On my recent journey to the 2014 European Baseball Championship in Regensberg, Germany, I was fortunate to speak with 37-year-old MLB European academies consultant and 2014 Team France bench coach Andy Berglund. His energy and passion for the game was apparent on and off the field. Serving as France manager Eric Gagne’s right-hand man, Berglund proved to be worth his weight in gold as the French advanced with Italy and Germany to the second round of competition in Brno, Czech Republic.Roberto: Let’s start from the beginning. You grew up in Valley City, North Dakota and attended the University of Minnesota, where you graduated magna cum laude in Public Relations in 2001. You played literally every single position, correct?
Andy Berglund: I played outfield and pitched when I was in high school and in college I was a utility player in the leagues I played in. I had two shoulder surgeries during my college years that knocked me out of competition. When I was healthy again I played that utility role over in Europe and Australia. I did catch some games in Europe, so I’ve played every position.
Roberto: Did that help you later as a coach knowing the roles and responsibilities of each position?
Andy Berglund: Absolutely. I think once you’ve played the position, you at least have a feel for what a player goes through. There are some many intangibles (receiving, blocking, throwing, calling a game, being a vocal captain of the infield) to being a solid catcher, for example, that to teach it at a higher level, I think you have to also experience it as well.
Roberto: You actually began coaching youth baseball while still very young, right? What attracted you to this profession?
Andy Berglund: I started coaching youth baseball when I was still around 15, during summers in North Dakota. My father was a high school wrestling, football and baseball coach, so I took after him and saw how much enjoyment he got out of coaching. I started focusing more on coaching as a profession when I realized injuries were going to keep me from reaching the level I wanted to on the field. I didn’t want to be away from the game, and coaching was the next logical step.
Roberto: Did you consider playing professionally in America before embarking on your first European adventure playing in Sweden for the Alby Stars and coaching the Eliteserien team in 2002? How were you recruited?
Andy Berglund: To be honest, I was planning on going to law school out of college. After I graduated, an opportunity came about to go to Europe for the summer, and I discovered baseball was developing there. I worked for MLB International that first summer and through meeting other European players, I landed a spot in Sweden. Those first two summers got my foot in the door to the playing and coaching opportunities I’ve had over the last 13 years now in Europe.
Roberto: Knowing European baseball was in its infancy, did you have the patience to grow the game?
Andy Berglund: To me, the game is still in a grass roots phase here, just trying to be mentioned with soccer and hockey, which dominate the European landscape. Your patience is definitely tested at times, but that’s the beauty of the challenge. I’ve met dozens and dozens of people in the same situation in Europe baseball development, who have had their own part in growing this beautiful game on European soil.
Roberto: Was it difficult to play in adverse weather conditions in North Dakota and later in Scandinavia? Please describe the worst care scenario you ever played in.
Andy Berglund: The cold conditions you deal with are part of growing up in the north for sure. I’ve played in games where snow was coming down, actually coached in games in April in Prague where it was snowing and have been “snowed-out” in games up in Sweden. Coaching the Czechs in the World Baseball Classic Qualifier in 2012 was brisk. There were parkas everywhere in the stands.
Roberto: You played baseball internationally in England, and Western Australia as well, correct? Exactly where? How did that help your mission?
Andy Berglund: I played for the Melville Braves in Western Australia. They actually won the WA State League title this past year, so I’m very happy for the club. It was a long time coming. The experience in Australia was very helpful in me seeing how aggressive they played the game. The Aussie’s are just flat out tough characters on the field. I truly respected that about them. Part of the mission here in Europe is to make the players tougher and more game-tested, and the experience in Australia was a good reference point. I loved how they played. The game has developed a lot in Australia the past 10 years as well with the ABL coming back and more and more players in the U.S.
Roberto: When did you become a Major League Baseball International coach?
Andy Berglund: Working with the MLB Roadshow from 2001-2004 in the UK and Germany. I started as an MLB Envoy in 2009 in Germany and 2010-2011 in the Czech Republic.
Roberto: Your coaching stints for MLB included time in England, Sweden and three years in Germany, correct?
Andy Berglund: Yes, and that’s expanded into the role I have now, which is an MLB Academies Consultant. There are nearly 20 different Academies in 11 different European countries now that MLB supports with coaching, equipment and player development.
Roberto: As the Ambassador for MLB and its development in the UK and Germany, you introduced baseball to over 20,000 children for their first time. Describe that experience. How were you recruited for this position?
Andy Berglund: As part of the MLB Roadshow, we would spend weeks on the road and each week visit new schools in bigger German and UK cities to introduce the game of baseball. The goal of the program was to introduce the sport and get kids excited about playing and joining local clubs and participating in MLB’s Pitch, Hit & Run program as well. I was recruited through a friend named Ian Young and in turn met Jason Holowaty, who I now work directly with on game development in Europe and Africa. Roberto: You returned to the states to earn your Masters in Communications from North Dakota State University in 2006. How did you balance your love for the game in Europe while missing family back home?
Andy Berglund: The toughest part of working in Europe is being away from family and I try to get back as often as I can. My oldest brother has three young sons, and it’s challenging being away and missing the finer parts of watching them grow up. Still, we find ways to see each other every year and make the most of it.
Roberto: Considering you returned to Northern Europe as a player and coach for the Stockholm Baseball Club in 2008, you must have loved it there. In fact, you led the team to its first ever Swedish Championship. Did that validate your belief that you could instill success into the mindset of other players?
Andy Berglund: Sweden is a beautiful country. That season, I specifically wanted to come back over to coach, play and win a title with Bjorn and Peter Johannessen, who had became friends over the years. I was really welcomed there by the Claesson family, who oversee the club. The dedicated people in the club made it a goal to really put together an action plan to develop the youth programs and build the best club in Sweden. Stockholm has won 5 of the last 7 Swedish championships since then and have a solid youth program with new facilities being built.
Roberto: You later became a member of the Swedish Senior National Team in 2009. At that point, did you know coaching in Europe was your destiny?
Andy Berglund: Not fully, but I knew that there would always be an attraction to coaching baseball in Europe not matter where I was in the world.
Roberto: However, it appeared that the West Coast was tugging at your uniform as you spent time in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point and Carlsbad. What attracted you to Southern California?
Andy Berglund: I wanted to experience baseball year-round and found a great opportunity to coach at a high school in Newport Beach. It was my first real head coaching position, and I really enjoyed learning what it takes to try and build a championship program.
Roberto: You began as the head coach for Sage Hill High School in Newport Beach in 2008 after the baseball team had endured its third consecutive losing season. You turned things around there after developing a thorough communication program involving the student-athletes and their parents. You were selected as 2008 Academy League High School Coach of the Year. While at Sage, you put together a 51-18 overall record which included two league titles and one second place finish. During this time you were influenced by the likes of Mark McGwire, Wally Joyner, Bruce Hurst, and Lee Smith. You also studied the modern science of pitching with Tom House and Ron Wolforth. Care to comment on your experience coaching in Orange County and working with these former pros?
Andy Berglund: I had seen videos on Ron Wolforth’s Athletic Pitching program and read books on Tom House’s pitching philosophy as a way to learn more as a coach, on arm action and pitching. We were fortunate enough to have Tom House come visit Sage Hill for a practice and he worked brilliantly with our pitchers. I met Ron Wolforth this past year at a conference in Paris. I thanked him for showing me a new way to train and protect young pitchers arms. I met Mark McGwire while doing ProKids Academy camps with his sons back in Southern California and picked up some great hitting tips from him. Joyner, Hurst and Smith, I met later on at our European Elite Academy in Italy. They are all wonderful teachers. You’d have to pinch yourself sometimes, being such a fan of these guys growing up, and then having conversations with them. The past few years the Elite Camp has featured Barry Larkin, Steve Finley, Greg Swindell, Tom Gordon, John McLaren, Art Howe and Dale Murphy, to name a few. It’s an amazing experience to pick these guys’ brains on the game.
