SI did mention Romanowski last September in a column praising his commitment to fitness, in which he was championed for taking more than 100 pills per day along with injecting himself with "living pancreas, brain and adrenal cells of pure-strain Scottish sheep" and drinking power shakes of "phosphorus and colostrums." ... The headline for the column was "Health Nut." Romanowski was caught using THG two months later. But it's baseball that really has the problem with performance enhancers. Yeah, right. ...

From Left Field
The road to Athens went through a lot of small American towns and was traveled mostly by bus. On their way to becoming Greek Olympians, these players also were Beavers, Grizzlies, Curves, Alleycats, Crushers, Timber Rattlers, Jackals, Sand Gnats, and, if not always in name, then always in spirit -- Road Warriors.

Shortstop Chris Demetal played 11 pro seasons -- seven at AAA -- and never reached the majors. He's been out of baseball for two years, working as a financial planner near Detroit, but the game retains such a grip on him that he drives to Ontario three to four times a week each summer to play in an amateur wood-bat league. This year's international baseball schedule is a little more exciting.

"I'm not struggling with the fact that I never made it," Demetral says. "But this would be the pinnacle of my career. It would be like being a big leaguer for one-and-a-half weeks."

With slots still to be filled, here's the working roster for the Greek Olympic team.

The Greek Olympic team
Player The Skinny
Clay Bellinger Former Yankee played in 2000 World Series
A.J. Brack Did hard time in the independent leagues
Alex Cremidan Arizona prospect threw no-hitter at European games
Chris Demetral Played seven seasons at AAA
John Gall Has been in St. Louis system since 2000
Cory Harris Signed by Orioles off last year's Greek team
Tom Lyons With Detroit this spring
Aaron Miles May be starting 2B for Rockies
Derek Nicholson With Detroit this spring
Erik Pappas Played three years in the majors
Kevin Pickford Minor-league vet is in Giants system
Pete Sikaras Arizona prospect reminds some of Eck
Sean Spencer With Orioles after two cups of coffee in majors
Pete Soteropoulos Cardinals 2003 draftee
Tony Stavros In Brewers system since 2001
Nick Theodorou Past six years in Dodgers system
Clint Zavaras Big-league debut against Nolan Ryan, last game 1994

 

Win Blake Stein's Money
This week's category: Is Viagra a Performance Enhancer?

QUESTION: Who has the most 50 home-run seasons -- Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Greg Vaughn, Brady Anderson, Albert Belle or Rafael Palmeiro?

Infield Chatter
Every Song On Radio Reminds Man Of Red Sox Loss
BOSTON -- Every song on the radio reminds Red Sox fan Patrick O'Malley of the team's loss to the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. "One Call Away" on 94.5 reminded me of how [manager] Grady Little's call kept Pedro Martinez on the mound in the eighth," O'Malley said Monday. "So I flipped over to 97.9, but then Van Halen's 'Poundcake' reminded me of how Yankee batter Aaron Boone pounded Tim Wakefield's knuckleball over the fence."

-- from "News in Brief'' on theonion.com

ANSWER: A-Rod, with two. Palmeiro has never hit 50. All the others hit 50 home runs once, including Bonds, who has as many 50-homer seasons as Roger Maris and one fewer than Mickey Mantle.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com