Grosseto set to experience MLB Italian Renaissance
Baseball in Italy got its first break in the late 19th century when two American naval ships, the USS Lancaster and the USS Guinnebaug, arrived in the Tuscan port of Livorno. The American servicemen held their first baseball game on January 23, 1884 at the Campo d’Osservazione AKA Observation Field. Enthusiastic crowds cheered on the players, and the games garnered enough interest in the media to include coverage by Livorno’s newspaper, La Gazzetta Livornese. With an eager international following in Italy, early baseball pioneer Albert Goodwill Spalding served as a ‘Goodwill’ ambassador of the sport and held tournaments in Florence, Naples, and Rome in 1889. In an effort to unite forces with the allied Italian Army during World War I, the American Army taught Italian soldiers the sport and held baseball games between the two armies.
Any inter-war following was soon decimated upon the rise of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, which banned baseball for its American influence. Baseball experienced an Italian Renaissance post-World War II under the leadership of Ottino and Graziani, when the Lega Italiana Softball and the Lega Italiana Baseball leagues were created. The first professional baseball game between two Italian teams was held on June 27, 1948 in front of 2000 fans at Giurati stadium in Milan. These two leagues would eventually evolve into what is known today as the Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball (FIBS), the governing body of baseball in Italy.
The Italian Baseball League (IBL) was founded in 1948 and is comprised of teams from Bologna, Parma, Nettuno, Rimini, Godo, Novara and Grosseto as well as the culturally Italian yet independent country San Marino. These eight teams compete in a 42-game season. Each team is allowed to have up to four non-Italian citizens, and each team must have at least six Italian citizen baseball players on the field at any given time. Former American players have found a second home in the IBL, including Jay Palma–the 1980 sixth-round draft pick of the New York Mets and current coach for the Novara United team.
Perhaps the most interesting catch for the Italian Baseball League is the recently signed 50-year-old Grosseto manager Mike Hartley. The former San Diego Grossmont College ace and Major League pitcher was in his late twenties when he made his MLB debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers on September 10, 1989 and went on to play for the Phillies, Twins, Red Sox and Orioles. In his six Major League seasons, he made 202 appearances and complied a 19-13 record with a 3.70 ERA. Hartley also pitched successfully internationally in Japan for the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1994 and for Nettuno (Serie A1) in Italy in 1998. His coaching skills were just as impressive as he led the German club Heidenheim Heidekoepfe to a national championship in 2009 and the European Champions Cup Finals in 2010. In addition, Hartley coached the Croatian national team back to the 2011 European Championship (A Pool). The new Grosseto manager commented, “At higher levels, I coach to win and I hate to lose. At lower levels, the focus is on development. In short, work hard, believe in yourself and respect the game of baseball.”
Michael Anthony Smith was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 5th round of the 2000 amateur draft at the end of his college career at the University of Richmond. He pitched in 14 games for the Blue Jays in 2002 including six starts. The Minnesota Twins acquired Smith from the Philadelphia Phillies during the 2005-2006 offseason, but he was not called up to the Major Leagues until August 2, 2006. Smith played for the 2009 Brother Elephants team in Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL).
He led the 2010 Brockton Rox of the Can-Am League in wins (12) and ERA (2.87) in 125.1 innings. He was also named to the 2010 Cam-Am All-Star Team, along with Rox teammate and newly signed Grosseto catcher Chris Grossman. Smith went 8-5 with a 3.99 ERA in 94.2 innings during his 2011 Brockton Rox pitching campaign. The 34-year-old MLB veteran will prove to be a valuable asset for the Tuscan squad both as regular starting pitcher as well as mentor and pitching coach for the talented roster of Grosseto hurlers.
Standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing 235 pounds, Grosseto catcher Chris Grossman will intimidate any hitter approaching the batter’s box with his mere physical presence. Having played for the last three-plus seasons for the Brockton Rox, the 31-year-old former Cal Berkeley star is a pitcher’s best friend for having a brilliant mind and an innate sense for knowing how to call a game behind the dish. Former Brockton pitcher and pitching coach (and new Grosetto pitcher and pitching coach) Mike Smith said, “It definitely makes things easier having him catch you. He knows the hitters that have been in the league. He knows how to pitch them and get them out. He is pretty smart about setting up hitters. From a pitching standpoint, you don’t have to worry about what pitch you have to throw. He knows how to set them up, and that is one less thing that you have to worry about. Chris also has a great arm. You know if you can’t hold the guy on, he is able to throw him out. He is always willing to go out there no matter how he feels. He wants to play every day.” The durable catcher hit .296 in 2009 and .313 in 2010 with a career-high 57 RBI, which earned him spot on the Can-Am League All-Star team. A reliable contact hitter who can choose his spots to hit for power,
Grossman can be a manager’s secret weapon strategically with men on base for his excellent hit-and-run potential. Having hit over .300 in the first half of the 2011 season, Chris led in the team in walks (36) and stole 17 bases in 93 games. Former MLB player and current Brockton Rox manager Bill Buckner said, “I have been happy with the way that Chris has played. He is a smart player and base runner.” Having tasted the life of a pro Minor League player while a member of the St. Louis Cardinals organization, Grossman would like to get another opportunity to break into the Big Leagues. He echoed, “I am still hoping to get the chance. Meanwhile, I am enjoying what I am doing and being around guys that enjoy playing the game. It is a lot of fun.”
