by MLB is experiencing a renaissance. The two-time MiLB All-Star spent five seasons in the Chicago Cubs system. Alex Maestri later ventured Down Under, where he would be named 2011 Australian Baseball League (ABL) Team World All-Star and given the inaugural ABL Fan Choice Award. When I first met the 27-year-old right-hander at the Italian MLB Academy near Pisa last year, he told me that the Kagawa Olive Guyners wanted him to pitch in Japan. He took on the the role of the team’s closer and was a knock out from day one. In each of the two months he played for Kagawa in 2012, he was named the indy league’s pitcher of the month. On July 9, 2012, Maestri’s contract was purchased by the Orix Buffaloes of the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) League. He worked diligently to advance from the farm team to the top-ranked league in Japan. In his NPB debut for the Orix Buffaloes, the international baseball ambassador from Italy pitched 6.1 innings to earn his first victory while allowing just one run with four hits and striking out five. He went on to dominate in the NPB and made seven more starts for the 2012 Orix Buffaloes. Posting a 4-3 record with a 2.17 ERA,
Alex Maestri averaged nearly one strikeout per inning
(49.2 innings/40 K). He was equally impressive during his 2011/12 ABL campaign. The Brisbane Bandits pitcher finished third in the ABL in innings pitched (63.2) and strikeouts (53), fourth in WHIP (1.16) and sixth in ERA (3.25). In Round Eight of the regular season, he earned Australian Baseball League Pitcher of the Week honors after throwing a stellar complete game two-hitter against the Canberra Cavalry. Team Italy starting pitcher Alex Maestri faces Team Puerto Rico today at 7pm (EST) in a win-or-go-home showdown televised live on the MLB Network from Marlins Park in Miami. He and his fellow Italian teammates are ready to show the world that the defending European Champions are loaded with talent ready to lock and load in the competitive 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Roberto: Welcome back to the USA!
Alex Maestri: How are doing Roberto? It’s nice to talk to you. I’m feeling good. It’s been a long journey coming here. Everything is good. I’m glad to be with the Italian national team now. I’m looking forward to this WBC tournament and this year coming up.
Roberto: After your successful campaign for the Japan Professional League’s Orix Buffaloes, the team has really stepped up its efforts in recruiting players from overseas.
Alex Maestri: Yeah, you know, every year the team signs foreign players. This year we got seven so we’re probably going to have to rotate. That’s stuff that I can’t control, but it’s going to be fun. The team looks very good. We have a lot of Japanese players that are pretty good and young so I think it’s going to be an exciting year.
Roberto: Did you enjoy the food in Japan?
Alex Maestri: The food there is great. It’s so good. I heard good things about Japanese food before I went there, and when I got there I really appreciated it. Their cuisine is not all about sushi like we think. That’s what I thought too before I went there, but they actually have a huge variety of good food. It’s all very, very good.
Roberto: Did you find a good plate of pasta there?
Alex Maestri: Actually, you know what, they are very good at cooking pasta too. They can reproduce everything very well. They are very good at learning about other cultures and making it theirs.
Roberto: The Japanese have the longest life span. So they must be doing something right.
Alex Maestri: They are doing a lot of things right.
— MLB Europe (@MLB_Europe) August 13, 2012
Roberto: Your Japanese YouTube video is amazing. Have you ever been in the spotlight like that before?
Alex Maestri: Not at all. That was like the first time. After the game, the player of the game gets interviewed in front of the fans in the stadium and put on the big screen. My debut was actually a great game. I got to do that right on the field. It was cool. This fan had this Italian flag with him, and he came all the way close to the dugout. He passed the flag to one of the reporters who gave it to me. So it was good, it was good seeing the colors of Italy in Japan.
I was very proud too to represent those colors in a good way.
Roberto: It almost had an Olympic feel to it.
Alex Maestri: Yeah, you see those gold medal runners walking around the track with their flags. I was just standing around though. It was a really a weird day. I really didn’t feel uncomfortable. I really didn’t know what was going on.
Roberto: It must have been an adrenalin rush.
Alex Maestri: It was during the game. Afterwards, I was just relaxed and happy. I was done pitching, and we won the game.Roberto: Tell me about what you remember most about playing Minor League Baseball.
Alex Maestri: I was here in the states for six years, and five of those six years were with the Cubs. I have a lot of great memories with that team. The game that I remember the most was a Cubs Spring Training game, and I was with the big league team against the A’s. They gave me one inning, and it was pretty good.
Roberto: And you got to face Italian American Jason “Giambino” Giambi.
Alex Maestri: Actually Giambi is the only one who actually got a hit off me. I faced four guys, and three (Orlando Cabrera, Matt Holliday and Eric Chavez) of the four were strikeouts.
Roberto: Since he is Italian, were you giving him a free pass to first base?
Alex Maestri: (Laughing) Yeah, I guess so.
Alex Maestri: Yeah, I mean in Italy we have a lot of good players. It’s a shame that there is not much money supporting baseball so it’s not easy to develop guys. But we have the Italian MLB Academy now, and you know it’s doing very good. There are some young players that are doing some really nice work. And there’s more and more scouts going down there to look at them. It’s a pleasure for me to represent the country all over the world. And even if I just play for myself on the team that I play with, I always play for my colors, I’m always proud of that. Roberto: Forza Italia! Forza Azzurri!