Roberto: You left it all behind to become the head coach for the Eagles Praha of the Czech Pro League. In addition, you served as head coach for the Czech Senior and Junior National Teams in 2011 and 2012–leading to the highest finishes in the country’s history (Silver Medal). Did that give you confidence that you could impact a developing nation’s appetite for the game?
Andy Berglund: My time on the field in the Czech Republic was very rewarding. We took the same approach with trying to build on what was already there and fine-tune it into something special. I think you said it correctly, because the appetite for baseball in the Czech is definitely growing and they are really having some success. It’s great to see their young teams go to the Little League World Series, the World Championships and have the success they are having. It proves a small baseball country can achieve big things.
Roberto: How did it feel being nominated as the EBCA Coach of the Year in 2011 and speaking at the Coaches Convention?
Andy Berglund: I was very fortunate to be considered and very happy for Brian Farley when he won. I thought the Dutch’s 2011 World Championship really helped put European baseball on the map in ways it had never been before. Now the Dutch and Italians are beating traditional baseball powerhouses in the World Baseball Classic and it is great for the exposure and development of the game overseas.
Roberto: Did you start up the Czech MLB Baseball Academy?
Andy Berglund: No, Martin Smidt started the Prague Academy and David Winkler started the Brno Baseball Academy. I help with their development on behalf of MLB. The Brno Academy has really developed into a solid program and a lot of those players are representing the Czech U15, U18 and U21 teams that are winning medals at the European Championships.
Roberto: Did you enjoy serving as the bench coach for Team France in the 2014 European Baseball Championship?
Andy Berglund: Yes. A lot of work was put into getting France back on the right track by the federation, so it was good to be a part of.
Roberto: You have been a strong advocate for baseball in both France and Czech Republic. Both teams made strong showing in the Euros and their numbers have jumped up considerably in the International Baseball Rankings. Do you think that your coaching has catapulted these countries into becoming up-and-coming powerhouses?
Andy Berglund: I would say the success in France and the Czech Republic has been result of the good people in the federation that are willing to push the envelope for development working well with the best coaches in the country. It takes getting into a room, getting to the bottom line, discussing the resources you have, putting together a blueprint and attacking the goal you all want to achieve. Throw away the politics. Get down to business. For me, wherever I have coached, my goal was never to finish anywhere but the top. Once the players embrace that vision, you truly have something powerful and dangerous anytime you step on the field.
Roberto: Do you believe MLB will embrace European baseball as they have in other parts of the world and invest there beyond the MLB academies?
Andy Berglund: I do. I know they are looking into having an opening MLB series being played in Europe, much like they did in Australia this past year. I know it is an intriguing market for MLB, especially with the success the NFL has had hosting games in London and the NHL has had hosting games in Europe.
Roberto: What is your personal opinion on the future of baseball in Europe?
Andy Berglund: It’s going to continue to grow. You are going to continue to see more players signed out of Europe and Africa. Hopefully soon, you’ll see more of them playing in the Big Leagues. The process is just going to take time. The level of play here has definitely increased; the domestic leagues have become stronger, as have the national teams. There are some more established countries here in Europe that have strong ambitions to take the game to another level, numbers wise, exposure wise and game development wise. They will be leading the charge to see where the game is over the next 5-10 years.
Roberto: It’s nice to know MLB veterans like France manager Eric Gagne and Italy hitting coach Mike Piazza are on board?
Andy Berglund: Definitely. They bring even more exposure to the sport and raise the interest that much higher. You are talking about two huge names in baseball that only stopped playing in the MLB less than 10 years ago. To have them involved is huge for marketing the sport and also raising the interest back in the U.S. on how and why these guys are getting involved.
Roberto: Any final thoughts to share?
Andy Berglund: The last thing I’ll mention is something I’ve learned from Barry Larkin. His advice to the game is: “Get Better Every Day. Today, be better than you were yesterday. And tomorrow, be better than you were today.” I think that’s the best way to look at what we are all trying to accomplish in baseball, as players, coaches and in development, to keep you humble and to keep you motivated.
Roberto: It’s a pleasure seeing you again after over a year. It’s quite an honor to be with you at the 2014 European Baseball Championship. Thank you for taking time out to talk.
Marco Mazzieri: Thank you. We enjoyed our last experience in the World Baseball Classic with you so that’s why it was no problem doing this.
Roberto: Did you feel confident or did you have butterflies in your stomach when you faced your strongest opponent, the Netherlands, for the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship?
Roberto: And you are very proud of all of them after they have spent so much time under your guidance and that of Italian Baseball Academy director Bill Holmberg. Considering these players are a work-in-progress, it must be rewarding to see them perform in pressure situations.
Marco Mazzieri: I believe a player is never a finished product, so for these kids to be here is a tremendous experience. Hopefully they will pick it up a couple notches. They need to start walking with their own feet now. By playing competitive games, it will help them get to the next level.
Roberto: You must also be proud of the Italian Baseball Academy graduates who are now representing Team Italia.
Marco Mazzieri: I am proud of all the guys we have right now. We’re proud of Cubs catching prospect Alberto Mineo, Royals prospect Marten Gasparini and all those guys we have there in MLB. I think it’s to the Italian Baseball Academy’s credit with all the work Bill Holmberg is putting into this project that we see results. It’s something we’re proud of, and we hope there are more in the future.
— Mister Baseball (@MisterBaseball) September 14, 2014
Roberto: You also invited Alberto Mineo along with Reds pitching prospect Davide Anselmi to Team Italia Spring Training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida.
Marco Mazzieri: Yes, we did. In fact, Alberto looked very good back at the time in February and now seeing him seven months later he looks even better as you can tell.
Roberto: Having seen Alberto when he first reported to Cubs Spring Training Camp in Arizona a couple years ago as compared to how he is today is remarkable. He has matured immensely and his body physique has filled in. The confidence that he exudes now at the plate now is impressive. I know you have worked diligently with him to become the player that he is today. You must be like a proud father to him now.
Marco Mazzieri: Well, I think we are all proud of Alberto Mineo and the way he has developed. As you said, he has a tremendous attitude. When he just walks around the field, you see a player. I think this kid has a chance to be really, really good.
Roberto: No doubt MLB European scout Bill Holmberg made a great catch for the Chicago Cubs when he signed catcher Alberto Mineo.
Marco Mazzieri: It was…I hope that he can get some more playing time in the higher levels. It is not my job to say, but I think he could become a lot better player beyond the Rookie League.
Roberto: Earlier in the first round of the competition in Regensburg, Germany, I saw you arrive early at the ballpark to give one-on-one hitting instruction to Alex Liddi in the batting cages. I observed the dynamic between you and Alex, and it was incredible. He listened intently to everything you said and absorbed it in like a sponge. Then he applied what he learned from you an hour later in the game when he was at-bat against Great Britain and hit three consecutive home runs.
Marco Mazzieri: We have been working together since he grew up playing professional baseball. It’s long story with Alex actually. Because we have been together since 2005. He moved up from San Remo to Grosseto, where I live. He was not even 16 at the time when started to work with me on his hitting and with Gianni, our strength and conditioning coach, on his physical side. Since then, we’ve been working together almost every winter offseason working on his hitting. He’s been getting good results and that’s why he listens.
Europeo di baseball: il fuoricampo di Alex Liddi colto da Duck Photo Press pic.twitter.com/LTOGvRTeFc
— FIBS (@FIBSpress) September 14, 2014
Roberto: Your current roster is probably 75% Italian-born-and-developed players, right?
Marco Mazzieri: Yes, but I think we should all be proud of this group of guys no matter if you have major league guys, rookie league guys or guys who work and play baseball. When they all get together, it’s just one single group. Of course, you have different personalities but they play and lead as a team. And they like it as a team because I think for me and my coaching staff, which I am very proud to be working with such a great group of coaches, one of the biggest accomplishments through all the success we had through the years. But the fact that this group of people have a tremendous energy when they get together. You can tell actually from the WBC to now in the Euro Baseball Championship– win or lose–it’s just a great group of guys.
