MLB.com Blogs Central has announced its July 2015 Latest Leaders, and MLBforLife.com has ranked seventh as the most visited MLB.com Fan Website. Providing a global perspective where baseball meets history and pop culture, DJ and blogger Roberto Angotti has written nearly 150 articles to date since 2011. MLBforLife.com prides itself for giving readers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at high profile events such as the Asia Series, the European Baseball Championship, the World Baseball Classic and the upcoming Premier 12 in Japan and Taiwan. Working closely with Team Italia manager and LA Dodgers international scout Marco Mazzieri, MLBforLife.com is dedicated to everything Italian. Inspired by Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball author and former Team Italia interpreter Lawrence Baldassaro, MLBforLife.com strives to continue documenting the Italian American Baseball experience. From former Twin and current Blue Jay Chris Colabello‘s dream to become a major leaguer to Cubs’ slugger Anthony Rizzo‘s battle to beat cancer, MLBforLife.com supports the plight of the underdog–especially the efforts of Team Italia and its nurturing coaching staff (including Marco Mazzieri, Bill Holmberg, Tom Trebelhorn and Mike Piazza). Products of FIBS Italian MLB Academy in Tirrenia, Italian-born and developed players Alex Maestri and Alex Liddi have paved the way for MLB prospects Marten Gasparini (Royals) and Alberto Mineo (Cubs). MLBforLife.com pledges to support them and future prospects with Italian blood unconditionally.
One should never underestimate the power of prayer. Saint Anthony has miraculously helped believers find lost things and people when all else has failed. So when the Texas Rangers selected 6-foot-7 right-hander Anthony Ranaudo out of New Jersey’s Saint Rose High School in the 11th round of the 2007 draft and failed to sign the promising Italian American pitcher, they looked to Saint Anthony to bring him to Arlington. After eight years of intensive prayer, the Rangers acquired Ranaudo in January from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for lefty pitcher Robbie Ross. The miracle worker Saint Anthony was once again called upon over two years ago when prayers went out for divine intervention for Team Italy prior to the start of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. When hitting coach Mike Piazza had successfully recruited Cubs’ slugger Anthony Rizzo to join la squadra azzurri, it was time to pray to the great Saint Anthony to find the “missing” Anthonys to complete the Italian roster.
A simple tweet exchange two years ago could very well be a blessing to Team Italy from Saint Anthony should Major League Baseball allow franchise players to participate in the 2015 Premier 12 Tournament in Japan and Taiwan. With Ranaudo’s positive response echoing his desire to pitch for underdog Italy, Italian MLB Academy director and Team Italy pitching coach Bill Holmberg can possibly bolster his pitching arsenal alongside Braves’ All-Star reliever Jason Grilli, Blue Jays prospect Tiago Da Silva, Diamondbacks prospect Tim Crabbe and former Cubs’ minor leaguer Alessandro Maestri. Coach Holmberg deserves credit for Team Italy’s upset victories over Mexico and Canada in the 2013 WBC. By keeping some of MLB’s finest hitters guessing what was coming their way next when calling for a slew of off-speed pitches from the dugout, many big names including Adam Jones (.167), Carlos Beltran (.143), Alex Rios (.125), Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto (.000) never felt comfortable at the plate.
Patience has always been a virtue for Ranaudo. Instead of signing with the Rangers out of high school in 2007, he played baseball at Louisiana State University, where he was third in NCAA strikeouts and led the LSU Tigers to become 2009 National Champs. Four years after being chosen by Boston as a supplemental first-round pick in the 2010 draft, he made his MLB debut with the Red Sox last year and won four games with a 4.81 ERA in seven starts. Ranaudo started the 2014 season at Triple-A Pawtucket, where he compiled a 14-4 record and was voted the International League’s Most Valuable Pitcher. Anthony is currently competing at Rangers Spring Training Camp in Arizona for an Opening Day roster spot as their number five starter.
Future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza has been fueling the fire of the Italian baseball revolution for nearly a decade. Since joining Team Italia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, the proud Italian American has had a profound effect on the growth and development of baseball in Italy. Working in tandem with Italian MLB Academy Director and Team Italia pitching coach Bill Holmberg, Piazza has helped Italy become the superpower of European baseball in light of the recent KC Royals signing of five-tool Italian-born prospect Marten Gasparini for $1.3 million. One statistic often overlooked in validating Mike Piazza’s rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame is Career Runs Created by a catcher. Based on the 1,378 Runs Created by Piazza–which ties Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk–Team Italia’s hitting coach was the BEST hitting catcher of all-time (Mike Piazza 1,378; Carlton Fisk 1,378; Ted Simmons 1,283; Yogi Berra 1,265; Joe Torre 1,259; Johnny Bench 1,239; Gary Carter 1,184; Bill Dickey 1,164; Gabby Hartnett 1,161 and Jason Kendall 1,112). Defensively Piazza was the BEST catcher of his time in handling his pitchers. In his career behind the plate, pitchers had a 3.80 ERA when he was catching. Checking the stats for all the other catchers who caught the same pitchers in the same year that Piazza did, they allowed a 4.34 ERA. With 12-time MLB All-Star Mike Piazza coaching Italian ballplayers, the BEST has yet to come for Team Italia.