Alex Maestri: Yeah, per sempre Forza Azzurri!
Roberto: You don’t take any prisoners when you pitch, and you proudly wear your colors on your sleeve. It shows that you pour your heart and soul every time you step on the mount to throw.
Alex Maestri: Yeah, I think that’s what you have to do on the mound. You’re not always going to succeed. But that’s the attitude you’ve got to have to pitch.
Roberto: Italy pitching coach Bill Holmberg has changed the mindsets of many on this staff for the better.
Alex Maestri: Bill has been my pitching coach forever. He has known me since I was a kid And you know I started working with him when I was 18-year-old and started to go to the Italian MLB Academy. But even before that he was working with me. He’s my main pitching coach. I always try to go the Academy during the offseason and have a few workouts with him. I really like the way he teaches pitching. I think everybody, all the pitchers that get to work with him, they appreciate his work.
Roberto: He was the one who wrote your name on a scouting report for the Chicago Cubs, and the next thing you know you were signed to MLB.
Alex Maestri: At the time he was an international scout for the Chicago Cubs, and you know I was doing pretty good. I was young and I was doing good for my team. And he said that he was going to take a chance and sign me. He said that I could make the Big Leagues. He really believed in me. He gave me a great opportunity to come over and gave me a chance to play in the states.
Alex Maestri: We really love that. 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.
Roberto: Coach Piazza helps pitchers as well, right?
Alex Maestri: Oh definitely. We always have meetings in the morning.. He comes in with Bill and always says his opinion on our pitching. He was one of the best catchers in the game so he obviously knows a lot about pitching too. It’s just great having him around.
Roberto: Being the underdog, Team Italy plays like there is no tomorrow.
Alex Maestri: I guess it’s kind of normal since baseball is not so developed in Italy. People don’t really respect Italian baseball, but you know it’s kind of like the fun part of playing. Nobody really thinks that we are strong. But I think we are a very good team actually, and we should again surprise a lot of people around the world.
Roberto: It this also an opportunity to play on the world’s stage to show MLB what they missed out on?
Alex Maestri: I don’t think I have to have any sort of revenge, I just want to play good for myself and my country. I was here in the states, and they gave me a great opportunity to play here. I had a lot of great experiences here so it’s not like I’m mad at anybody. Things just went that way. I had a tough year in 2010 so it’s normal that I got released. You know I’m still playing baseball. I’ve got a great opportunity now in Japan. I just love what I do so like I said before I am just going to play for my country and not for anybody else.
Roberto: You look healthy and happy. With this Italian team playing to win, I know you are going to give it your all.
Alex Maestri: Yeah, I think a few years back, the Italian national team just went out playing a few tournaments to kind of like participate. But now with manager Marco Mazzieri, you have a very good attitude and it rubs off on all the players. Now you have a very strong group that won two European Championships back-to-back. And now everybody is starting to feel confident about themselves. And in baseball that’s what is about—confidence. You know we got ability so we need to be confident and just go out there and play baseball.
Alex: I’ve got my pitches like everybody else. I just got to keep working on them and make them as confusing as I can for hitters.
Roberto: In prior in WBC competitions, you have been stellar. I hope that you will continue to shine in the upcoming 2013 WBC.
Alex Maestri: Yeah, you know, that’s the plan. We always try to do our best. And that’s what I’m trying to do this time around. Right now I’m getting ready and going day-by-day. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and I’ll definitely give my best effort.
Roberto: Are there any players in the WBC that you know from you days in MiLB?
Alex Maestri: The only guys that I remember is catcher Chris Robinson from Canada. We were in the same organization. We never really played together. I have played against many of the USA players like Mike (Giancarlo) Stanton and Jonathan Lucroy. It’s cool facing them again in the World Baseball Classic.
Roberto: Every pitch has to count with the WBC pitch limits in place.
Alex Maestri: Yeah, that’s kind of like the plan every time you go out. You know it’s a team sport so everybody is going to have do his own thing. I know that I will do my part with my pitching, but once I’m done with my pitches then there is someone else coming in to take over. We just all have to do this together, and it’s going to be touch. We’re playing the best teams in the world, and it’s going to be hard work. So we’re going to have to be really focused.
Roberto: You have to execute.
Alex Maestri: Yeah, you’ve got to be able to execute and if you don’t you just lose games. That’s why we play this game. You know, we enjoy that part of it.
Roberto: What does it mean to be an Italian playing baseball?
Alex Maestri: I just started to play baseball because of my brother. At the time I wasn’t really watching any baseball on TV. I started doing that later on, but it was cool seeing all those guys with Italian names written on the back of their jerseys. I just grew up hoping that one day that I would be able to take their place.
Roberto: With the influx of MLB players now joining Team Italy, how will it change the personality of La Squadra Azzurri.
Alex Maestri: I think it’s going to be the same. We have a good personality now. Those players are going to definitely improve the level. Because obviously they are Big League players and they have more experience than we do. It’s going to make the team better, but I don’t think it will change the personality of the team.