Roberto: The energy and chemistry of the Italian National team combined with the MLB-affiliated players made Team Italia one complete family playing together. One can tell that the future is looking bright for Italian baseball.
Marco Mazzieri: Well, we hope so. The team chemistry is really crucial for me and my staff. We believe that a group of individuals going towards the same direction can accomplish a lot more than just talented guys who just play for themselves. It has always been my idea, and when we put a group together we try to make the right decision based on the people first and the players second. Because we believe in the chemistry first with everone in the same direction, we try to channel all energies toward one single goal and luckily we have been able to do that.
— Roberto Angotti (@ABLblogger) August 27, 2014
Roberto: After having spoken to many of the MLB-affiliated players who have played for Team Italia over the years including Jason Grilli, Chris Denorfia, Nick Punto and Drew Butera, they have all cited the experience as being some of the best times of their career.
Marco Mazzieri: Well, by you saying this–and I know it’s true because I have talking to the guys–it just gives me goosebumps when you have those kind of players. All those guys are tight with this team. Every time we see them, and we are together they are part of the family. We shared a common energy that we were able to get for the two World Baseball Classics in 2009 and 2013. I happy to know that they cherish those times as much as I do.
Roberto: Considering Major League Baseball has injected millions overseas in Asia and Australia, I believe the time is now for MLB to invest in European baseball.
Marco Mazzieri: I think you are right. They have invested everywhere in the world, and I think sometimes Europe gets underestimated because baseball is not the number one sport. But as we have seen in the past, you can get good players from everywhere. Just getting back to Bill Holmberg and what he is doing for MLB at the Italian Baseball Academy. I have met many, many coaches in my life and in my career, but I have never seen one with that much dedication and who cares more than he does for his pitchers.
Great job Bill Holmberg! My fellow coach! God Bless! pic.twitter.com/BBFyftX0yS
— Mike Piazza (@mikepiazza31) July 22, 2013
Roberto: Team Italia spent Spring Training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida with hitting coach Mike Piazza. I’m sure everyone missed him during the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship.
Marco Mazzieri: We missed Mike. He is a tremendous guy. He is a tremendous hitting coach and former Team Italia player. So we missed him very much and wished he could have made it but he couldn’t.
Marco Mazzieri: It’s not the color of the passport that matters, it’s about the passion in the heart. We are on a mission even if we have a younger team.
Roberto: Team Italia and European baseball will soon reap the fruits of your labor of love in developing tomorrow’s stars. Thank you!
Game Over: France manager and former All-Star closer Eric Gagne weighs in on the Dodgers, Derek Jeter, Mike Piazza and European Baseball
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) March 5, 2014
On the Dodgers chances in the playoffs: “They can win it all with their starting pitchers they got. I mean they have got a lot of guys, especially with Kershaw. He goes out there, it’s pretty much lights out every time. You know in the playoffs you need two starters…they have six! They are going to be good. Their bullpen was a little shaky for a while, but they pitched a lot of innings. I think they’ve made some good moves. I think the Dodgers are the favorite team for me. Of course, they are my favorite. I played so many years in the Dodgers minor leagues, and I was only in Boston for four months. I was good in LA and never got a ring. But I was terrible in Boston, and I got a ring. So I can’t complain. I was lucky.”
On Derek Jeter’s retirement: Number 2!!! That’s pretty simple. He’s done everything in the game you can think of. A lot of people were wondering five years ago if he was done. Just to have him around in the clubhouse and having his attitude is amazing. He’s done so much for the game. Everybody knows it. If you go to France, people know Jeter. There’s over 10,000 people playing so it’s really, really good. He’s the Jordan and the Gretzsky of the sport. It’s cool to see a guy like him. It’s not like he just hits home runs. He’s just a winner, and he’s won everywhere he went. It’s good to see him retire on top. It’s awesome to see him go out with the Yankees.”
— Joseph Bamat (@josephbamat) September 5, 2014
On growing the game in Europe along with Team Italy coach Mike Piazza: “It’s in our blood. We certainly aren’t doing it for the money…that’s for sure. It’s just fun. It’s fun to watch guys get better, listen and learn. For us that’s what I guarantee Mike loves about it. The kids learn…you can tell and see improvement every day, every single at-bat. It’s very rewarding and for us baseball is our life. For me it is, and I’m sure it is for him too. He’s a catcher. They are aware. They love to control the game and stuff like this. And I love baseball.”
Italian national team manager Marco Mazzieri, named 2014 Coach of the Year by the Italian Coaches Convention in Treviso, knows it will be an uphill battle for Team Italia in the European Baseball Championship. He said, “Defending our title will not be an easy thing to do. We’re going to have to contend with not only the likes of Holland, but Spain and Germany are also expected to make a splash in this year’s tourney. Having won the last two EU Championships, we’re the team to beat. We have a target on our backs, and we’ve got our work cut out for us this year if we want to bring home a third consecutive title.”
2014 Euro Baseball Championship co-host Germany, ranked 19th by IBAF, will benefit greatly should German fans rally round the home team and Minnesota Twins’ highly-prized prospect Max Kepler–recipient of an $800,000 signing bonus in 2009–represent his country. Kepler said, “Baseball is growing in every German city I go to. They’ve opened two boarding schools in Germany, so there are opportunities for kids to step up the baseball game if they want to. I hope baseball is on the same level as soccer one day in Germany.”
17-year-old Kansas City Royals’ prospect Marten Gasparini, who received a $1.3 signing bonus in 2013, has plenty of experience playing for Italia internationally in the Under-15 World Cup in Mexico and in the Under-18 World Cup in South Korea. Having recently been hit in the face by a ball while playing shortstop for the Rookie League Burlington Royals, let’s pray the young Italian who has been heralded by many scouts as the best European 5-tool player ever is able to participate in the EU Baseball Championship.
20-year-old catching prospect Alberto Mineo, who was signed by former Chicago Cubs scout and current Italian Baseball Academy director Bill Holmberg for $500,000 in 2009, was under the guidance and direction of mentor Mike Piazza during Team Italia’s 2014 Spring Training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. Catcher Mineo and 19-year-old Cincinnati Reds pitching prospect Davide Anselmi worked together there in preparation of the European Baseball Championship.
Alberto Mineo è stato convocato per un’amichevole dei Cubs di Chicago. Ex Accademia, Mineo giocare nelle Minors pic.twitter.com/EBFCLtIZ8H
— FIBS (@FIBSpress) March 19, 2014
Team Italia hitting coach Mike Piazza is committed to the growth of Italian baseball. The future MLB Hall of Famer said, “I truly believe in the marketability of baseball in Europe, in Italy specifically. I’m here completely focused on this ballclub to get the most out of our players here and hopefully help them along in their individual careers. But also we’re just trying to bring attention as well to baseball in Italy. And we think that‑‑at least in my personal opinion–that we can produce players and there’s a future there.”
Alberto Mineo and Davide Anselmi invited to Italy's National Team camp in Vero Beach. http://t.co/c7CHWPpFqz
— odeni (@waynopapp) February 14, 2014
— Mike Piazza (@mikepiazza31) February 28, 2014
For further information on the upcoming European Baseball Championship and details on how to obtain tickets for the September 12-16 games in Regensburg, Germany, click HERE. To learn more about the international competition and tickets for the September 12-21 Czech Republic games, click HERE. For an updated schedule of the 2014 European Baseball Championship and complete game box scores, click HERE.
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
“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.
— Mike Piazza (@mikepiazza31) February 28, 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.
Grazie di nuovo @FIBSpress! Had an amazing time in Veneto. Great coaches convention. Forza Italia!