Mike Piazza is a baseball immortal regardless of what a pack of bitter, jealous sports writers think. Everyone knows he was The Man.
— Thomas Wilkinson (@RosenblattsBoss) January 8, 2014
— Mike Piazza (@mikepiazza31) February 28, 2014
“We just want to continue to draw attention to the fact that we believe baseball is marketable in Italy. We think it’s viable. We think there’s a lot of upward growth. We can produce players over there. I’m convinced of it,” said Piazza. 17-year-old switch-hitting shortstop Marten Gasparini–compared to a young Derek Jeter–and 19-year-old lefthanded-hitting catcher Alberto Mineo lead the charge of the Italian baseball revolution spurred by Dodgers scout/Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri and coaches Holmberg and Piazza.
Grazie di nuovo @FIBSpress! Had an amazing time in Veneto. Great coaches convention. Forza Italia!
— Mike Piazza (@mikepiazza31) January 19, 2014
International baseball ambassador Mike Piazza traveled to Veneto, Italy recently to speak to an enthusiastic audience at the 29th Annual Coaches Convention. Piazza said, “We all overteach and overanalyze hitting. Everyone has their own opinion, but in actuality–just as Ted Williams explained in his book The Science of Hitting--the number one rule is to get a good ball to hit. Gaining an understanding of the strike zone and what you can and can’t hit is the key. Simply spoken, you can’t hit what you can’t see.” Twelve years ago in 2002 Piazza met FIBS President Riccardo Fraccari while visiting Italy on a MLB International mission to help the game develop in Europe. Fraccari asked Piazza if he would be interested in representing Italy in international competition, and the proud Italian American responded that it would be privilege to play for the Italian national team in honor of his Sicilian ancestry. During a 2006 World Baseball Classic press conference, Piazza addressed reporters who questioned why he chose to join Team Italia and said, “You may not understand it, but for Italian Americans getting a chance to finally play for Italy is like a duck chick getting close to the water for the first time.” The Italians have since fared well in the World Baseball Classic, nearly upsetting 2013 WBC Champion Dominican Republic and runner-up Puerto Rico. Piazza’s influence swayed Cubs’ slugger Anthony Rizzo to play for Team Italia alongside other MLB Italian Americans including Padres’ Chris Denorfia, A’s Nick Punto, Twins’ Chris Colabello and Pirates’ Jason Grilli. Piazza’s power of persuasion even impacted the Team Italia coaching staff as former MLB journeyman Frank Catalanotto joined the Italian baseball revolution. Team Italia’s homegrown talent held its own and contributed to the overall chemistry of the squad. Alessandro Maestri–the first Italian-born-and-developed pitcher signed by MLB in 2006 and infielder Alex Liddi–the first Italian-born-and-developed player to make his MLB debut in 2011 have benefitted greatly from Piazza’s guidance and mentorship.
Maestri said, “It’s great to have him around in the dugout. He’s like doing this for fun. He enjoys working with us… That’s why we appreciate it so much. I think he is positively influencing the program that we have. The fact that the team is winning and improving proves it. So that’s why he keeps coming back.” Liddi echoed the sentiment and said, “When you have coaches like Mike Piazza and Frank Catalanotto—guys who have been in the big leagues for a long time—it makes it fun just to be around them. You’re able to ask them questions and learn from them.”
— WBC Baseball (@WBCBaseball) January 10, 2013
With Italy trailing by one run in the 2013 World Baseball Classic opener at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Mexico’s Adrian Gonzalez singled in the bottom of the seventh inning. Manager Marco Mazzieri needed Italian American Nick Pugliese to get his team out of a jam to end the inning and keep Italy in the game. The Florida native got Mexico’s Jorge Cantu to ground out and end the scoring threat. The former Angel minor leaguer held Mexico scoreless in the eighth to set the table for closer Jason Grilli, who saved Pugliese’s first WBC win after Italy scored twice on Sergio Romo. During the course of his three other appearances in the 2013 WBC tournament, Nick Pugliese faced an MLB All-Star cast including USA’s Ryan Braun, Dominican Republic’s Edwin Encarnacion, Nelson Cruz, Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Santana and Puerto Rico’s Yadier Molina. Now the closer for the Italian Baseball League’s Fortitudo Bologna, winner of the 2013
Euro Cup and Europe’s first-ever representative in the Asia Series, Pugliese takes on the champions from the pro leagues in Japan, Chinese Taipei, Korea and Australia.
