Italy in the 2006 World Baseball Classic

By Baldassaro, Lawrence | Nine, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Italy in the 2006 World Baseball Classic


Baldassaro, Lawrence, Nine


Before boarding my flight from Milwaukee to Orlando, where I would serve as the interpreter for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic, I purchased a copy of USA Today Sports Weekly. There on the cover--beneath a photo of Albert Pujols of the Dominican Republic team, his right arm resting on a globe--was the question: "Will it be a Classic or a Clunker?" That pretty much summed up the uncertainty that characterized the lead-up to this first-ever worldwide experiment in professional baseball competition. Numerous skeptics questioned everything about the Classic: its spring-training timing, the risk of injury, the level of fan interest, even the very concept itself.

Italy's first game was scheduled for the evening of March 7. Earlier that day, I had the chance to see the match-up between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in the opening game of the Orlando pool. If there were any skeptics in the stands or in the press box that day, at least some of their doubts about the Classic must have been exorcized. Two hours before the first pitch, more than ten thousand flag-wearing, horn-tooting fans of both teams crowded into The Ballpark at Disney's Wide World of Sports. It was World Cup fever breaking out on a baseball diamond; there was no doubt that this game was, to them, a matter of intense national pride. (Only four weeks earlier the Caracas Lions, representing Venezuela, had defeated the Licey Tigers of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Series.)

But were the players as passionate about the rivalry as the fans? After the opening game--which the Dominicans, powered by 2 home runs each from David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre, won 11-5--I spoke with Bill Castro, the Milwaukee Brewers' bullpen coach who was serving as the Dominican pitching coach. He admitted to some skepticism of his own, wondering beforehand whether these highly paid superstars would be more concerned about how much playing time they would get or where they would hit in the order than about winning as a team. Those doubts disappeared, he told me, during the first team meeting when Albert Pujols stood up and said that nobody should be concerned about individual stats or personal achievement; the only thing that mattered was the name on the front of their jersey. "At that point," said Castro, "I wasn't worried any more." He knew that the players were there not for money or for rings but for the chance to represent their respective countries.

One of the pre-Classic skeptics, Hal Bodley of USA Today, recanted after watching that first game. "I was wrong," he wrote. "You had to be in this ballpark Tuesday to feel the electricity, the passion the fans for these two countries brought to the party."

The atmosphere was more subdued that evening when Italy faced Australia in its first contest, though the game did draw 8,099 fans. Some skeptics had also questioned the inclusion of Italy as one of the sixteen teams selected for the World Baseball Classic. To them, "Italian baseball" qualified as a sports oxymoron, something akin to the "Jamaican bobsled team." But the Italian national team had established its credentials in international competition, qualifying for all four of the Olympic games in which baseball has been a medal sport and dominating other countries in European competition.

Nevertheless, officials of the Italian Baseball Federation believed that there was not yet enough homegrown talent to enable Italy to be competitive in the tournament, which included many of the greatest players in the game. They therefore put together a roster that included five native Italians and twenty-five Americans of Italian descent with Major or Minor League experience. (American-born players had to prove they were eligible to apply for Italian citizenship to qualify for the team.) Seven of the thirty players had spent at least some time in the Majors, including Frank Catalanotto, Frank Menechino, and Jason Grilli. Their marquee player, of course, was Mike Piazza, considered by many to be the greatest-hitting catcher in the history of the game. …

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