— Mike Piazza (@mikepiazza31) January 19, 2014
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.”Piazza has been a proponent of uplifting and preserving his Italian cultural heritage by supporting the efforts of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), George Randazzo–founder of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame and Roberto Angotti–curator of the Artists’ Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball Exhibition. Piazza befriended Angotti during the two weeks Team Italia spent in Phoenix preparing for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. When Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda dropped in on Team Italia’s practice at Dodgers’ Spring Training Camp in Glendale to address the team, Roberto knew he was on the frontline of the Italian baseball revolution. Lasorda’s emotionally-driven speech coupled with Piazza’s serious commitment inspired Angotti to share the experience with others through a traveling exhibit paying tribute to Italian American baseball.
— WBC Baseball (@WBCBaseball) January 10, 2013
Piazza said,”This commitment I have with the Italian Federation is something I really care about. I feel a strong tie to Italy, since my heritage is there. My grandfather Rosario came from Sciacca, Sicily, to the United States and my father grew me up following the Italian tradition pretty much. I think it’s in our DNA to strive to work hard and persevere. Most our ancestors came over to the United States with just the clothes on their back. I think that was the case with my grandfather, who had nothing in his pocket to start a life here in the U.S. When we have the strength and pride of the Italian family with the support we can give one another, it builds character and allows us to achieve our true potential. I don’t think there are a lot of Italian American families that don’t have strong support behind them. I do not pretend to say what is not true, I grew up as an American boy. Now, getting older, I understand the value of my heritage and I want to give something back to Italy.”
Heard This: Matt Torra signed with the EDA Rhinos to take over Manny's vacated roster spot #CPBL
— Dan (@MyKBO) July 2, 2013
Finishing up last minute packing before my 18 hrs of flying tomorrow. Eda rhinos can't wait to join you. Kaohsiung Taiwan here I come.
— Matt Torra (@TheContractor31) July 2, 2013
After agreeing to take Manny Ramirez’s roster spot midseason on the EDA Rhinos, 2005 Arizona Diamondbacks #1 draft pick Matt Torra embarked on an overseas baseball journey he will never forget. After pitching for Team Italia in 2013 World Baseball Classic, it appeared the right-handed hurler’s curiosity and appetite for international competition and world-class cuisine had peaked. With wife Jessica and daughters Isabel and Mia in tow, the young Torra family flew from Boston to Tokyo before landing in Taiwan to begin their adventure in Kaohsiung City, where the EDA Rhinos played their home games. In his 12 starts in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, Torra was one of the league’s finest best control pitchers–allowing just five walks in 78 innings of work. In his final start for the EDA Rhinos in the 2013 Asia Series against the Canberra Cavalry, he once again demonstrated his control of the strike zone by issuing only one walk in 8.2 innings pitched. Canberra slugger Michael Wells spoke of Torra and said, “The guy throwing up there threw some very good pitches, it was tough at times.” Yet the toughest walk for Torra was the one back to the airport, where Torra and his family had time to organize their thoughts before heading back to America. Facing an uncertain future ahead with the season now over, Torra’s agent Jim Masteralexis still aspires to get his once highly-prized client to join the game’s elite and make it to MLB. With over 578 innings pitched in Triple-A ball under his wing while playing in the Diamondbacks, Rays and Nationals organizations, Torra has been on the cusp of the big leagues. With his recent success on the EDA Rhinos, this 29-year-old Italian American is poised to follow the footsteps of Team Italia teammate Chris Colabello in getting to the show. After speaking with current free agent Matt Torra, it is apparent that he is more than ready.Roberto: You were a 2005 MLB first-round draft pick alongside Ryan Braun and Jacoby Ellsbury. You must have felt pretty good knowing you were the Diamondbacks #1 selection.
Matt Torra: That day was a great experience. It was a day I will never forget. The only thing close to that was pitching for Team Italia in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Roberto: You pitched at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where you led the Atlantic 10 Conference with 111 strikeouts and the entire country with the nation’s lowest 1.14 ERA in 2005. What was the transition like from college ball to professional baseball?
Matt Torra: For me it was a big transition. I went from college ball, only got 10 innings of pro ball before I got hurt and had to have surgery on my shoulder. And then coming back not only was I trying to adjust from college ball to pro ball, but I also had to try to figure out and learn how to pitch again after surgery. For me it took me about half
of a season in 2007 to try to start getting a feel again
for the ball. Once I started to do that, I found success
again, and every year I have just continued to build
on it. Just take stuff that I have learned every year
and try to apply it into my pitching repertoire.
#Rays acquire RHP Matt Torra from Arizona for cash considerations, send him to Triple-A Durham
— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) July 2, 2011
Roberto: You were dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011 and worked under the guidance of Italian American manager Joe Madden. How was that experience?
Matt Torra: I got to meet him for the first time at 2012 Rays Spring Training. He was a great person to be around. He’s polite to everybody. You know, he said hello to everybody. He never singled-out anybody. So to be around him and to be around that organization at the time was great. Everybody welcomed you from the top to the bottom of the organization. And they treated you very well. It was definitely a good experience for me. They treated everyone with respect. Obviously someone in my position as a non-roster invitee coming into camp, you definitely show respect to the more veteran guys and everything. But everyone said hello to you. It was nice just being in there. They all wanted you around the guys. It was a good experience.
— William Ladson (@washingnats) December 28, 2012
Roberto: How was your experience with the Washington Nationals?
Matt Torra: I was really excited to getting back on with Mike Rizzo, who drafted me with the Diamondbacks as the scouting director. And jumping on with Mark Scialabba, who is the head of the minor leagues there. I thought it was going to be a great opportunity with a great organization. I was in the best shape of my career coming out of the World Baseball Classic. But it was frustrating because I got hurt with an oblique strain coming off the WBC. I missed the first couple of months. By the time I reached Triple-A Syracuse, I was more than a month behind the other pitchers in the Chiefs’ rotation. I jumped into the season quickly, without much prep.
— Nationals (@Roto_Nationals) June 17, 2013
Roberto: When you finally got healthy and got into stride, it looked like you had turned the corner and were on the rebound. But all of a sudden you were let go when least expected.
Matt Torra: To get released after I think I finally got my groove going was unexpected. In the long run, it was for the best and it allowed for the Taiwan opportunity to come up.
Roberto: Coming off the heels of paying tribute to your Italian heritage by playing for Team Italia in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, it doesn’t get better than that.
Matt Torra: Yeah, that was a great experience. I began working with the team on February 20th to prepare for the WBC, which began in early March. Everybody was very welcoming. Manager, pitching coach, players, everybody–they were all polite and energetic about the game. It was a great experience.
Roberto: Do want to pinch yourself to make sure that you are not dreaming as you make an imprint in the Italian baseball history books as a contributer to Team Italia in the WBC?
Matt Torra: You try to take it all in and experience it. But you also don’t want to get overcome by it. You need to stay focused when you get a chance to pitch in a game. You don’t want it to overwhelm you, but at the same time you want to remember every single second of it. And know that it was a blessing to come and do this. I started two years ago tracking my ancestry to obtain dual citizenship and everything. For some reason, I just happen to start that and the fact that I could jump on the team was great. Everything just came together for a reason. It was just an amazing trip.
— Matt Torra (@TheContractor31) March 3, 2013
Roberto: You must be a proud Italian American ballplayer.
Matt Torra: I felt like everybody on the Italian team was definitely playing for the team on the front of the jersey. They were playing for Italia. I think that is why we had success in the first two games (defeating Mexico and Canada) and why Italia will continue to have success in the future. But at the same time for a lot of guys it was a great opportunity to showcase what they had. To come out and compete I want to help this team as best I can–whether it’s one batter or three innings–whatever they need me for. I want to go out there and do that. As you know, there are some of us that have not been in the big leagues that don’t get that much exposure on TV. So to have a tournament like the WBC is great for a lot of people. We just got to go out there and stay focused. Once again, don’t let it overwhelm you and know that as you go out there and make a good pitch or as a hitter go out there and execute what you are trying to do. Try not to do too much, and you are going to be successful.