Siamo ancora una volta CAMPIONI D'EUROPA!! Foto: Simone Amaduzzi Photographer http://t.co/YdsT5hAjE0
— Fortitudo Baseball (@FortitudoBC1953) August 3, 2013
We spoke with Bologna’s closer prior to the start of the Asia Series in Taiwan (which runs from November 15-20).
Roberto: Having experienced MLB-affiliated ball with the Angels organization, you were a welcome addition to the Italian baseball fraternity. Explain the transition from Fortitudo Bologna to Team Italia.
Nicholas Pugliese: When I got the call to go to Bologna to play, I shot right over. I didn’t waste any time. I saw it as an experience to travel and to play on an international level. It’s kind of given me a second life in terms. Because I would never be in this position if I wasn’t involved with Italy to begin with. Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri would have never seen me so I have nothing but good things to say to my GM that found me, Christian Mura, and Marco Mazzieri for giving me a shot to play on this team.
Roberto: After pitching at Lake Sumter College, you transferred to Steton University and made the 2008 All-Conference team after issuing only 11 walks in over 65 innings. Although you were not drafted, you still managed to be signed by the Los Angeles Angels.
Nicholas Pugliese: It was awesome. Tom Kotchman of the Angels gave the opportunity to play some professional baseball. I am forever grateful for that. I loved the three years I played for them. It was a great organization. I learned a lot, and I give a lot of credit to them for where I am right now actually.
Roberto: Having played at Tempe Diablo Stadium during Angels Spring Training and later return to play against your former organization as a member of Team Italia must have been a homecoming.
Nicholas Pugliese: It was a homecoming because I hadn’t seen these guys in a couple years. You’re talking about 300 guys! We all got close, we worked together, we played together. The whole coaching staff I got to see when we played the Angels. It was an awesome feeling. To see their faces light up when they saw me. Not expecting to ever see me out here again. It was a great experience.
Roberto: Through the blessing of Italian baseball, you have received a new lease on life. Out of all the minor leaguers that you played with in the Angels organization, how many of them can say they have pitched against MLB All-Stars at Chase Field and Marlins Park in the World Baseball Classic?
Nicholas Pugliese: Not a whole lot. They actually all called me and told me how jealous they were. It’s kind of bittersweet how things turned out, but I wouldn’t trade in this experience for anything. It was unbelievable.
Roberto: Getting the win against Mexico must have been one of your most memorable moments in baseball.
Nicholas Pugliese: The whole tournament was the highlight of my whole baseball career obviously. It was short, but it was amazing. The competition we were able to see, the guys we were able to meet. We proved that we can play with anyone. Roberto: Let’s talk Italian heritage.
Nicholas Pugliese: I’m sort of split between an Italian father and a German mother. My dad’s side is the strong Italian side. It’s always been about family and cooking. It actually goes back all the way to my great grandparents, who were born in Italy. So the actual paperwork wasn’t easy to find to go back and get all that stuff going. My Italian heritage will always be there, and I’m proud to play on this team.
Roberto: Did your mindset and pitching philosophy change when you crossed the Atlantic?
Nicholas Pugliese: It changed a little bit. International baseball…the whole set, the rules, the hitters…everything changes a little bit. So you adapt. You either adapt fast or die pretty much. But you’re constantly adapting. That’s what baseball is all about anyways. Coming back to the World Baseball Classic, we had to constantly change to these hitters from country to country, team to team.. I mean you learn to adapt fast or none of us would be here in the first place.
Roberto: What was the initial reaction by the Italian-born players to have an Italian American like you join their team?
Nicholas Pugliese: Playing on Team Italia is a little different because I have been playing for the Italians for two years in row now. I’ve gotten to know a lot of these guys since we’ve been playing together for a while. Initially coming to this team was a little standoffish. You know, these American guys coming in. And it would be the same way the other way around. But as long as you are there to win, and you’re giving your all then they take you in. That’s how it should be.
Roberto: Playing for the Italian National team, you have assumed the role of closer when Italia won the 2012 European Championship.
