Archive for the ‘ World Baseball Classic ’ Category

Roberto Angotti interviews MLB European academies consultant and France bench coach Andy Berglund

im_mlbinternational_132x92 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.

Andy Burgland led the Czech Republic to its first ever Silver Medal and was nominated as 2011 European Baseball Coaches Association Coach of the Year.

Andy Berglund has been big news since he set foot in Europe. He first gained notoriety after leading the Czech Republic national team to their first ever Silver Medal and being nominated for the 2011 European Baseball Coaches Association (EBCA) Coach of the Year Award. (Photo courtesy of www.Mister-Baseball.com)

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.
Andy Berglund and Mark Melancon

Andy Berglund and Mark Melancon


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.Roadshow
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 BerglundAs 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.

Andy Berglund and Prince Fielder

Andy Berglund and Prince Fielder

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?
Sage Hill H.S. manager Andy Berglund

Sage Hill High School head coach Andy Berglund was named 2008 Academy League High School Coach of the Year for his excellence.


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.
Curtis Granderson (third from the right) and Andy Bergund (far right)

Curtis Granderson (third from the right) and Andy Berglund (far right) on the MLB Roadshow


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.
Czech Republic manager Andy Berglund visits pitcher Alex Sogard in the 2012 World Baseball Classic Qualifier.

Czech Republic lefty Alex Sogard listens to manager Andy Berglund in the 2012 WBC Qualifier.


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.
Team France at the 2014 European Baseball Championship was led by bench coach Andy Berglund (fifth from right) and manager Eric Gagne (far right).

Led by bench coach Andy Berglund (fifth from the right) and manager Eric Gagne (far right),
France placed sixth in the 2014 European Baseball Championship in Brno, Czech Republic.


Barry Larkin and Andy Berglund

Barry Larkin and Andy Berglund

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.

Italia manager Marco Mazzieri chats with Roberto Angotti at the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship

After two consecutive  European Baseball Championship titles in 2010 and 2012, Team Italia had to settle for the Silver Medal in 2014.

After two consecutive European Baseball Championship titles in 2010 and 2012, Italia placed second after a heartbreaking 6-3 loss to 2014 Euro Champion the Netherlands.

Roberto Angotti interviews Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri at the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship (Photo courtesy of IandI-GoPro.com).

Roberto Angotti interviews Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri at the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship (Photo courtesy of IandI-GoPro.com).

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?

Marco Mazzieri: Well I think you always have butterflies in your stomach when you face competition like this and most of all when you wear the Italia jersey on your chest. With that being said, we knew it was going to be a very, very tough European Championship because all the teams got a lot better than in the past. We knew that this bracket was going to be tough so we came prepared. With good preparation after 10 days in Verona, where we played Italian Baseball Week against Spain and the Czech Republic, we are very happy with the guys we put together even though we are playing with younger players than in the past. As you can probably see, we have a lot of our products of our Italian Baseball Academy on this team.
Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri (second from left) with bench coach Marco Nanni (far left) prior to the Netherlands game on September 20, 2014 at Draci Ballpark in Brno, Czech Republic (Photo courtesy of Mister-Baseball.com).

Italia manager Marco Mazzieri (second from left) with bench coach Marco Nanni (far left)
prior to the Netherlands game on September 20th during the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship
held at Draci Ballpark in Brno, Czech Republic (Photo courtesy of Mister-Baseball.com).

Most of Team Italia's  players are graduates of the Italian Baseball Academy.

Most of Team Italia’s young players are graduates of the Italian Baseball Academy in Tirrenia, which is under the watchful eye of MLB director Bill Holmberg.

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.

Team Italia pitching coach Bill Holmberg visits with Roberto Angotti in the dugout (Photo courtesy of IandI-GoPro.com).

Bill Holmberg, Team Italia pitching coach and Italian Academy MLB director, visits with Roberto Angotti in the dugout (Photo courtesy of IandI-GoPro.com).

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.

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.

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: 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.

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.

Passaportoitaliano2006Roberto: How do you react to criticism from the media when they claim that the Team Italia roster includes international players born outside of Italy?

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!

Italia is the team to beat in Euro Championship

Italia is on target to win its third consecutive European Championship.

Team Italia is on target to win its third consecutive European Baseball Championship after victories over Mexico and Canada in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

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.”

Twins' prospect Max Kepler played for Germany in the WBC Qualifier in Regensburg.

Team Germany OF/Twins’ prospect Max Kepler slides safely into second at the WBC Qualifier in Regensburg.

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.”

Marten Gasparini is a graduate of the Italian Baseball Academy led by Team Italia coach Bill Holmberg.

Royals’ million dollar + prospect Marten Gasparini credits Italian Baseball Academy director and Team Italia coach Bill Holmberg for his success in pro ball.