Roberto: As a pitcher, you then have to wipe the slate clean after every at-bat regardless if you just gave up a home run or struck out the hitter. You must remain focused on the pitch you are about to deliver.
Matt Torra: Every pitch matters, especially in a short tournament like the WBC when it matters even more. No matter what happens you can’t change what has already happened. You need to bear down, focus and just execute every pitch. And just worry about that next pitch you are going to throw. Have a good game plan, stick to it and trust the stuff. Trust all the hard work you’ve put into it and know you have the ability to get guys out.
Roberto: So by staying in the present moment and not living in the past?
Matt Torra: What has happened in the past or what will happen in the future doesn’t matter. It’s really one pitch at a time on offense and defense. The team that executes, the team that makes the least amounts of mistakes is going to come out on top. I believe with the talent that I have seen on Team Italia that we have the ability to come out on top in the very near future.
I am proud to be part of team Italia. Tough way to go down but it was an honor being part of the team. #italia.
— Matt Torra (@TheContractor31) March 14, 2013
Roberto: Having a coach like future hall-of-famer Mike Piazza on Team Italia must have been inspirational for all the ballplayers?
Matt Torra: It was… When you get to be around guys like that, you pick their brain as much as you can. With Mike Piazza as a hitting coach and a catcher for all those years, as a pitcher you want to pick his brain. What did he see when he was calling a game? As a hitter, what was he looking for going up to the plate? So anytime you have the opportunity to gain some knowledge from a coach, you should definitely take it. You write it down, or you just remember it. And then it will be there and you’ll be on the mound at some point and all of a sudden you’ll remember–hey, so and so said this, let’s apply it and boom–it works! So you have got to take any time you have a chance to pull information, you have got to do it.
Roberto: It’s obvious that the coaching dynamic duo of Mike Piazza and Frank Catalanotto helped Team Italia players offensively to be very productive at the plate.
Matt Torra: They were outstanding. From one to nine and even guys coming off the bench, they all did an excellent job. Mike and Frank brought a lot of confidence to Team Italia. We were on a roll and had the type of energy of being aggressive to execute on both sides of the game to make something good come out of it.
Roberto: So would you consider your time with Team Italia to be your most memorable moment of your baseball career to date?
Matt Torra: In my career so far, participating in the World Baseball Classic with Italia was pretty amazing. Seeing a team come together in a way Team Italia did was unbelievable.
I think me getting that call up to the big leagues will be a great moment for me as well.
I haven’t experienced it yet so I can’t tell you what it feels like. But I know the feeling on the field celebrating after beating Mexico and Canada was something special. It was a special group of guys. We had the right combination of players and the heart and desire to win. Yes, we had some big league players on Team Italia, but we had a lot of guys people didn’t know about. Even myself…where there are some people who know about me, but I am not a big name guy in Major League Baseball. We left our hearts out there. It was big for us. When you’re on the field celebrating, I don’t know if you can get that feeling anywhere else. It was up there. Obviously when my kids were born, you have a great feeling. Getting married and stuff…but that feeling you have celebrating with 28 guys on the field is unbelievable.
— Roberto Angotti (@ABLblogger) March 9, 2013
Roberto: I couldn’t agree with you more…I remember tweeting something like: third to my son’s birth and Team Italia’s upset over Mexico, it was one of the best days of my life.
Matt Torra: It was pretty amazing…to celebrate twice too on the field back-to-back. I think family events as far as marriage, birth, stuff like that…relationship with God–that’s in one category. I don’t think stuff outside of that can really surpass that. But as far as baseball stuff, what I experienced with Team Italia was unbelievable. It was a great experience, and
I think a lot of the guys on the team felt the same way.
Roberto: Team Italia demonstrated their heart and soul in the WBC. Every person wearing an Italian uniform wore it proudly each game.
Matt Torra: Everybody was in sync and in tune and watching every single pitch. We were focused and ready to go every game. We wanted to do something special.
Roberto: You had a special chemistry and a ‘never say die’ fighting spirit on Team Italia.
Matt Torra: Yeah, you could say we were the underdog. But it came down to who wanted it more. You could definitely see the heart, the will and the desire. You could see it on every single one of the Italian players. It made us persevere and confident. We were focused and determined to make something happen.
Roberto: How proud are you to be an Italian American and a part of Team Italia?
Matt Torra: It’s a great honor for me. It started two years ago when I began to research and find my great grandfather Giuseppe Torra’s birth certificate from Valenza, Italy and my great grandmother’s birth certificate. And find their marriage license from 1920, and then find the ships they came over on and everything. Once you start researching, you start seeing where you are from and everything. It’s an incredible feeling. It’s a great honor, and I’m very proud to have represented Italia in the WBC.
Roberto: It shows and I wish you the best in your career. Rest assured I will be there when you make your MLB debut. God bless you and your family. Thank you for your time today.
I look forward to meeting up with you again soon.
Matt Torra: Anytime…let me know. Thank you very much.
— Kinmen RisingProject (@KinmenQuemoy) November 21, 2013
Setup man for Team Italia’s Grilli, Nick Pugliese closes for Unipol Fortitudo Bologna in Asia Series
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.
The capacity crowd was treated to a live performance by 11-year-old Italian American singing sensation, Isabella Shiff, who recently traveled to Italy to represent her country at the Zecchino d’Oro (Golden Sequin) International Festival of Children’s Song broadcast on Italian TV and won the solo vocalist competition in her age category. Internationally-acclaimed sports artist Christopher Paluso, whose legendary art has graced the walls of the Italian American Sports Museum in Chicago and the San Diego Hall of Champions, mesmerized the audience with nostalgic baseball stories centered around his personal interactions with Joe DiMaggio and other Italian American icons. Attendees read text panels detailing the Italian diaspora and assimilation into American society through baseball before viewing artwork from Christopher Paluso, James Fiorentino, Chris Felix, Vincent Scilla, John Giarizzo, Rob Monte, Zack D’Ulisse, Tom Richmond and Jeremy Nash in addition to photos from Tom DiPace, Rob Cuni and Robb Long.
The exhibit on artist's tribute to italian american in baseball opened in San Diego. Watch the video http://t.co/o0HkfqJpKW
— FIBS (@FIBSpress) September 26, 2013
Artists’ Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball features Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Tony Lazzeri, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Ernie Lombardi,
— Roberto Angotti (@ABLblogger) September 23, 2013
Ron Santo, Tommy Lasorda, Tony Conigliaro, Joe Garagiola, Craig Biggio, Tony La Russa, John D’Aquisto, John Montefusco, Ken Caminiti, Mike Piazza, Frank Catalanotto, Frank Menechino, Jason Giambi, Joey Votto, Jason Grilli, Anthony Rizzo, Nick Punto, Chris Denorfia, Drew Butera, Dan Serafini, Alex Liddi, Chris Colabello, Brian Sweeney, Mike Costanzo, and Reid Rizzo. Throughout the exhibit’s exclusive engagement at Convivio, monthly birthday celebrations will feature movies and guest speakers to honor the careers of players and coaches of Italian descent including: Lou Colabello (10/10), Chris Colabello and Sal Varriale (10/24), Nick Punto (11/8), Jason Grilli (11/11), Roy Campanella (11/19), Joe DiMaggio (11/25), Mike Scioscia (11/27), Dave Righetti (11/28), Tony Lazzeri (12/6), Mauro Mazzotti (12/12), Craig Biggio (12/14), Marco Mazzieri (12/20), John D’Aquisto (12/24), Tony Conigliaro (1/7), Jason Giambi (1/8), Kurt Bevacqua (1/23) and Dan Serafini (1/25).
Christopher Paluso is the official artist for the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum and the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago. His work has included many Italian American baseball players (including DiMaggio, Berra, Lasorda and Piazza) and has appeared on magazine covers, limited edition lithographs, collector plates, baseballs and in museums. Visit http://paluso4art.blogspot.com for a glimpse of his legendary artwork.