Nicholas Pugliese: It started out where Alessandro Maestri was the guy to go to in the ninth, and him being away in Japan kind of opened that role for me. It kind of just worked out, and I’m glad that I could fill the spot at the time. For Team Italia in the World Baseball Classic, I set up for Grilli. I got a long way to go before I take his spot…Roberto: What was the vibe like in the clubhouse when the MLB-affiliated players
(Punto, Denorfia, Liddi, Rizzo, Colabello, Grilli and others) joined the Italian National
team for practices in preparation for the World Baseball Classic?
Nicholas Pugliese: It was a totally different energy when they showed up. We were practicing for about a week without them. We were working hard and everything. But as soon as they could all come, it was just a total new energy. We’ve meshed obviously and you could see how we play the game. We’ve meshed very well. A quick mesh..which is important. That’s why a lot of these teams got upset because they hadn’t played together, and they were kind of playing selfish. I mean instantly we played well together…we meshed. You can see the result from that. What it really comes down to is baseball is universal. Whether you were born in Italy or you were born here, you speak Italian or not, it’s universal. You have a passion for the game. I mean you are going to give it your all. Everyone sees that. It’s easy to come together and win some games.
Roberto: Easier said than done. Look at Team USA in the WBC. Team Italia literally gifted them a win so that they could qualify for the second round in Miami.
Nicholas Pugliese: We had a chance to take them. We had them shaking in their shoes a little bit. It was just one bad swing. We did take it a little different. It wasn’t a must-win for us. We kind of used it as an opportunity to get all our guys in, get the experience going. If it really came down to it into a must-win situation, the outcome might have been a little different. But I mean for what it was worth, we played them tough and they were playing really tight for a while.
Roberto: Having already qualified for the second round prior to game time against Team USA, you have got to admit Team Italia was playing for fun.
Nicholas Pugliese: We definitely had a big weight lift our shoulders. We had a lighter energy going in there, but at the same time when it comes down to it we’re going to grind it out. It was good. We had a good time.Roberto: Especially with Jason Grilli around…
Nicholas Pugliese: I picked Grilli’s brain a lot. He’s probably sick of me by now. But every chance I had to go up to him and ask some questions, I’m just all ears. I’m a sponge with him. I love talking to him. He’s got a lot of awesome knowledge. He’s a great guy to be around. All the pitchers really look up to him. I mean I don’t have the stuff that someone like Grilli has out there. I don’t have the 96 mile per hour fastball so I have to just go with straight aggression and go after these guy–not wasting any time and pitching to contact. That’s my game plan, and that’s what I’m going to go out with there every single time. I’m just hoping that I can help the team keep moving on.
Roberto: While interviewing Mike Scioscia, I asked if he would consider joining the Team Italia coaching staff, and he said that would be dependent on how the Italians played.
Nicholas Pugliese: I don’t know how many more stars we can add to this coaching staff, but adding him would be amazing. I don’t know what else he wanted to see from us at this tournament. All he had to do was turn on the TV and enjoy his Italian heritage. It would be awesome to see Scioscia on the staff at any time.Roberto: I feel that Team Italia is blessed to have such a talented coaching staff featuring Bill Holmberg, Mike Piazza and Frank Catalanotto to take Italian baseball to the next level so that the team can compete with the game’s elite in MLB.
Nicholas Pugliese: Pitching coach Bill Holmberg has always been great. Mike Piazza has been awesome. He is just one of those special guys. He and Frank Catalanotto, you see them on TV and you look up to them. The next thing you know you’re in the dugout making jokes with them like everyone else. It’s awesome that they can relate to us on that type of level and share their knowledge with us.
Roberto: Team Italia is a very special team. In fact, two of your Italian teammates–Juan Carlos Infante and Alessandro Vaglio–will be joining you on Unipol Bologna in the Asia Series. What are your chances of doing what Team Italia did in the 2013 World Baseball Classic?
Nicholas Pugliese: I know all the Asian teams will be coming off of their seasons and will not only be baseball ready but highly talented. So it would be nice to head out there and surprise some guys with a few sneaky wins.
Roberto: Best of luck to you, the team and manager Marco Nanni. Thank you for your time!
Nicholas Pugliese: Thank you Roberto!
Home team Unipol Fortitudo Bologna hosts Korea’s Samsung Lions, winner of the 2011 Asia Series, in the opener of the 2013 Asia Series on November 15 at Taichung Inter-continental Baseball Stadium in Taiwan. Local Taiwanese favorite
Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions of Tainan welcome visitor Unipol Fortitudo Bologna on November 16. The European Cup Champions will get a well-deserved day of rest on November 17 before continuing on in the tournament should they qualify for the semi-final and final rounds of action with competition ending November 20. Italian supporters will have the opportunity to listen to Radio Arena Sportiva live broadcasts of the 2013 Asia Series with host Daniele Mattioli by clicking HERE.