35-year-old switch-hitting shortstop Jay Pecci has wanted to play in Italy for nearly a decade when he tried out in January of 2005 for the Italian national team that played in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Although he had hit a home run and a single
in his final scrimmage game, Pecci was cut from the Italian team before the international competition.
Pecci recalled, “It was real close. I felt like I was on
the bubble.” The versatile athlete has always had a knack for high drama going back to college when
Pecci walked on to the Stanford baseball team and impressed enough to become a everyday starter.
A 1998 All-Conference player, Pecci led Stanford to
the 1995 and 1997 College World Series and boasted one of the all-time best College World Series batting averages after going 10-for-17 (.588). At Stanford
he played with MLB success stories Jody Gerut,
Joe Borchard, Chad Hutchinson and eventual Gary SouthShore RailCats teammate Tony Cogan.
Originally selected by the Oakland Athletics in the 11th round of the 1998 Major League Entry Draft out of Stanford, Pecci played four seasons in the Oakland A’s system–including a stint at Double-A Midland in 2001. The Novato, California native was claimed the following season by the Seattle Mariners in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. He advanced all the way to Triple-A Tacoma before the end of the 2003 season. Pecci finished 2003 as a San Francisco Giants farmhand and spent the entire 2004 season with the Double-A Norwich Navigators in the Eastern League.
Pecci came close to early retirement in 2004 when he fractured his skull and broke his jaw colliding with a Norwich teammate while chasing a flyball in Trenton, New Jersey. Having his jaw wired shut for a month, Pecci was determined in making a comeback. He remarked, “I thought at that point, I wouldn’t let that be my last game in baseball.” In his 15-year pro career, nothing came close to his personal best 2008 campaign with the Indy League Gary SouthSide RailCats. Pecci set the RailCats single-season hits record (115) that season and hit a career-best .317 batting average and .474 slugging percentage along with 26 doubles and nine home runs. He homered in the Northern League All-Star Game in 2008 and earned Most Valuable Player honors after hitting the game-winning home run in the ninth inning of the decisive Game Four of the Northern League Semifinals. Following the 2008 season, Pecci earned his first Post-Season All-Star commendation from the league as the circuit’s top shortstop. An agile and seasoned veteran ballplayer with well over 1000 games of experience, Jay Pecci will give Grosseto a competitive edge in the IBL.
Grosseto hitting coach Jefferson Infante played baseball at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he earned All-City honors and played the all-star senior game at Yankee Stadium. After high school, Jeff played in the Dominican Republic in a recruiting league against professional teams before accepting an athletic scholarship to play at Louisberg College and leading his squad to the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series. MLB scouts took notice of Infante while playing for Ramapo College, where he was named to the All-Conference team and earned All-American Honors. Jeff was drafted as a catcher by the Kansas City Royals in 2004. He went on to play for three years in the Royals farm system for Idaho Falls, and later signed an Indy League contract with the St. Joseph’s Black Snakes in Missouri. Although Jeff’s professional baseball playing career would come to an abrupt ending when he sustained a shoulder injury, he remained in the game as an invaluable coach to collegiate players. As the assistant baseball coach at Baruch College in Manhattan, Infante’s ability to convey information to players and make the game simpler has paid off as Baruch has made three championship appearances and won the 2009 championship title. With over 10 years of baseball instructional experience, Infante has been sought after to serve as personal training coach for some of New York’s finest. While offering private baseball instruction for the Cooperstown Athletics Sports Performance Training Facility in Manhattan, five of Jeff’s private alums have gone onto playing professional baseball within the last few years. Coupled with the injection of manager Mike Hartley and pitching coach Mike Smith, Infante and the new blood on Grosseto’s coaching staff now have the ability to positively impact the team’s bright future ahead. Finishing 13 games behind 2011 IBL Champion San Marino last season, the newly revamped and much improved Grosseto squad will be a top contender in Europe as a result of the 2012 MLB Italian Renaissance in Tuscany.