— Claudio Bisogniero (@CBisogniero) September 27, 2013
Support from Italian Ambassador to the U.S. Claudio Bisogniero, FIBS, Team Italia coach Mike Piazza and CBS News has given Artists’ Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball a great start in San Diego. A special thank you goes out to all who have made this monumental exhibition possible and free to the public.
Congrats to Italia! Under 18 European Champions! Forza Italia!
— Mike Piazza (@mikepiazza31) July 22, 2013
Great job Bill Holmberg! My fellow coach! God Bless! pic.twitter.com/BBFyftX0yS
— Mike Piazza (@mikepiazza31) July 22, 2013
While pitching for Team Italy in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, lefty Dan Serafini began his 22nd season playing as a pro in America, Canada, Japan, and Mexico. With 104 MLB appearances for the Twins, Cubs, Pirates, Padres, Reds, and Rockies under his belt, the bullpen has always been a second home for the Twins’ first-round draft pick of 1992. So when when it came time for the San Francisco-born Serafini to choose an appropriate name for his new sports bar located close to the family home at 5215 Vista Blvd. in Sparks, Nevada, it was simply a case of serendipity that he call it The Bullpen at Aspen Glen.
The bullpen at aspen glen come drink kids pic.twitter.com/RxiOO0c8GJ
— Danny serafini (@dannyserafini) June 16, 2013
Dan Serafini has been one of the Bay Area’s hometown heroes since the early nineties. In his senior year at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, the southpaw pitcher was on every MLB scout’s radar after going nearly perfect (11 wins and 1 loss) and setting a single-season school record of 149 strikeouts. In his two seasons playing varsity for the Padres, he went 20-2 with a 1.70 ERA and 271 strikeouts. Perhaps the most appropriate way to leave a legacy that overshadows the numerous accolades that other notable Serra alumni have achieved during their high school campaign, Serafini was named to every All-Star team conceivable including: AII- WCAL, AII- County, All Peninsula, and All Northern California.
He was the 1992 WCAL, County and Peninsula Co-Player of the Year in addition to being named the San Mateo Times County Athlete of the Year.
Roberto: San Mateo’s Junipero Serra High School has been known to produce their share of athletes including Barry Bonds and many sports legends. While covering the Australian Baseball League, I learned that Brisbane Bandits’ Chuck Lofgren pitched at Serra High School. Having also played there, how does it feel being surrounded by a strong Bay Area professional athlete fraternity at Serra?
Dan Serafini: Serra High School is a great baseball facility and just a great school to go to. We had a lot of great players: Jim Fregosi, Dan Frisella…even some football players: Lynn Swann, Tom Brady. We have quite an athletic history. Some really good baseball players like Gregg Jeffries have come out of my school.
Roberto: Team Italy slugger Chris Colabello followed the same minor league path to MLB playing for Double-A New Britain RockCats. While you played there, you were named to the 1995 Eastern League All-Star team after going 12-9 with a 3.37 ERA.
Dan Serafini: That was a long time ago. I can barely even remember that. At New Britain, Chris got to play in the new stadium. I played in the old Beehive Stadium, which was more like a high school stadium with a trailer park locker room. I had a good year that year, and it got me a call up to Triple-A before the season was over.
Dan Serafini: It was not an easy team to pitch against for my first time playing in the big leagues, but it was a great memory. It was kind of funny.
The Twins wouldn’t let me into the locker room before the game. They didn’t want any animosity in the locker room because they hadn’t sent anyone down (to Triple-A) yet. I had to stay in a hotel and then on game day I got to show up right before the game started so that I could get ready to play. It wasn’t the greatest experience, but it was still a good experience. I got to the big leagues!
Roberto: At least it was a home game when you had to face the intimidating New York Yankees.
Dan Serafini: Although it was a home game in Minnesota, it was still intimidating. It was the New York Yankees—no matter where you are playing them, they are intimidating. Crowd factor definitely helped. I had the crowd on my side. I loved Minnesota. It was very supportive. I had a great time.
Roberto: You also had some more playing time with the Twins in 1997 and 1998. Was it rewarding for you?
Dan Serafini: It was. I got a very brief opportunity with the Twins. You know, going back from starting to the bullpen and starting and bullpen. I was never really able to fill my niche with the Twins. It was fun. It was rewarding. I’m a Major League Baseball player. There is nothing more rewarding than that.
Roberto: The Chicago Cubs bought your contract from the Twins on March 31, 1999. You made four starts for the Cubbies and put together a 3-2 record in 42 appearances with a 6.93 ERA.
Dan Serafini: The ERA was kind of high, but in my defense I actually pitched really well until the all-star break. I think I only had a 3 or 3.50 ERA up until the all-star break. Then my big
league pitching coach, Marty DeMerritt, wanted me to become a left-handed specialist and drop down sidearm and start pitching sidearm only. So I did that, and it completely screwed up the whole rest of my season. I was walking everybody, giving up all kinds of hits and just all kind of happened. I can’t blame him. He was just trying to help me out, but to change your pitching mechanics in the middle of the season… It’s really hard to make an adjustment to big league hitters. It hurt me pretty good.
Roberto: In the 1999 offseason you were traded to the San Diego Padres and pitched in three games in 2000. How did it feel to come back to your native California to play pro ball?
Dan Serafini: I was there for a long time. I didn’t get many opportunities.
I was mostly like a chess pawn. I just kind of sat in the dugout. I’d go a week straight without pitching in a game.
I didn’t get as many opportunities as
I would have liked to become a better player than I am today. San Diego is beautiful, and I’m from California–even though it’s Northern California where I’m from. Southern California is a beautiful place. I guess I had more fun there off the field than on the field.
Roberto: After being traded to Pittsburgh and playing for the Nashville Sound, you had a 4-3 record with a 2.60 ERA before the call up to the Pirates on August 5, 2000 to make 11 starts.
Dan Serafini: After getting traded from San Diego, I had a really good month or so in Nashville before getting called up.
I made my first start against the San Francisco Giants and won. That could have been probably my favorite time in the big leagues–to be going back home to my hometown and beating San Francisco in San Francisco. I had a pretty good season with Pittsburgh. They were struggling and in last place. I threw well for Pittsburgh. I just didn’t fit in their books.
Roberto: Signing with San Francisco must have been a dream come true?
Dan Serafini: I didn’t get to stay with San Francisco too long. They signed me as a big league player, but they didn’t have a roster spot. I went to Triple-A for a little bit. I was making a substantial amount of money for a Triple-A player so when they couldn’t find a spot for me I got released about a month after
I signed. So I really didn’t get much of an opportunity with San Francisco.
Roberto: You quickly signed with the Mets and played for the 2001 Triple-A Norfolk Tides, where you posted 5-2 record with a 3.31 ERA in 31 games.
Dan Serafini: I didn’t waste anytime—maybe two days later signed with the Mets. Went to Triple-A and played there a little bit. I pitched pretty well, but got into an altercation with the GM. I ended up getting released and walking on over to the other clubhouse and signed up with Milwaukee that same day.
Roberto: You finished off the 2001 season pitching for the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis Indians and posted a 2-2 record with a 5.96 ERA. However,
you chose to move on from Milwaukee
and were granted free agency in October, 2001. This opened the door for other opportunities, and you ended up signing a minor league deal with the Anaheim Angels. Was that another short-term engagement by design or a matter of being released? Please clear up all the misconceptions and incorrect information the media has picked up on to make you have to stand up for yourself and clarify.
Dan Serafini: Well you know the thing is…the media–they always say you were released, you were released, you were released. But for a lot of those teams I’ve actually picked the option for my release.
I didn’t get released. They would option me down to Triple-A, and I felt that I didn’t deserve to go to Triple-A. So for a lot of those assignments I chose not to go.