Italian bloodlines run deep in Australia and Asia. In recent years, ballplayers of Italian descent have been making their impressions felt in the Australian Baseball League and in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League. Alex Maestri–a Cesena, Emilia-Romagna native and former Chicago Cubs prospect–served as the ace of the Brisbane Bandits pitching staff during the 2011-12 Australian Baseball League season. He finished third in the ABL in innings pitched (63.2) and in strikeouts (53). With an impressive ERA (3.25) and WHIP (1.16), the first Italian-born pitcher ever signed by an MLB franchise also led the Bandits in wins (4). After a very successful stint in Australia, Maestri was recruited by the Kagawa Olive Guyners in Japan’s Independent League. Maestri dominated hitters and soon moved up the ladder to face the game’s elite in the Nippon Professional Baseball League when he was signed by the Orix Buffaloes. Maestri still continues to enjoy success in Japan.
Adam Buschini was awarded the first-ever ABL Triple Crown for his heroic 2012-13 ABL regular season. The Triple Crown–awarded to a player who has the highest batting average, the most home runs and driven in the most runs in a season–is one of the game’s rarities. The Triple Crown has only been achieved 16 times in over 130 years of MLB history. The Northern California Italian American slugger claimed the ABL Triple Crown with a .363 batting average, a league record-tying 15 homers, and an ABL record-breaking 50 RBI in just 45 games. He was named ABL Player of the Week twice. In ABL Round 10 action, Buschini went 8-for-17 (.471) with a double, three home runs and 9 RBI. He exploded in ABL Round 13 when he went 9-for-15 (.600) with four homers and 9 RBI to help the Canberra Cavalry claim the top playoff spot and eventually win the ABL Championship. Adam Buschini’s success continued as he led the Padres AA affiliate San Antonio Missions to a 2013 Texas League Championship.
Hayden “Big Dog” Beard, a member of the 2012 San Antonio Missions and local resident mentor of the Canberra Cavalry pitching staff, now serves as pitching coach for the 2013-14 Canberra Cavalry. With over four years of experience in the Mets and Padres organizations, Beard knows talent when he sees it. The Big Dog is thrilled to have Nick Pugliese on the team roster after watching the former LA Angels prospect pitch for Team Italia in the 2013 World Baseball Classic as well as his stellar ABL debut performance.
“It was good to get Nick in there during the first game of the year and get him a feel for the league,” said Beard. “He had a solid outing punching out two without yielding a hit. He threw both his sinker and slider for strikes from different arm angles with good life on his pitches. We project him as a back end of the bullpen arm at the moment.” Pugliese did not disappoint in his second ABL lights out appearance.
He struck out three more in 1.1 innings of relief, placing him third in the league in strikeouts (5 K’s
in 2.1 innings pitched). Pugliese is enjoying his time playing in a Cavalry uniform knowing full well that he could come face-to-face with his Aussie teammates in the upcoming Asia Series when he suits up for the European Cup Champion Fortitudo Bologna squad. Nick said, “So far everyone is awesome, and the country is super nice. It’s a strange scenario for the Asia Series because I play the first two weekends here in Australia then join Bologna in the same tournament my Canberra team will be going to.” Although Pugliese may be conflicted on the real prospect of facing his Aussie teammates in the Asia Series–which features the champions from Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Australia and Europe–Canberra pitching coach Beard looks forward to the opportunity of his team facing its own relief pitcher. He said, “Our boys would relish the opportunity to play against him in Taiwan. It’s always fun playing against your mates!” Despite the loss of Pugliese’s services in the Asia Series, the Cavalry charge abroad will be mighty indeed with the addition of Toronto Blue Jays prospect Jon Berti–who he led the Single-A Advanced Florida State League in games played (128), at-bats (505), runs (85), hits (126), triples (5), walks (57), and stolen bases (56). Replacing Adam Buschini at second base, Berti is up for the challenge. Voted the Florida State League’s top base running prospect by Baseball America and Team MVP by the Dunedin Blue Jays, Michigan’s Jon Berti is a welcome addition to head coach Michael Collin’s international all-star lineup. In the case of Florida’s Nick Pugliese, who rubbed shoulders with Collins in the LA Angels organization when both aspired to play MLB, it’s a reunion of two grinders who desire to keep the ABL throne in Australia’s capital. “We started last season with the goal to bring the Claxton Shield to Canberra,” Collins said. “Our goal hasn’t changed coming into this season. This year we will be defending the Shield from the top and not chasing from the bottom. Cavalry General Manager Thom Carter is proud of his team and coaching staff as well as the baseball supporters in Canberra. “This is a milestone to be celebrated,” said Carter. “It shows just how much baseball has grown as a sport within the capital city. Each coach brings strong expertise to the table and as a team we couldn’t be more excited.”