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.

Italia pitching coach Bill Holmberg and hitting coach Mike Piazza (MG-Oldmanagency / FIBS)

Team Italia coaches Bill Holmberg and Mike Piazza (Photo courtesy of M. Gallerani-Oldmanagency/FIBS)

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.

Former Team Italia catcher Francisco Cervelli and manager Marco Mazzieri at Dodgertown in 2014.

Former Team Italia catcher Francisco Cervelli and manager Marco Mazzieri at Dodgertown in 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.”

European%20BaseballFor 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.

Italia hopes to three-peat in Euro Championship

Italia will make history by winning three consecutive European Baseball Championships.

Team Italia will be making history in September by winning three consecutive European Championships.

Having won its second straight European Championship in 2012 after defeating the Netherlands, Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri expects nothing less than a third consecutive EU title since the Italian National Baseball Team has captured 10 European titles and placed second fifteen times in 32 overall appearances. The Netherlands–winner of 20 EU Championship titles with nine runner-up finishes–and 12-time Bronze Spain stand in their way.

The 2014 European Championships take place from September 12-21, 2014 in  Regensburg, Germany, and Ostrava & Brno, Czech Republic.

The 2014 European Championship takes place in Regensburg, Germany, and Ostrava/Trebic/Brno, Czech Republic from September 12-21, 2014.

Before Italia has the opportunity to face the Netherlands and Spain in the semi-final and final games held in Brno, Czech Republic, they must first qualify by defeating Belgium, Sweden, France, Germany and Great Britain in Regensburg, Germany. The Netherlands and Spain can both advance to the final rounds with wins over the Czech Republic, Greece, Croatia and Russia in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri (photo courtesy of FIBS)

Marco Mazzieri of Team Italia is both a great leader and manager.

Although Team Italia has been dominant of late in European baseball, the Netherlands won four straight EU Championship titles from 1999 to 2007. “This has been a long-time rivalry,” Team Italia skipper Marco Mazzieri said of the showdowns with the Dutch. “I have tremendous respect for their program. With that said, I like to beat them just as much as they like to beat us. Luckily, we’ve been able to beat them the past couple of years in the European Championships.” However, the Dutch have fared better than the Italians in the international competition spotlight. The Netherlands reached the second round of the 2009 World Baseball Classic, won the 2011 World Cup in Panama and went as far as the semi-finals in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Mazzieri admits the Dutch have an advantage when it comes down to recruiting top international talent from the Netherlands Antilles, which are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. “It’s easier for them to get players from the Caribbean,” said Mazzieri.

The International Baseball Federation has ranked the Netherlands 6th and Italy 11th in the world.

The International Baseball Federation has ranked
the Netherlands 6th and Italy 11th in the world.

Considering twenty-eight percent of all players making the 25-man MLB opening day rosters last year were born outside the United States, it should come as no surprise that 241 players from 12 different countries were represented on the diamond. Former New York Yankee Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens, who serves as the Netherlands manager when not coaching for the San Francisco Giants, is from Curaçao. He spoke about Major League Baseball’s effort to grow the game globally. Hensley said, “International competitions give many countries the chance to show people that we can compete with the best team in baseball, Team USA.” With the Netherlands pitching staff led by MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven and the best position players from Curacao and Aruba being mentored by former Yankees infielder Robert Eenhoorn–who heads the Royal Dutch Baseball and Softball Association, the Netherlands is now home to six baseball academies and a bonafide professional stadium in Hoofddorp which will host an upcoming MLB Season Opening Series soon.

Mauro Mazzotti will have Team Spain prepared for a big effort.

Manager Mauro Mazzotti will have 17th-ranked Spain prepared for a big effort.

In the 2013 World Baseball Classic, the only player on Spain’s 28-man roster born in the country was pitcher Eric Gonzalez, who grew up in the Canary Islands and whose parents are Venezuelan. Eleven of his teammates were born in Venezuela and six in Cuba. The makeup of Team Spain reflects the changing demographics of the country, where nearly half of the five million legal immigrants are from Latin America. Some members of Team Spain received passports because of their family roots in Spain, while others qualified to play through marriage or long-term residency. Mauro Mazzotti’s team is dangerous because the manager recruits baseball’s secret weapons from former Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Team Italia being introduced prior to their stunning upset over Mexico at the 2013 World Baseball Classic in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Team Italia being introduced prior to their upset over Mexico at the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

Anthony Rizzo offers Chris Colabello an Italian kiss after his three-run homer in the WBC.

Anthony Rizzo and Chris Colabello exchange Italian amore after an early lead against Dominican Republic in the second round of the 2013 WBC.

