In My Opinion

Linda Robertson: Italians take a big step at World Baseball Classic

Early on, bacci were blowing on the warm breeze at Marlins Stadium.

Italy was beating the Dominican Republic in a baseball game. Which is akin to saying the Dominican Republic was beating Italy in a soccer game.

After Chris Colabello’s home run put Italy ahead 4-0, the Italian players kissed the tips of their fingers, and the infectious Italian gesture spread from field to dugout to stands as the lead held through six innings.

Then, la dolce vita ended. The Dominicans scored three runs on four hits against three pitchers in the seventh, enough for a 5-4 victory Tuesday in the second round of the World Baseball Classic.

The roof was open to welcome the WBC to Miami on a soft spring afternoon. Outsize noise from a percussive crowd of 14,482 rose from the Marlins’ home. Most of the fans were wearing Dominican red, white and blue or the jerseys of Hanley Ramirez, Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes.

But Italy was the story. No one but the Italians expected them to make it here by defeating Canada in a mercy rule rout and upsetting Mexico with a two-run ninth inning against World Series champion and San Francisco closer Sergio Romo.

Italy is still viable. Venezuela and Cuba have already been eliminated.

Italy, which has six Major League players on its 28-man roster, threatened to further disturb the world order against the Dominican Republic, which has seven All-Stars among its 19 major-leaguers. And that’s without Albert Pujols and Johnny Cueto.

“The first time we played in the WBC in 2006, it felt like I was in a video game,” said Italian pitcher Alessandro Maestri. “We’re not intimidated anymore. Yeah, the Dominicans are awesome but once you start playing, it’s just baseball.”

Italy’s players include Maestri of Cesena, who played for five years in the Chicago Cubs’ minor-league system from Daytona Beach to Tennessee, with the Brisbane Bandits in Australia, on the Japanese island of Shikoku, and for the Orix Buffaloes of the Japanese Baseball League. And Nicholas Pugliese, who played for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and Cedar Rapids Kernels. Luca Panerati, a product of the Grosseto farm system now a Bologna ace. Stefano Desimoni, pennant winner at Parma. Tiago Da Silva, a native of Sao Paulo who starts for San Marino. Anthony Rizzo, first baseman for the Cubs, of Fort Lauderdale. Alex Liddi, who spent 2012 between Seattle and Triple A Tacoma, the first player born and raised in Italy to play in Major League Baseball.

Contrast Liddi’s recent milestone with the dominance of Dominican-born players: A total of 472 have played in the major leagues, more than have been represented by any other foreign country.

The advancement of Italy was testament to the globalization of a game once known as America’s Pastime. Italy’s globe-trotting lineup was also in the perfect place: Little Havana, which today is more like Little Managua or Little Tegucigalpa. And the defending European champions were right across the causeway from Euro-centric Miami Beach.

Maestri, 27, didn’t feel too far from home. Not as far as he did in Kagawa, playing for the Olive Guyners (which translates as “strong giants”), where he and a Dominican teammate were the only non-Japanese players, living in the team dorm on $2,000 a month and exploring the island on bikes. He was promoted to Osaka on the mainland last season.

Maestri was an unconventional kid in Italy, choosing baseball over soccer.

“I’m a big fan of Inter Milan but I do hate the fact that soccer is all they talk about,” he said.

One of his youth league friends was Colabello, whose father, Lou, played for Italy at the 1984 Olympics in Dodger Stadium. At 18 Maestri attended the Italian Baseball Academy in Tirrenia and in 2006 became the first pitcher groomed in Italy to sign a pro contract.

Mike Piazza, of Sicilian heritage, said there is a pool of talent waiting to be developed. The Azzurri roster has only seven Italian-born players on it.

“I’m pushing for a nice Dominican-style academy in the south part of the country,” said Piazza, a coach for Italy since the 2009 WBC. “The world is shrinking. Thousands of kids over there are watching baseball on the internet. Major League Baseball has invested money in China. Italy is a natural next step. Continental Europe has 600 million people, and that’s a legitimate market.”

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Yogi Berra? Phil Rizzuto? Roy Campanella? The game might not have the same quantity of Italian-American stars today, and that’s not only a reflection of changing U.S. demographics but of baseball’s shifting talent base.

“Believe me, there’s good baseball everywhere,” said Maestri, who has pitched on four continents — including a stint in Peoria — and never once wished he had stayed in Italy and played soccer instead.

Read more Linda Robertson stories from the Miami Herald

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