Tried and tested as “Azzurri” teammates on Team Italy in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, utility infielder Nick Punto and backup catcher Drew Butera quite naturally bleed Dodger blue. Butera was reunited with Team Italy leadoff hitter Nick Punto when he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 31, 2013. Destined to get the most from one of MLB’s finest pitching staffs, Drew is a valuable asset to the dream team of Dodger General Manager Ned Colletti. Born on August 9, 1983, the Florida-native is the son of Sal Butera—a journeyman catcher who played 359 MLB games for the Blue Jays, Twins, Reds, Expos and Tigers from 1980-1988. Drew was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2002 MLB Draft but instead opted to play college ball at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Ironically, father Sal now works as a scout for the only Canadian MLB franchise.After throwing out 48% of potential base-stealers and hitting .325 in his last season at UCF, the right-handed catcher was a fifth round pick by the New York Mets in the 2005 MLB Draft.
A big opera fan who used to listen to Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti in the clubhouse before games while in the Mets’ minor league system, Drew was named Florida League All-Star and later promoted to Double-A ball in 2007 before being traded to the Twins—where Butera family history was made as Sal and Drew became the first father-son combination to play for Minnesota when he made his MLB debut on April 9, 2010. Known for being able to handle pitches with grace rarely seen at the major league level, he became the exclusive catcher for Carl Pavano. Having a producing a calming effect on his pitching staff while calling a great game from behind the plate, Butera kept Francisco Liriano focused on every pitch which garnered the lefty a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox on May 3, 2011. Known as a pitcher’s catcher, Drew even went as far as taking the mound to throw a scoreless inning (including a strike out) against the Brewers in 2012.
Drew Butera was a big hit for Team Italy in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Delivering a two-run home run that helped defeat Mexico and a two-run double that buried Canada. Butera was instrumental in each of Team Italy’s victories to earn the team the right to advance with Team USA to the next round of play in Miami. Dodger teammate Nick Punto was just as important in the WBC. Punto led off in every one of Team Italy’s five games and raked at the plate (.421 batting average, 8-for-19, two doubles, two walks and five runs scored). Both players along with Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Tony Lazzeri, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Ernie Lombardi, Ron Santo, Tommy Lasorda, Tony Conigliaro, Craig Biggio, Tony La Russa, John D’Aquisto, Ken Caminiti, Mike Piazza, Frank Catalanotto, Joey Votto, Jason Grilli, Anthony Rizzo, Chris Denorfia, Dan Serafini, Alex Liddi, Chris Colabello, Brian Sweeney, Mike Costanzo and Reid Rizzo are featured in the Artists’ Tribute to Italian American Baseball Exhibit at Convivio, 2157 India Street in San Diego. Artists’ Tribute to Italian American Baseball showcases original artwork, photographs, uniforms, articles, and other related artifacts related to baseball players of Italian descent and those with strong ties to San Diego. Works by nenowned Italian American artists Christopher Paluso, James Fiorentino, Vincent Scilla, Professor John Giarrizzo, Warren Reed, Zack D’Ulisse, and Rob Monte will be on display alongside sports artists Chris Felix, Vernon Wells, Jr., and Jeremy Nash at the Little Italy Heritage Museum at Convivio Center. For more information on the exhibit and special events–including player and artist appearances, visit www.ConvivioSociety.org or phone 619-573-4140.
Although San Diego can lay claim to Team Italy’s lead off hitter/LA Dodgers infielder Nick Punto as their own born-and-raised MLB hero, Sanremo–a popular Italian Riviera resort town between Genoa and the French border–is the proud home of WBC teammate/Seattle Mariners third baseman Alex Liddi. Alex was literally weaned on baseball by his father, Agostino, and his mother, Flavia. Agostino’s parents left Italy shortly after World War II to work as tailors in America.
While attending Beverly Hills High School, Agostino Liddi played baseball before repatriating to Italy after graduation. It was there that he met his future wife, Flavia, who played softball competitively in Italy.
