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Babe Alex leaving home base

Any kid with an ounce of street cred would start planning revenge if his parents went on holiday alone and returned with just a pile of airport tat. (You've seen the T-shirt: "My parents went to Barbados and all I got...") But Alex Malhoudis was far from disappointed when his mother came back from New York in 1988 bearing baseball caps, a few programmes and the inevitable T-shirt. In fact, they changed his life.

Alex, now 16, is Britain's most promising baseball player. He's been playing for the British under-l9 squad since he was 15, and the head coach, Barry Marshall, reckons he is already good enough to play for the senior team. In the national league he is second in the runs table (22 in 13 games). Next month, he leaves his home in Tonbridge, Kent, and starts school in California so that he can get daily baseball training. He hopes it could lead to a professional career - and it's all down to those tacky presents.

What his mother actually brought back may not have been the stuff of a nine-year-old's dreams, but the souvenirs, all with baseball themes, fired Alex's imagination. "I wasn't really interested in sports at school but I liked the sound of this game. We looked around for a time to find a club and discovered there was one in Tonbridge."

The Tomcats had no junior section. When Alex arrived at the local leisure centre, he found all the players were old codgers of around 30. It could have put him off. Instead, he roped in a few mates and started a junior team.

They played their first game a year later with 10-year-old Alex as captain. For the three years, Tonbridge Tomcats dominated the national under-14 league. "It was terrific," he recalls. "We shared a playing field with a senior school. They joined in and our team got better and better. From just five of us, it got really popular and we soon had an under-16 and an under-14 team."

At 14, Alex was picked for the British under-l6 team. Although dwarfed by every other player, the Tomcats drafted him into their senior team. In 1994, he played for Britain's under-19 squad in the European Championships, and was headhunted by Brighton Buccaneers senior team. Five months ago, he attended a training camp in North Carolina which involved playing against US college students seven years older. A Major League Scouting Bureau spy saw him play and advised: "You wanna be a star? Move to America!"

How good is he? Coach Marshall says: "He is one of the best prospects we have ever had. He is a coach's dream because of his enthusiasm. He wants to play baseball 24 hours a day, seven days a week." At the family's neat semi in Tonbridge, there are clues everywhere to Alex's obsession. The only videos in the living room are about baseball. "He's watched Field of Dreams so many times that we had to buy another copy because the other one wore out," his mother Rosemary says.

In the tiny back garden, there's a less obvious clue - an odd contraption with a black plastic pole and a square of worn netting. It looks like something made from limited resources by management trainees on an outward bound course, but it's Alex's own invention to practise his hitting. "I used to use a traffic cone donated by Kent County Council, but this is better," he said.

He practises every day for up to an hour. He will also throw a ball against a wall and catch it at differing angles (must drive the neighbours crazy). Then there's training at Brighton on Tuesdays, Tonbridge on Thursdays (he helps to coach the local juniors, though still a junior himself). The British squad train on Saturdays, and Brighton play on Sundays. Other sports? He has no time for them, though he admits to playing basketball once. "I wasn't very good."

So why does a kid who was no good at anything except throwing a cricket ball ("I can throw the length of a football pitch now") become a baseball star? Marshall says: "People think baseball is about how hard you can hit the ball, but it's more about speed." This is a key factor in Alex's game. "I am confident I can hit any pitcher they can put up against me," he says. His average of .370 (meaning he's hitting the ball and getting safe 37 per cent of the time) proves this, but things will be different in a few weeks. He will be facing pitchers throwing fast balls at more than 90mph, as well as the arcane spins (curve balls, knuckleballs and other varieties) that make the game a treat for aficionados.

Yet it can be a slow game unless you appreciate the subtleties. It's this aspect that appeals to Alex. "It's got everything: throwing, catching, hitting." He likes playing catcher, and signalling what ball for pitchers to throw by a series of signals that look like incipient epilepsy. "It gets very complicated because the other team is watching. Typically, when you pull your ear, the pitcher knows the signal to watch for is the one after you pull your ear."

It is not a gentle pastime. Alex has a dented tooth to prove it. "It's supposed to be a non-contact sport, but when I play third base, I keep getting banged by 30-year-olds who think: 'There's a l6-year-old kid. I'll bash into him.' They try to get their shoulders into your chest and make you drop the ball," he says.

Baseball hasn't really caught on here for various reasons. The main one is that it requires a large playing area (a field at least 400ft square), while park-keepers don't take kindly to the mole work needed to create a pitcher's mound. But the British Baseball Federation claims things are looking up since it settled some internal wrangling (it got so bad, a rival organisation was set up a couple of years ago) and brought in more American coaches.

Britain won't be competing in next year's Olympics, but they have high hopes of the 2000 Games. Alex's dream is to get into that team. His mother, meanwhile, is torn between pride in her son's achievements (he's in the team for next week's European Under-19 Championships in Vienna) and understandable pangs at seeing her younger son leave home and go abroad at just 16. She's a single parent and estimates that the next two years (never mind if he goes into the American college system) will cost her at least pounds 10,000. She's written hundreds of unsuccessful letters trying to get some sponsorship. "I would think companies would like their name advertised in America," Alex says.

Supporting any youngster who's playing sport at a high level is a major task. Rosemary's evenings and weekends are spent ferrying him to and from training sessions or matches. Equipment is expensive and feeding Alex is like feeding the Stretford End, she says. Still, she's only got herself to blame. Next time she goes on holiday alone, she'll return with computer games or trendy clothes.