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Talkin Greek Baseball

Greek baseball team, 2004 Olympics

Following baseball in Greece these days is much easier with most games streamed live over the internet, as long as you don't mind the game starting at 2am. But it wasn't always so easy.

Larry Bearnarth2 weeks to go before we move to Greece for a year and my thoughts today are on baseball. I am a long time Mets fan, ever since my father and grandfather converted me from the Yankees when they took me to a spanking-new Shea Stadium somewhere around 1963 during the NY World's Fair. My favorite player was Ed Kranepool who wore the same number 7 as my previous NY Yankees favorite player Mickey Mantle. I went to a few games. I remember these tough Queens kids standing outside the stadium, where they had a view of the bullpen, razzing relief pitcher Larry Bearnarth, who was my cousin's neighbor in Huntington, LI, and being sort of shocked that anyone with the opportunity to be close to a baseball player would use that opportunity to insult him. To me they were gods. Even Larry Bearnarth.

In 1968 we moved to Greece for several years while my father taught at the American Community Schools in Athens and I remember sitting in the living room at strange hours listening to the 1969 Miracle Mets World Series on AFRTS which was the US Armed Forces Radio (and Television but there was none) Station.

Baseball, Athens, GreeceI took a hiatus from Major League Baseball for several years though I did play in a sort of Babe Ruth league for kids from 13 to 16 at the US Air Base. We were the Kifissia Team. Actually there were two teams from Kifissia and the base people hated us. We had long hair and the base commander, Col. Harris would turn white when we showed up in the cafeteria after the game for real American milkshakes and burgers. Most of us were the kids of embassy personnel, teachers (me), Esso-Pappas Oil, CIA, Navy, and whoever was doing business in Greece at the time. The teams from the base were pretty much the kids of the 7206th support group and whatever other military people were in the Glyfada area. They had short hair though some of them were as wild as we were, they were just not allowed to look the part because their parents were sergeants, and officers in the military. Of course the people in the stands saw it as clean-cut Americans vs drug-crazed hippy commies. When I would get up to bat they would shout "hair-hair-hair" from the stands like it was some kind of insult. Their nickname for one of our pitchers was 'Romilar-mouth' after a popular recreational cough-syrup and the spectators at the base would yell this in an effort to rattle him, which it didn't.

Chris SpheerisI was the catcher. I never wore a cup because I never believed I would get hit there, and never did. Either sheer luck or a case of creating one's reality through positive thought. The umps hated us and had no problem making calls that favored the base kids. One game I was beaned in the head. I picked myself up and started for first base, feeling proud that I had taken one for the team and the ump yelled "Get back here! That's strike one." I uttered an expletive, not at him but to myself... (it was shit if you must know), and I was thrown out of the game. "I weel not tolrate expeltives on mah feeeeld" said the ump as he wiped the dirt and my blood off home plate.

One of our pitchers was Chris Spheeris (yes that Chris Spheeris for all you New Age music fans who are still reading this). He was doing his warm-ups while the ump was talking to the manager of the opposing team, probably telling him about how he could not wait to make some terrible calls against the hippies from Kifissia. Chris threw a pitch that sort of slipped out of his grip on the way towards the general vicinity of the plate and made a lazy arc and hit the ump right in the hand. It was almost like a miracle. There is no way a pitcher could ever hit an umpire who is standing in foul territory half way down the 3rd base line. The ump glared at him with hatred. I walked to the mound and told him not to expect too many calls to go his way today. We lost of course.

Matt Barrett 1972My first year I was a really good hitter. Our best pitcher was Glen Raphael who was the best athlete in the whole school and was virtually un-hittable. The first 4 games I had 6 homeruns, which on the airbase field meant that it went over the head of the outfielder and towards the parking lot of the PX. Glen took me aside for a little pep talk. "We can win this whole thing. I know I can go 10 and O and you can probably hit 30 homeruns." The next game someone broke my favorite bat and I hit one more homerun the entire season(Rick Jobe grooved one to me). Glen's family decided to go back to the states for the summer and that pretty much killed our season. That was a common problem. You could have a great team when you started out but with kids going back home for the summer and parents getting re-stationed, the best team at the beginning of the season might not even have enough players to field a team by the end. When my best friend Peter was called for putting his finger to his mouth and ejected from the game, the rest of the team followed him off the field because they did not have enough guys to play and certainly nobody else who even knew how to pitch.

In my junior and senior year my drug use somehow affected my game and I was relegated to the outfield where I could do little damage. I really did not think it would end up that way. The first time I ever smoked hash was in the Plaka at the Golden Key and the next day I went five for five with a bunch of extra-base hits and I wondered if maybe in some weird way drugs could make you a better player just like it seemed to make Hendrix a better musician. Perhaps this was just a foreshadowing of the steroids issues that now plague major league baseball, like many things having its roots in Greece. But to be honest about it once I started getting high it was a lot more fun to watch baseball then to play it and the next year I went back to live in the USA where there was plenty of baseball to watch.