You could say that Alex was a truly a baseball baby since it was reported that Flavia played first base for the first three months of her pregnancy carrying Alex. When Alex was old enough to play, his mother coached his baseball teams. As a teenager, his father drove him long distances to compete in games throughout Italy. With the addition of their two sons, Thomas and Alex, the couple shared their love of the game to transform the Liddi’s into the archetypal Italian baseball family. Alex Liddi was honored last year by the Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball (FIBS) for his valuable contributions to the game. FIBS president Riccardo Fraccari called
Liddi “the real ambassador of Italian baseball” after he became the first player from Italy to play in the Major Leagues since 1954 and the first-ever Italian-developed player in MLB. Liddi, the face of European baseball, has the opportunity to spur the growth of baseball back home by playing at the sport’s highest level. By watching Liddi on MLB.tv and reading the nightly box scores, young Italian athletes are now inspired to think that playing Major League Baseball is a viable option. Currently at Triple-A Tacoma with Team Italia pitcher Brian Sweeney, Alex Liddi is playing with conviction
in anticipation of his return to the Mariners for his third consecutive season. Now leading the Rainiers in home runs (8), runs (34), and RBI (32), the sheer power of Italian
24-year-old Liddi will be a welcome addition to the Seattle lineup when MLB rosters expand to 40 players in September. The European baseball ambassador was kind enough to sit down for an interview at the 2013 World Baseball Classic in Phoenix.
Roberto: You were signed in 2005 by Mariners’ scout Wayne Norton and current WBC Team Spain manager Mauro Mazzotti. Isn’t that a good sign for Italian baseball when two Italian managers, Italy’s Marco Mazzieri and Spain’s Mauro Mazzotti, are leading two of Europe’s finest ballplayers in the WBC?
Alex Liddi: Yeah, I’m happy for him that he is able to participate in the World Baseball Classic with another team. I wish him the best.
Roberto: Has the journey with the Seattle Mariners organization been a good experience so far?
Alex Liddi: Yeah, I enjoy my time in Seattle and in the minor league system. I think that it’s a pretty good system. I’ve enjoyed my years playing with them. I’ve got to thank them for giving me a chance to play in the big leagues. So I’m really thankful.
Roberto: You began your professional career in 2006 with the Peoria Mariners and then were then promoted to Single-A Wisconsin. You remained there until 2008 at which time you were batting .313 and enjoyed an eight-game hitting streak when you nearly hit .500! That must have been memorable?
Alex Liddi: Yeah. At every level you go, you try to make adjustments. I was trying to show them that I could play in the states.
Roberto: In 2009 playing for Single-A Advanced High Desert, you led the California League with a .345 batting average, 23 home runs, and 104 RBI. You were selected as a Cal League All-Star. In addition, you were awarded the Cal League MVP, Topps Cal League Player of the Year, Mariners Minor League Player of the Year and MLB.com Mariners Organization Player of the Year. What an accomplishment!
Alex Liddi: Yeah, it we kind of my break out year. We had a good team that year so it was a little easier for me to put out good numbers plus it was a good hitter-friendly park. But that gave me the confidence, and it gave me the chance to keep going for the rest of that year. All these things combined made me have a really good year.
Roberto: How did it feel playing on Team Canada at the Toronto’s Rogers Centre in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and beating the home team on their own turf?
Alex Liddi: Yeah, it was a good time for me. It was probably one of the biggest memories of my life, of my career. I had the chance to beat Canada at the highest level of competition. It will always be something that I will bring with me. I am happy that I was there.
Roberto: In 2011 you were invited to your first Spring Training camp with the Seattle Mariners. It was special because you hit back-to-back grand slams in consecutive games and produced impressive numbers: .385 batting average and a .429 on-base percentage. Your stellar 2011 campaign at Triple-A Tacoma (30 home runs, 104 RBI, 121 runs scored, 32 doubles and 61 walks) led you to your MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners on September 7. 2011. When you got to the big leagues, you hit three home runs and drove in six RBI in 40 at-bats while playing 15 games as a September call-up. Did you ever have to pinch yourself to make sure you were not dreaming anymore and come to the realization
that you were actually a big leaguer?
Alex Liddi: Yeah, for sure. I remember that I had a good spring, but I was still young.
So I had to go back down to Triple-A and develop myself a little more. But then it was getting really close to when the roster expanded to 40 in September, and I was getting really pumped. I maybe had the chance to get called up. Somebody would say ‘yes’
that I was going to get called up and somebody else would say ‘no’. Until they called
me and told me that I was getting called up. It was kind of like all the dreams came true, and it was a big day for me.
Roberto: You also played in the 2011 All-Star Futures Game. That must have been an
eye-opener playing in the front of the MLB media under the watchful eye of a worldwide televised audience.
Alex Liddi: It was a real honor. I would have never expected that to have come to me.
I was really happy to go there. It was really fun.Roberto: You have a special bond with Alessandro Maestri, the first Italian-born-and-raised pitcher to be signed by MLB. He also waves the Italian baseball flag internationally just as you do. Let’s talk about your friendship and what makes him a competitor.
