“Following baseball in Greece these days is much easier than it used to be, with most games streamed live over the internet, as long as you don’t mind the game starting at 2 a.m. But it wasn’t always so easy. Two weeks to go before we moved to Greece for a year and my thoughts were 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 New York World’s Fair.”—Matt Barrett
Nothing At All to Write Home About
By Matt Barrett
Author’s Note: The following is excerpted from a collection of my essays to be found on my Greek travel site. Follow the blueline here to read more pieces on my blog, email me with questions and comments, or join my Greece Travel Facebook Page. If you like this story, please share it with your friends on Facebook (and everywhere else).
CARRBORO North Carolina & KEA Greece—(Hubris)—November 2023—Following baseball in Greece these days is much easier than it used to be, with most games streamed live over the internet—as long as you don’t mind the game starting at 2 a.m. But it wasn’t always so easy.
Two weeks to go before my family moved from the US to Greece for a year and my thoughts that day were 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 New York World’s Fair.
My favorite player was Ed Kranepool, who wore the same Number 7 as my previous New York 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, Long Island, and being sort of shocked that anyone with the chance to be close to a baseball player would use that opportunity to insult him. To me, they were gods. Even Larry Bearnarth.
I 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 in Glyfada. 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, the CIA, the 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 just weren’t allowed to look the part because their parents were NCOs 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: the spectators at the base would yell this in an effort to rattle him, which it didn’t.
I 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, but 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 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, 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 halfway 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 that day. We lost, of course.
My 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 unhittable. The first four games, I had six home runs 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 0, and you can probably hit 30 home runs.” The next game, someone broke my favorite bat and I hit one more home run 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 years, 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 Plaka at the Golden Key and the next day I went five for five with a bunch of extra-base hits and 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 than to play it and, the next year, I went back to live in the US, where there was plenty of baseball to watch.
Being a baseball fan and spending summers in Greece did not go together that well, especially in the 1980s. 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 three-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 on 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 New York and went to the victory parade. I even watched the critical Mookie Wilson vs Bill Buckner ground ball at my friend Jimi Quidd’s apartment with a couple of his friends from Boston, and had a front row seat to the agony of true Red Sox fans. I would have to say that this was the pinnacle of my baseball watching career up to that point and, since then, I have been a Keith Hernandez fan, whether on the field, in the broadcast booth, or in his books, which I have on my bookshelves on the island of Kea (where my family now spend our summers), in the hopes that he may show up there one day on holiday.
The summer after the Mets won the World Series I had probably my most amazing baseball experience ever. I was on 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 I was stopped dead in my tracks by a poster in the window of an Italian rent-a-car company of a Black ball player in a New York 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 Mets who led them in six 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 foul‚ 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!?
Why was 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 five 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 five minutes? Somehow, this seemed unlikely. Twenty minutes passed and, then, suddenly Lenny Randle actually did walk in the door. I was almost speechless. “Lenny. I am a fan of yours.” He was probably as surprised as I. “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 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 exciting, 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 home run so Lenny would just walk home from third after stealing his way around the bases.
“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 50s 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).
My last little baseball story was when I was playing at a club in Athens and living in the John’s Guesthouse in the Mets neighborhood of Athens, 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 wives out of the stands and onto the field.” That’s weird, I thought. Why are they bringing their wives onto the field? I have never heard of them introducing the players’ 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, though, the Berlin Wall fell, and nobody gave a damn about baseball or earthquakes.