-- A routine fly ball soars to the outfield at the Olympic Baseball Center, pushed by a strong wind from behind the plate. The left fielder for the Greek national team, Kiriakos Koyrtzogloy, looks for all the world like a major league player: he's got the goatee, the pants tailored down to his ankles, the thick silver chain around his neck. But he has played the game less than most Little Leaguers in the United States. He threw a baseball for the first time when he was 28. He is now 32.
And he is badly misreading this fly ball.
Koyrtzogloy's feet dance as he tries to park himself under the floating baseball. He extends his glove, but he is out of position and the ball blows over his head. Two runs score. Koyrtzogloy rips off his cap in frustration. Somebody on the Greek bench curses in English. It's ruled a three-base error. The Czech Republic leads Greece, 18-3, in the Athens International Baseball Tournament.
Before the game ends, Greece's second baseman and catcher have taken the mound. One late-inning pitch is clocked at 58 mph. Koyrtzogloy, benched after the error, sits in the dugout with his head in his hands. The final is 22-3.
This painful afternoon for the Greek team offers a glimpse at the nation's Olympic preparations in baseball, but it provides nothing close to the full picture. Much of the prospective Greek Olympic team did not attend this four-team tournament because many are U.S. professionals -- Greek Americans -- with obligations at major league spring training camps. Clay Bellinger, Cory Harris, Eric Pappas, Kevin Pickford, and Pete Sikaras are among the U.S. ballplayers expected to represent Greece in the Aug. 13-29 Olympics.
Even the handful of Greek Americans who flew to Athens for this event sat out most of the game against the Czech Republic. They would play two days later, in the final against Russia, and Greece would fare much better, winning 5-1. This, though, was a day for the native Greeks to experience big-time baseball. It was a day to get a little bruised.
"You've just got to be patient," said Greek Olympic Team Manager Robert Derksen, an American with no Greek ties who managed the Australians in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. "Baseball is a brand-new sport here."
When Athens was awarded the 2004 Summer Games, Greece automatically earned a spot in the eight-team baseball tournament as the home nation. The complication was that Greece had no team, players or stadium in which to play. It didn't have a baseball federation, or a Little League. There were precisely two baseball diamonds in all of Greece, both nicked-up fields that had been part of a former U.S. military base.
"When we started, we started from zero," said Panos Mitsiopoulos, the president of the Hellenic Amateur Baseball Federation, which formed soon after Athens got the Games in 1997. "It's impossible to learn in five years to play well."
By 1999, officials in the newly formed Greek federation realized they needed outside help. So they contacted the former U.S. ambassador to Greece, Nicholas Burns. He, in turn, got in touch with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a Greek American, and asked him to lead a search for U.S. ballplayers with Greek ancestry.
"His response to Ambassador Burns was simply: 'Sure. Absolutely,'" said Lou Angelos, a son of Peter Angelos who got involved in the project. "Everybody gets excited and intrigued by the thrill of the Olympics."
With the blessing of Major League Baseball, Derksen and Orioles officials began a massive recruiting effort. They posted advertisements at spring training sites and minor league ballparks, urging players with Greek ties to make themselves available. The idea of playing in the Olympics for Greece became even more attractive, perhaps, when the United States, upset by Mexico in a tournament last fall, failed to qualify.
The current U.S. ambassador, Thomas J. Miller, helped expedite the paperwork that allowed dozens of players to obtain Greek passports, thereby meeting International Olympic Committee eligibility requirements. In the process, Miller became one of the most avid supporters of the baseball venture. A few weeks ago, he invited the Greek baseball and softball teams over to his official residence in Athens for dinner.
A self-described baseball freak from Chicago's South Side, Miller mixes his passion with his priorities: On a recent afternoon, he scheduled an interview at the U.S. Embassy to talk baseball just before a meeting with two officials from SAIC, the U.S. company hired as a security contractor for the 2004 Games.
"Because the American team didn't qualify, we're all sentimentally cheering for the Greeks," Miller said. "All I do these days is Olympic security, and when I have spare time, I do baseball. I have nothing else in my life."
The hunt for Greek Americans, fueled by about $750,000 from the Orioles, turned up plenty; Lou Angelos said there is now a pool of 100-200 U.S. and Canadian ballplayers with Greek ancestry. The players, mostly collegians and minor leaguers, are expected to dominate the Greek roster, but Derksen said he will save a handful of spots for homegrown Greeks.
Koyrtzogloy, the left fielder, said he played soccer, basketball and other sports growing up. He said he finds baseball more difficult because of its mental challenges -- nerves, he said, got the best of him in the game against the Czech Republic -- but he loves the game and sorely wants to make the Olympic team.
"My goal is to play in the Olympics," he said through an interpreter. "I realize I probably don't have the talent or experience, but it's still a goal I want to accomplish."
U.S. players have played alongside native Greeks at a number of events in the last few years, including at last year's European championships, in which Greece took second. They realize they have been invited to Greece for two reasons: First, to help Greece contend for an Olympic medal, and second, to teach.
After a tournament last year in Amsterdam, the U.S. players held a clinic. It wasn't for local children; it was for their Greek teammates.
"You've got 30-, 35-year-old men with the skill level of probably a 10-year-old in the United States," said Harris, who is in the Orioles' farm system. "Catching and throwing is an effort for them. . . . They don't understand the game at all."
The sport, though, is growing. There is an organized league of 18 teams in Greece, most based in Athens. Major League Baseball International appointed a coach-in-residence, Mike Riskas, an assistant to Derksen on the Olympic team. And players now have a proper venue: The Olympic complex includes a delightful stadium and a couple of practice fields. But there was no place to play from last July to December when the new ballpark was under construction, slowing the Greeks' progress. The setback tested the patience of the Greeks -- and their more talented teammates.
"It is a bit frustrating [but] I think to myself: How good would I be if I only played for four years?" said Dimitrios Doyros, who grew up in Chicago but spent summers with relatives in Greece. "I don't know how much more you can ask of people, especially given the situation they've been put into."
Lou Angelos said only two or four resident Greeks are likely to make the final 24-man Olympic roster. The Greek-born players are so inexperienced, Derksen said, that not one has a shot of cracking the starting lineup come August.
Teaching baseball fundamentals has proven much harder with grown men than malleable children. The Greeks simply are not ready for the mid-nineties fastballs likely to come from Cuba and Japan in the Olympics, Derksen said, and that is not likely to change in four months.
Things aren't, though, as bleak as when he started.
"You wouldn't believe how it was a couple of years ago," Derksen said. "It was like grade-school baseball. They couldn't even make contact. They had never seen a pitch above 70 miles per hour. When they see a pitch that's 82, for them, it's like 102. . . .
"You come over here as an instructor, a teacher. Teaching, that's what it mainly is."
That, and having a sense of humor. As the game against the Czech Republic unraveled, Derksen stood on the dugout steps, dishing out encouragement to his players and even chatting with a fan seated behind home plate.
"Hey, Skip," the man said. "Rally caps. Teach them."
"Touchdown hats," Derksen said. "We need touchdowns."