Keith HernandezBeing a baseball fan and spending summers in Greece did not go together that well especially in the eighties. You could get the International Herald Tribune but often they did not even have a baseball section, just these mini box scores that only gave you the barest information like who won, winning pitcher, who pitched, who hit a home run, who lost and who saved the game. You would also get it a couple days after the game was played so if your team was in a pennant race they could have a 3 game losing streak before you found out about it. But in 1986 my team, the Mets, had a commanding lead and everyone knew they were going to the playoffs and were favored to win the world series. I spent the summer in Sifnos and stretched it out until the last day of September. On the day of the first playoff game I was in London. That night I was in my favorite chair at home in North Carolina watching the first pitch of the first game against the Astros in what is said to have been the greatest six game series ever. When the Mets won the World series I was in NY and went to the victory parade. I even watched the critical Mookie Wilson vs Bill Buckner ground ball in my friend Jimi Quidd's apartment with a couple of his friends from Boston and had front row seats to the agony of true Red Sox fans. I would have to say this was the pinnacle of my baseball watching career to that point and since then I have been a Keith Hernandez fan, whether on the field or in the broadcast booth or his books which I have on my bookshelves on the island of Kea where we spend our summers, in the hopes that he may show up there one day on holiday.

Lenny RandleThe summer after the Mets won the World Series was probably my most amazing baseball experience ever. I was in Corfu with my friend Dino Nichols and starting my journey back to the states after another summer in Greece. I stopped in Bologna, Italy to see my friend Janet Dickman who was spending a year in a study abroad program. I was wandering the streets of the city when was I stopped dead in my tracks by a poster in the window of a rent-a-car company of a black ball player in a NY Mets uniform. It was a really amazing poster, very powerful with the bat moving in slow motion. When I looked closely I saw it was autographed by Lenny Randle. Holy Shit! Lenny Randle? Third baseman for the NY Mets who led them in 6 offensive categories? The guy with a personality larger than life, who even had a hit record in Seattle when he played with the Mariners? The guy who broke manager Frank Luchesi's jaw during an argument over playing time when he was with the Texas Rangers? The guy who got down on his hands and knees on the third base line and tried to blow a ball foul? ( Royals manager Whitey Herzog protested that Randle was blowing the ball foulé while Randle argues he was merely pleading with it.) The guy who was at bat when New York City was hit by a power blackout at 9:34, July 17th 1977!

Lenny RandleWhy is there a poster of Lenny Randle in the window of a rent-a-car office in Bologna, Italy?

I walked into the office. "Where can I buy one of these posters?" I asked the guy. "You wait here and in 5 minutes Lenny Randle will come" he told me in broken English. Was this really happening? Lenny Randle is going to walk in the door in 5 minutes? Somehow this seems unlikely. Twenty minutes pass and suddenly Lenny Randle actually does walk in the door. I was almost speechless. "Lenny. I am a fan of yours." He was probably as surprised as me. "What are you doing here?" I asked him.
"I'm playing baseball, man. Havin fun." He said.

For the next week I hung out with Lenny. His team Biemigiocchi was playing the team from Rimini in the Italian baseball playoffs and I went to the games, ate meals with the teams (they would play a double header and in between both teams got together for a spaghetti lunch) and at night Lenny and I would cruise around in his BMW talking baseball and life. It was an amazingly cool experience. The games were exiting and Lenny was the kind of player who could take them over. Always on base, always distracting the pitcher often to such a degree that the big Italian hitters (I think they called them bombaderos or something like that) would end up hitting a homerun so Lenny would just walk home from third after stealing his way around the bases.

Lenny Randle Day in Italy"I could lead this league in hitting easily" he told me. "But the Italians need their heroes so I take it easy. That way the first couple guys in the statistics are Italians, but there is still an American up there among them." There were two Americans on every team though some could get by with more if they had Italian-Americans. The other American on the Bologna team was Mark Talarico.

Lenny had a radio show on a station called Sphere-Regionne. We did a couple shows together, one just playing cool songs and he interviewed me, and the other I did a live concert. At night we would go out with Janet and her girlfriends to one of the pizza places that gave Lenny perks for mentioning them on the air. But for me the best part was talking to Lenny about all the guys he had played with in his career. Lee Mazilli, Willy Mays, Tom Seaver, Jerry Kooseman, Tug McGraw. Bud Harrelson, Joel Youngblood and even Bobby Valentine and Ed Kranepool! When I left Bologna Lenny drove me to the train station. I pretty much lost touch with him but in the year of the baseball strike he led the California Angels replacement players in batting during spring training and was still cut by the team. Having a guy in his fifties being the team's best hitter might send a message to the fans (like this team sucks so don't bother coming to the games until the real players return).

Tom MazarakisMy last little baseball story was when I was playing at a club in Athens and living in the John's Guesthouse in Mets on Marko Mousouri Street. I had the best room, a little hut on the roof and came home to listen to the world series being played between the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants. The first thing I heard on the radio was "...and now the players are bringing their wifes out of the stands and on to the field". That's weird, I thought. Why are they bringing their wives on the field? I have never heard of them introducing the player's wives during the World Series.

They weren't introducing them. The players were getting their wives out of the stands because there had just been an earthquake. A few days later the Berlin wall fell and nobody gave a damn about baseball or earthquakes.

Lately baseball fans in Greece have it pretty good. Tom Mazarakis has put together a baseball league with little or no support from the Greek government. The Greek Olympic baseball team came within a strikeout of beating the Cuban National team and actually did beat the Italians in Athens 2004. But it is the internet that has made it easy on baseball fans who are spending a summer or even a year in Greece. You can pay to get the games in audio or video and how frustrating an experience it is depends on the speed of your connection. But unlike those ancient times when I had to wait two days for those mini-box scores in the Herald Tribune, I can now spend an hour or more reading articles, watching videos, and listening to interviews of last night's game.

So two weeks before I move to Greece I may be a little bummed out because I won't be watching baseball on a 42 inch HD screen. But I can still get my fill. And if the Mets make it to the series (which seems unlikely at this point) I have plenty of Skymiles to get me back to NY in time for the first pitch.

sox baseball team, athens, greece

I'm the guy who forgot his hat

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