Roberto: After opting out of your contract with the Angels, you tried to make a comeback in late 2002 when you signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. You began at Triple-A Memphis, but then on April 21, 2003 you were released.
Dan Serafini: I knew what was going to happen because during the offseason I signed for such a high contract to go to Triple-A. I knew they were using me to fill a spot. So I knew as soon as no one came down from the big leagues or something that I was going to get released.
Roberto: So you expected it?
Dan Serafini: I had signed for a substantial amount of money to go and play in Triple-A. Within the first month when Kevin Ohme was sent down from St. Louis, they got rid of me the next day. I pitched okay there, but it was really hard because I have always been a starter my whole career and I kept bouncing back and forth. I was going from bullpen to starting to bullpen and starting and never got into a rhythm. So for all these teams I played for, I had really a tough time coming out of the bullpen and learning my routine and learning to play. Unfortunately, I didn’t really prove myself that well as well.
Roberto: It sounds like the experiment on the big league level of being a sidearm specialist coming out of the bullpen went terribly wrong. It was not exactly the best training ground for trying something new.
Dan Serafini: No. The only chance I had to experiment was on the big stage, which is really difficult if you are not physically or mentally prepared for those things. I wasn’t…I was only 21 or 22 at the time. It was a difficult road for me–that’s for sure!
Roberto: Did being disillusioned with American pro ball inspire you to head south to Mexico?
Dan Serafini: Yes, I played my first year in 2002. It was winter ball for Mazatlan. I had a great manager and a really fun time there. And they said if I ever had a problem in summer that I was more than welcome to play in Mexico. So after that St. Louis series, I went in 2003 to go play summer ball in Mexico.
Roberto: The Cincinnati Reds noticed and purchased your contract on August 25, 2003.
Dan Serafini: I ended up winning the ERA title. I set the record for the most wins in a row that season. I was a starter. I got back in the my swing of things. I got my mechanics back and pitched really well. I got called up and went straight to the big leagues in Cincinnati.
Roberto: On August 26, 2003, you started against the Milwaukee Brewers.
Dan Serafini: I believe I also started in a game versus St. Louis. Then I went back to the bullpen after I told the GM
I wouldn’t go to the bullpen and that I would only start. Because I had already 130 innings pitched in Mexico, I was tired and said I didn’t want to get up and down every day out of the bullpen. After I said I only wanted to start, the GM said that was exactly what I was summoned there to do–to start for Danny Graves because he got hurt.
So I went there, got two starts and they stuck me in the bullpen. It was a disappointment. I know it’s a business, and I just need to man up and do it. It was just hard. I talked to Bobby Valentine in 2004, and he asked me to go down to Vegas and throw a bullpen for somebody to try out for the team he managed in Japan. I went out there and tried out for the Chiba Lotte Marines. I was hurt at the time. I had a broken collar bone because
I crashed on a motorcycle messing around with my friends. Despite being injured, I still got a good enough report from the try out to go to Japan.
Julio Zuleta charged Dan Serafini on the mound after a ball nearly hit him in Japan in 2004 .
Roberto:: After being granted free agency and playing for Bobby Valentine’s Chiba Lotte Marines in 2004 and 2005 as well as the Orix Buffaloes in 2006 and 2007, were you treated with a little bit more respect in Japan?
Dan Serafini: It was really rewarding because I actually got treated like a player that I was. Japan did nothing but give me the highest respect. Bobby Valentine did nothing but give me the highest respect. He kept me on a routine for the full season, and I had a really good career in Japan. I still talk to Bobby off and on the internet. I was happy to see him as an Ambassador for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Bobby Valentine throws out the first pitch of the 2013 WBC game between China and Japan.
Roberto: Did you follow all the drama that surrounded Bobby Valentine last year when he managed the Boston Red Sox?
Dan Serafini: I did. In fact, before the season began I called him and asked him for a job to see if I could get a Triple-A job or a coaching/ player job. His hands were tied. He said that he couldn’t make any moves. But I followed him and saw all the disappointing articles about him and stuff from players that couldn’t handle his attitude. I thought it was ridiculous. He’s the smartest guy in baseball–hands down. He may want a little more attention than he deserves, but that’s his character.
If people don’t like it, they try to crucify him. He’s a very good man!
Roberto: It’s too bad he was the scapegoat for the Red Sox.
Dan Serafini: It really was. I know he’s done some things in his past that has rubbed people the wrong way–and we all have. It’s just the way different personalities go–especially when you have a bunch of superstars in the one locker room. It’s almost like you have to walk on eggshells around these people because they’re more sensitive than most people that are not superstars.
Roberto: When a player digs into the batter’s box and gives you a long grimacing stare, is your best response and message to the hitter simply the delivery of your next pitch?
Dan Serafini: Yes, definitely–without a doubt. There’s got to be respect both ways. For me, I’ve always been tired of being called a cheater or having a dismal career by what some reporters have said. I feel like I have fought the longest just like Bobby Valentine did to get my career to where it is right now.
Roberto: You signed a deal with the Colorado Rockies in 2007 and pitched on September 7th against the San Francisco Giants.
Dan Serafini: It was a great feeling. I was excited. It was tough because I had just come back from Japan. I broke my hand in Japan, and they decided to release me at the last quarter of the season just because they were not going to use me anymore and had no chance of the playoffs. So they sent me home, and
I signed with Colorado. I got called up to the big leagues a couple weeks later and after four years of not having seen a major league game got to pitch to my first batter–Barry Bonds!
Roberto: What were the odds of you facing one of baseball’s most feared hitters in your MLB comeback attempt?
Dan Serafini: It was pretty interesting. I had some butterflies.
Roberto: How did you sustain your hand injury overseas?
Dan Serafini: That happened at a game in Japan. I was pitching and lost my footing in the bullpen. It was on my glove hand.
I kind of slipped and fell over. I used my hand to stabilize myself from falling over, and I broke my ring finger, pinky and a couple bones in the middle of my hand.
Roberto: In Japan you also sustained an achilles injury which required medication to help with the healing process and eventually led to a positive test for MLB banned substances when you signed with the Rockies in 2007.
Dan Serafini: I actually got a serious injury and had surgery on my achilles. When I came back from Chiba Lotte, I tore my achilles tendon in the year we won the championship. I signed a two-year contract with the Orix Buffaloes for a substantial amount. My leg with in a cast for four months so they were shooting it up all year long trying to get it balanced back.
After my first year at Orix, I wasn’t throwing very well because my body was so out of balance that it started hurting my shoulder and back. So they told me to just take the rest of the year off and come back for 2007. I was still having problems with my leg and the way my muscles were firing in 2007. So again a doctor was giving me a medication that I didn’t think much of because I passed all of my drug tests and Olympic testing in Japan. So I didn’t even think twice about it. And that’s what it was when I got tested on the last day of the season with Colorado. It was still in my system, and I got busted for it.
Roberto: It looks like MLB used you as a scapegoat to fill their 2007 quota and deter players from using banned substances.
Dan Serafini: Yes, I think so. I mean because I tried to fight it.
I had to do a lot of things for my defense. I had to get the doctor from Japan to come and fly to New York to testify for me in court. He wanted $500,000 to do it because it would give Japan a bad name since I never failed a test in Japan. So I said, ‘Screw it, I’ll take the 50-game suspension and wear it for now.’ I didn’t think that it would be that bad, but Colorado didn’t sign me back. The GM at the time, Dan O’Dowd, didn’t give me my National League Championship ring. They gave me my playoff share because I was there for a short time, but they didn’t give me a ring because they were disgraced by the fact that I was a cheater and stuff like that. It was just bad. An unnamed journalist tried to say that I was trying to respark my dismal career. My response was like: ‘What’s so dismal about making over 10 million dollars?’ I don’t think that’s too dismal…
Roberto: If a man can’t look at me in the eye and share his theory to my face without the facts in hand—and instead choose to hide behind a computer desk in favor of meeting publishing deadlines, then it’s not news worthy in my book.