Alex Liddi: First of all, I have a lot of respect for him
as a person and as a player. He’s a really good friend
of mine and probably one of my best friends. He’s one
of those guys who always works hard and fights for everything. He never got anything easy in his life and always had to fight for it. That’s why I give him a lot of respect as a person. Plus he’s a really good pitcher with really good stuff. It was a shame when he got released by the Cubs, but at the same time I remember when I called him to tell him to keep his head up. I thought he could have pitched in the big leagues for sure, and I
still think he can. And then he got a chance to pitch in Japan and make it to the big leagues there. I’m really proud of him. Hopefully, he will have a long career.
Roberto: He actually was selected as the inaugural Fan Choice Award in the Australian Baseball League when he pitched for the Brisbane Bandits in 2011. Wherever he decides
to play, he always makes a major impact.
Alex Liddi: He has charisma. He has a really good attitude on and off the field that makes him a complete player. Good tools, good person, good teammate…so all these things combined together make him a really good player.
Roberto: What is different about Team Italia in the 2013 WBC from the previous team in 2009. What is different in the chemistry which makes the team such a dominant player in this year’s World Baseball Classic?
Alex Liddi: Last time in the World Baseball Classic we had a good team, but this time we have been playing together more. I mean we already know Chris Denorfia, Nick Punto, Anthony Rizzo–I’ve known Rizzo for a couple years now. He’s been a friend of mine since I have been playing against him for a long time. The other guys have been playing together for a while now so the team is really together now. Instead of the other teams, they might bigger names but they have never played together like we do.
Roberto: You could have a bunch of big names on a lineup card, but at the end of the day you look at the box score and the team with the biggest desire to win the game will actually succeed.
Alex Liddi: I think we showed them already that we came here to win. We’re not joking and you can see it on our face…our enthusiasm on the field. We’re playing hard right now. We’re playing real baseball so everybody has to be careful.
Roberto: You are going out there playing nine one-inning games every contest, opponents should not take Team Italia lightly.
Alex Liddi: We’re playing as a team. Everybody can come up with the big hit. Nobody has got to do too much. Everybody’s got other people’s back, you know. We keep playing like this, and we’ll do a lot of damage.
Roberto: Having a stellar coaching staff which includes future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza and Frank Catalanotto, it must have a tremendous impact on your entire approach to baseball.
Alex Liddi: For sure. I mean when you have a chance to have coaches like Mike Piazza and Frank Catalanotto—guys who have been in the big leagues for a long time—it makes it fun just to be around those guys. You’re able to ask them questions and learn from them so that’s another big part of the team right there too.
Roberto: How proud are you being an Italian playing Major League Baseball and providing hope for Italian athletes that they too can play baseball professionally?
Alex Liddi: I’m really proud to have accomplished being the first Italian-born-and-raised player in the big leagues. It was something that I was always looking forward to coming up through the minors. That was my goal ever since getting signed. Getting closer to it, I could actually understand what it meant. As I got closer, and I was really excited about it. There was no pressure for me. It’s something I’m happy about that happened to me–getting to the big leagues. I’m really thankful to everybody for giving me the opportunity.
Roberto: I love what you represent to Team Italia, your family, friends and fans.
Alex Liddi: I respect this game, and I respect my family. You always got to remember where you come from. So I will always be there for my friends, and a lot of my friends are my fans too. They’re there for me so I got to be there for them. The fans are what make
the game fun. So you have got to be thankful for the fans. I really appreciate the fans. Without the fans, this game would be nothing…
Although we won’t see Alex Liddi play in San Diego this year, we can still enjoy his banner in Little Italy. You will be pleasantly surprised by the number of Italian American baseball players that grace the streets of America’s finest city. You will find Team Italia hitting coach Mike Piazza with 2013 World Baseball Classic players Nick Punto, Chris Denorfia, Anthony Rizzo, Chris Colabello and Jason Grilli in Little Italy. Other Italian American heroes on display include the likes of Jason Giambi, Barry Zito, Craig Biggio, Rich Aurilla, Gary Gaetti, Frank Viola, Rick Botallico, Ron Santo, Sal Bando, Tony Conigliaro, Pete Falcone, Roy Campanella, Rico Petrocelli, Tommy Lasorda, Bart Giamatti, Joe Pepitone, Joe Garagiola, Yogi Berra, Joe Torre, Frank Torre, Joe DiMaggio, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Crosetti, Phil Rizzuto, Nicholas Dallassandro, Charles Strada, Phil Cavaretta, and Babe Pinelli. To learn more about Italian American players in Major League Baseball, pick up a copy of Lawrence Baldassaro’s Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball.