NEW YORK – Because baseball is an art and a science and not just a game to 12-year-old Elias Bournias, his favorite team was not dictated by family, friends, or happenstance of residence.
Because the late Tony Gwynn is for him the quintessential player and model hitter, the aspiring Major Leaguer is a San Diego Padres fan.
Elias began to appreciate how great a pure hitter Gwynn was and sought to emulate him when he began little league at the age of four.
“Gwynn hit to all fields and just tried to help his team,” said Elias, already an astute student of the game.
Many kids dream of participating in the recent annual Cooperstown Dreams Park tournament, the most prestigious for athletes under 12, but how many can say they hit three homers against the nation’s young pitching elite in one week?
Elias Bournias’ dad, Lefteris, a clarinet player loved by the community, brought the evidence to TNH headquarters – three home run balls.
“One was off a fastball, it was clocked at 72 MPH” – Lefteris said – formidable for 12 year olds. “The second was off a hanging curve ball that he stayed back on it… one was hit to dead center, the other to the opposite field,” the father said with pride.
Elias pitches and plays right field and second base, which he likes the most, but hitting is his passion.
At Cooperstown, 105 teams from across America played on 25 fields. Elias’ team, the Long Island Titans finished 16th, and they were only knocked out by the second seed, which reached the finals and was managed by Greek-American ex-major leaguer Eric Karros, 10-8.
The entire experience was special. He was thrilled to soak in baseball’s history as he walked through the museum and he but he was also pleased that he had a chance to get to know his teammates better too…and it was really fun.
“They stay together as a team in the barracks,” for about a week.
Lefteris liked baseball before his son was born, but it is now a passion, but his heritage may be aslo fueling Elias’ fire.
The Bournias family has Greek and Arvanitiko roots – the latter are descendants of the ancient Illyrians – but they have been in Chios for many generations – perhaps via Sparta. The warrior theme is also evoked by his mother’s Pontian ancestry.
Elias overflows with a love of Greece. He dedicated one of his tournament home runs to Greece, and when kids asked him about the flag on his glove he beamed with pride and said: “Greece!” He enjoys following the Greek-Americans who play major league baseball.
Ferocity is definitely an element Elias’ approach at the plate and he does see himself as a warrior on the field – “My bat is my sword, and when I’m in the field by glove is my shield,” he said.
“I don’t have a favorite pitcher,” he replied when TNH asked – “pitchers are the enemy.”
GOOD COACHES, DEVOTED DAD
Focus and concentration is required to hit a round ball with a round stick – perhaps the toughest skill in all sports – those elements seem to have both genetic and environmental origins – they are what makes his father a fine musician, too.
Genetics and mentoring are part of the mix, but once Elias’ baseball potential was clear, nothing was left to chance.
“He trains every day. He has batting instructors and during the winter he has personal trainers,” but his biggest coach is Elias’ dad.
Regardless of talent and pass success, the pressure at events like Cooperstown …is enormous. He told his father by phone that he was not happy his first two days’ performance.
The first thing Lefteris told his son was “relax…don’t think at the plate,” and he added “Enjoy yourself…you worked so hard to come to this point, enjoy your time here. Don’t worry whether you get a hit or not – that’s fine.”
Lefteris arrived as soon as his other responsibilities permitted, and the words of the father lifted the burden from the son’ shoulder, proving again that the confidence that parents have in their children is transmitted powerfully to the young.
Lefteris had both a Greek and an American upbringing. He grew up in Astoria and left a Met fan when his father took the family to Athens after he completed the 6th grade of day school of St. Demetrios. Lefteris’ mother is also from Chios, and Elias loves the island, but his favorite part of Greece is Athens. “It has everything,” he said.
During the discussion at TNH headquarters, which was at a remarkably high level given Elias’ age – the overall theme was that despite his high achievements, he was not a young star but a student.
He grasps that every experience is a learning experience and that whatever doesn’t go right, he can work on with his coaches.
He takes about 100 swings everyday – “religiously” is father said, in the back yard where there is a tee and a net set up.
The game gets harder every year Lefteris explained. “The pitching is faster, you have to run faster – the game speeds up a lot” Elias said, but he knows it is competition that builds greatness.
And there are important transitions to be made. This year he plays on fields with major league dimensions for the first time in the Baseball Heaven league on exit 66 in Long Island. “He’s in the mecca of baseball playing against very good teams.”
“They say that from 12 to 13, 50 percent of young baseball players drop out, and another 25 percent the next year, but some of those kids are lost too other interests and distractions,” Lefteris told TNH.
Elias and his father are not about to let that happen. As an accomplished musician, Lefteris knew all about keeping his eye on the ball before his son stepped before up to a tee.
“His goal is a high school with a good baseball team and then to a division 1 college,”
The University of San Diego, where his hero Gwynn coached, is where Elias wants to go to college, but St. John’s near his home in Queens is high on the list.
Elias hits and throws right handed. He is working on switch hitting, but he has quick hands – which could obviate the gains from switch hitting.
“He is so dedicated to the sport. He watches the highlights every night…it’s amazing to see how focused he is on the game,” Lefteris told TNH.
PRACTICE, PLAY, LEARN
The upcoming year’s agenda is the focus on the transition to the larger field – 90 feet between the bases rather than the children’s 60 and the winter itinerary will include cross training and martial arts to build discipline and confidence as he faces 13 year olds whose strength and skills development are accelerating.
The student athlete does not neglect the rest of his education. He likes math – a subject in which his father also exceled. “I have a 90 average in that,” Elias said with pride, as if his intelligence needs confirmation after a half hour adult-level conversation.
And, yes, Elias also plays clarinet in his school band.