Roberto: You are representing Italy on all corners of the earth wherever you compete.
Alex Maestri: I feel like it. I always travel the world and play baseball in different countries. But my roots are always with me so I feel very proud of that. I’m sure all the other guys feel proud of that too—even the Big League players that are going to play for us. We already had a bunch of them in the World Baseball Classic, and they play as hard as we do. They want to win, and it’s just going to be great to do it all together.
Roberto: Any favorites? Has the Dodgers’ Nick Punto lived up to his name as the shredder by tearing the jersey off walk-off heroes after Team Italy victories?
Alex Maestri: I don’t know about Punto, but another guy who had an unbelievable WBC tournament was Chris Denorfia. At the tournament, he really gave everything he had. He made some great plays defensively and had some clutch hits so it’s going to be good to see him again. Jason Grilli has been with us for the first two World Baseball Classics. He’s just a great guy. He loves to come and play for us. Alex Liddi, of course, is one of my best friends.
I haven’t seen him in a long time. I saw him the other day, and it was just great seeing him again. He’s really family. I feel like his brother. And all the other guys that are going to come are going to be very welcome.
Roberto: You will be in the capable hands of catchers Drew Butera from the Minnesota Twins and Tyler LaTorre from the San Francisco Giants. Have you ever worked with them before?
Alex Maestri: Actually not. I haven’t had the pleasure to work with them yet. It’s going to happen in the WBC.Roberto: Since you were in the same organization as the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo, it will be sort of a Cubbie reunion with two Italians on the same team.
Alex Maestri: Yeah, I heard really a lot of good things about him. We both played for the same organization so it will be good.
Roberto: Anything else you would like to say before we sign off?
Alex Maestri: I’d like to say hi to everybody. I would like to thank the great people all over the world. I really enjoy what I’m doing now. I might not be enjoying this for the past seven years if it had not been for them. Thanks!
Roberto: I really enjoyed meeting you at the Italian MLB Academy and talking with you today here in Arizona prior to the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Thanks for your time!
Alex: Thank you very much, and thank you for the work you do for Team Italy. It’s good to have somebody who really cares about this team and tries to promote the team as much as you do. Thank you for doing that.
Roberto: Thank you. It’s my pleasure. I believe in you and Italian baseball. God bless Italia!
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.
Chinese Professional Baseball League sends out 1997 MLB 1st Rounder Dan Reichert for upset in 2011 Asia Series versus Japan, Australia and Korea
Not only did ESPN Draft Busts columnist David Schoenfield disrespect Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions team-leading 35-year-old starting pitcher Dan Reichert in his 2006 Page 2 article by considering him a Royal flop when ranked #22 in his list of the 100 Worst Draft Picks of All Time, but he added insult to injury when pointing out Kansas City could have opted to choose future all-star slugger Lance Berkman instead of the risky right-handed pitcher Reichert as their first-round pick of the 1997 Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft.
Analogous to the way America sends it old phones away to China to be recycled in favor of the latest bells and whistles in the world of technological wizardry, MLB literally gave up on the now aging Dan Reichert shortly after making his first start in the Major Leagues against the Milwaukee Brewers on July 16, 1999, when Reichert was yanked out of an agonizing game in which he surrendered seven earned runs and issued four walks in 1.2 innings of work. His last sighting in the MLB was a short-lived stint with the 2003 Toronto Blue Jays. In five seasons as a member of baseball’s elite, Dan Reichert compiled a 21-25 record with a 5.55 ERA and 240 K’s.
Nearly a decade later after leading his Lions to its eighth franchise CPBL Championship title, the reconditioned Chinese Professional Baseball League version of Dan Reichert is a seasoned veteran and mentor for the bright new hopefuls aspiring to attain Big League status. However, the most important task at hand is a strong showing in the 2011 Asia Series which run Friday, November 25 through Tuesday, November 29 in Taiwan’s Taichung City.
A huge underdog in comparison to the heavily favored Fukuoka Softbank Hawks–who were recently crowned champions of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB)–the Uni Lions have an uphill battle ahead of them. Considered the second-most talented league in the world after MLB, the Nippon Professional Baseball League has produced Japanese teams that have always fared best in the international tournament. The NPB teams have won every year, and once again appear to be poised for a repeat win.
Standing in the way of Japanese winning tradition is defending Australian Baseball League (ABL) champion Perth Heat. Marking the first time Australia will be represented in the 2011 Asia Series against countries where baseball is a national obsession, the Perth Heat possess the ABL’s longest active winning streak in history (11-0) and are currently in excellent form.
One of the first teams in the history of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), the Samsung Lions played in the KBO’s first game ever in 1982. Runner-up to the inaugural Asia Series Japanese team champion in 2005, the Samsung Lions return to the games as the 2011 Korea Baseball Organization’s pride and joy. By beating defending champion SK Wyverns in five games, the Samsung Lions were proclaimed the Korean Series title champs for the fifth time since the club’s inception. Look for the Samsung Lions to come out of the dugout fighting for victory.