Dan Serafini: Exactly. You know it’s like so many people just wrote stories about me that never even asked me the details or took the details out. Even Tom Verducci and things he wrote in my
article. I said so many things to balance and justify the difference between cheating and other kinds of uses of certain PEDs or whatever. And they don’t want to listen to that, but everybody wants to be negative and listen in to CNN nowadays.
Roberto: Not a lot of players want to comment in fear of being blackballed. But you are not afraid to speak your mind and represent Team Italia in the World Baseball Classic. It’s your time to shine and be heard.
Dan Serafini: Yes, it is. If people want to call me a jerk, whatever but you know what… I’ve been around this game for 22 years now. And I know that 90% of the people I have played with have said: ‘If I had a chance to use it and make myself better, then I would have too…’ You know, that’s what we’re here for.
Roberto: I don’t blame you for having headed south to pitch for the Monterrey Sultanes after all that nonsense.
Dan Serafini: They were a great organization. I played with them for a while and just kept bouncing back and forth. I pitched
well in Monterrey, got to the playoffs a few times and then I got traded.
Roberto: You spent 2008 and 2009 in Mexico before heading to the East Coast to play for the Bridgeport Bluefish in the Atlantic Independent League.
Dan Serafini: Yes, I did that just for a little bit so that I could get a job back in the states. I wanted more people to see me pitch, but nothing came of it.
Roberto: Yet Mexico loved you and you represented the country in several Caribbean Series.
Dan Serafini: Yes, I believe I played three Caribbean Series for Mexico–all during winter ball because the Sultanes play during the summer. In the winter I played for Yaquis de Obregón in
the 2008 Caribbean Series and then again in 2010 and 2011
I played for Mexico in the Caribbean Series.
Roberto: What’s the difference between baseball played
abroad and in the U.S.?
Dan Serafini: For one, the United States has the best players in the world in the major leagues. So it’s kind of hard to represent the United States because it has so many great players. Mexico and Italy have a lot of great players that have been overlooked by United States. It’s hard. With me representing Mexico, I am one of the better players in Mexico because that’s just where I am playing at the time. With my experience and talent, I can make those teams and play for those teams. I could possibly pitch for Team USA but that team has so many Americans from all over the country to pick from. So it’s really hard to make that team.
Roberto: How were you recruited to pitch for Team Italia?
Dan Serafini: Actually they called me in 2009 and found out
that I was Italian through my agent. After they got the background information about my Italian ancestry, they said that they would love for me to come and try out. I came down, tried out and they said that they could definitely use me as a starter or reliever because of ‘my good arm.’ So the rest is history as far as that.
Roberto: It must have a been a major personal victory for you when Team Italia upset Mexico in the 2013 WBC.
Dan Serafini: Almost everyone on Team Mexico I either played with them or against them. Team Italy asked me to write a
scouting report on the whole team, which I did and gave to the coaches. They watched a few of their games during their exhibition games and said it was ‘spot on’ as far as the scouting report. That’s what we used, and it actually came out well. We pitched well against them. We played great defense against them, and we came out victors.
Roberto: Once Team Italia’s manager Marco Mazzieri gave me his cell phone number, I felt compelled to do the same and gave him a scouting report on Team Canada. We all had to do our part.
Dan Serafini: Well, that’s it…exactly! We’re here to win. Right
now, I’m not an American. I’m an Italian, and I’m here to beat Team USA today. I was there to beat Canada yesterday, and I was there the day before to beat Mexico. Granted I have friends from every team from all over the world, but right now I’m just Italian. I’m here to walk all over every other team.
Roberto: How proud are you to be Italian?
Dan Serafini: I am very proud to be Italian. It’s unfortunate because I have always had a strong Italian family growing up, but Italian heritage or history was never really taught. I never learned Italian even though my father speaks Italian and both of my grandparents only spoke Italian. I just wasn’t brought up that way. Now doing more research about Italy and possibly thinking later in my career to maybe going to play in Italy for a little bit. I’m really interested in the Italian culture and to visit all around Europe. I’m looking forward to it. Italians are a well-educated culture to begin with. Everyone on our team speaks perfect English and perfect Italian. Some speak Spanish, Italian and English. I think they are just educated people. Unfortunately
when you move to another country and are unable to speak their language fluently, you tend to get away from your native language.
I know when I played in Mexico my whole team spoke English. I didn’t have a chance to learn Spanish because people talked to me in English. So it’s not as diverse as you think. It’s a lot harder, even my wife can tell you it’s a lot harder to go there and learn a language because everyone is polite to you and tries to talk to you in your language to make you feel more comfortable. So we have a tendency to get lazy
and not try. But right now I listen to Italian tapes every night because
I want to try to learn Italian.
Roberto: That’s because everyone is trying to be hospitable
and speak your native tongue?
Dan Serafini: Yes. I mean the Italians come right over here, and they all speak English right out of the gate. They don’t even try to speak Italian. They’re like: ‘No, we’re in America now–we’re speaking English.’ That’s what they do.
Roberto: How does having a coaching staff that includes future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza affect your approach to the game?
Dan Serafini: Mike is a great guy. Look at his story–coming from the 62nd round as a favor to his godfather Tommy Lasorda! Something ridiculous like that and becoming the best
offensive catcher of all time…whatever his statistics are.
Being blessed enough to play against him and talk to him,
it’s a great experience. Just because we have one more
person with a ton of experience on our team. He has been
in the spotlight for what…16 seasons! You know, I’ve been
in the spotlight for seven. Grilli has been the spotlight for
eight. So it’s like we have plenty of experience. It’s nice to
have someone of that magnitude on our team helping us out.
Roberto: Mike Piazza could be doing something else with his time,
but his heart and soul are committed to Team Italia.
Dan Serafini: You’re right. It is…and we appreciate that! He could
be doing anything with his time, and a lot of us could be but we’re all here together to represent Italy. We’re going to represent the right way this time.
Roberto: Thank you for your time today. I’m sure this story will be continued next time we get together to talk.
Dan Serafini: Yes, definitely…I’m looking forward to continuing it. I will answer any question that needs to be answered. It’s nice to be able to explain myself for a change, and hopefully one day people will look at me differently.
San Diego Padres’ Chris Denorfia was recently a guest on MLB Network’s “Intentional Talk”.
— Friarhood (@friarhood) July 11, 2013
The Friarhood is a great website for San Diego baseball fans who want the latest Padres coverage with updated news and analysis. Writer Jeremy Nash not only provides the congregation with his uplifting “Five Good Things” column, but also showcases inspirational traditional and digital art featuring unsung hero Chris Denorfia. Successfully bridging the gap between the Padres’ faithful and lovers of modern art, the Friarhood’s Nash is just as much a rock star as Team Italia’s “Deno” in our book. However, Denorfia possesses superhero power equipped with lethal doses of kryptonite to demolish left-handed pitching. One of his favorite targets is MLB All-Star pitcher Clayton Kershaw of the LA Dodgers. Deno has hit three home runs in his career 31 plate appearances against Kershaw. Kershaw’s losing 0-3 record and inflated 4.67 ERA against the 2013 Padres has a lot to do to Deno’s appetite for Dodger pitching (.342 BA, three home runs, two doubles and eight RBI in 11 games to date).
— Jeremy Nash (@Jeremy_Nash) July 6, 2013
The Southern California North and South baseball rivalry will be in full effect with playoff hopes when the Dodgers visit Petco Park and battle the Padres on Little Italy Night on Saturday, September 21 at 5:40 pm. A pre-game ceremony honoring the Artists’ Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball Exhibition at the Convivio Center (2157 India Street in San Diego’s Little Italy) will take place behind home plate prior to the first pitch. Longtime San Diego Little Italy resident and Padre alumni John D’Acquisto will be our honored guest at Petco Park.