Manager Marco Mazzieri hopes to replicate the winning synergy demonstrated by the international Team Italia lineup of MLB-affiliated players in the WBC with a roster of primarily homegrown talent in the European Championship. He said, “I’m really focused on developing our guys and possibly to add good players as we did in the 2013 WBC. We would like to get players from all over the U.S. a little bit more, but we just have to make do with what we have.” Expect the defending Euro Champions Italians to play with intentions of a three-peat.

European%20BaseballFor 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.

San Marino & Rimini battle for 2014 European Cup

T&A San Marino and Rimini will fight for the right to represent Europe in the 2015 Asia Series.

T&A San Marino and Rimini will face off to represent Europe in the 2014 Asia Series.


T&A San Marino GM Mauro Mazzotti is also the manager for Team Spain.

T&A San Marino GM Mauro Mazzotti also serves as the manager for the Spanish national team.

Three-time defending Italian Baseball League champion T&A San Marino is loaded with seasoned MLB players and prospects selected by Orioles’ scout and San Marino GM Mauro Mazzotti, who was named 2012 Coach of the Year by the European Baseball Coaches Association and was instrumental in leading underdog Team Spain to its first-ever appearance at the World Baseball Classic. T&A San Marino features an international all-star cast including starting pitcher Júnior Guerra–a former catcher in the Braves and Mets organizations–and relief pitcher/closer Jesus Delgado–who made his MLB debut for the 2008 Marlins–both of whom are veteran Venezuelan hurlers who bolster the dominant San Marino pitching staff.

T&A San Marino lefty Chris Cooper has pitched for Team Italia since leaving AAA ball in 2009.

T&A San Marino lefty Chris Cooper has pitched for Team Italia since leaving the Texas Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate in 2009.

Adding pitching depth to San Marino’s roster is 35-year-old Italian American Chris Cooper, who was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 35th round of the 2001 MLB amateur draft. Cooper, who hails from Pittsburgh, explained that his original family name was Cocchiararo. “It’s alphabet soup,” Cooper said, smiling as he elaborated on the scenario. “They changed my last name when my great-grandfather came over in 1911. They misspelled his name about three times, and the story was, supposedly, he pointed at somebody’s nametag when he was getting his papers here in the U.S. They just said, ‘Okay, we have Cooper.’” Cooper is joined by fellow Italian national team member Lorenzo Avagnina as well as Canadian-born Paul Macaluso. Both San Marino outfielders Avagnina and Macaluso are the unsung heroes of the squad as they emulate general manager Mazzotti’s true grit style of play and “Never Say Die” approach to the Italian Baseball League.

Mike Ekstrom of the Rimini Pirates

Mike Ekstrom of the Rimini Pirates

Standing in the path of T&A San Marino’s path to the European Cup is a very dangerous Rimini Pirates baseball team. Their pitching arsenal is led by MLB veteran/Oregon native Mike Ekstrom and Cuban-born southpaw Enorbel Márquez-Ramírez along with former Mariners’ minor leaguer Jose Escalona serving as Rimini’s closer. Should the Rimini Pirates defeat T&A San Marino in the upcoming Euro Cup, they will be the European representative in the 2014 Asia Series–an international competition featuring the champions of the Australian Baseball League, Korea Baseball Organization, Nippon Pro Baseball in Japan, Chinese Professional Baseball League and the European Cup. Having already earned himself a ticket to the Asia Series as the pitching ace for the 2014 Australian Baseball League (ABL) Champion Perth Heat (5-1, 0.72 ERA, 50.1 IP, 10 BB and 57 K), Ekstrom could potentially have a difficult decision to make on whether to play for the Aussie or Euro Cup Champs. Italian-Australian TradeTeam Italia pitcher Nick Pugliese was faced with similar circumstances when he played for last year’s European Cup Champion Unipol Bologna and the 2013 ABL Champion Canberra Cavalry. Because Pugliese was committed to the Italian team, it opened up a roster spot on the Cavalry pitching staff for Ekstrom. Despite being a member of the Perth Heat, Ekstrom was granted temporary pitching privileges for rival Canberra Cavalry so that Australia could put their league’s best players out on the field in the international spotlight. The strategy paid off big as Ekstrom led the longshot Cavalry to the 2013 Asia Series Championship, and the ABL was subsequently awarded the winner’s $500,000 prize money. Should Rimini win the Euro Cup, let’s hope that Ekstrom chooses to share some amore by bringing home the loot to benefit Italian baseball.

Jack Santora has played for Team Italia since 2006.

Jack Santora has played for Team Italia since 2006.


Team Italia captain Mario Chairini accepts the 2012 European Cup after the Italians beat the Netherlands.

Team Italia captain Mario Chairini accepts the 2012 Euro Championship trophy after Italy beat Holland.

Based on what he has been written in his blog “Baseball Round The World”, Ekstrom has nothing but love for Italia. How could he not when Italian American teammate Jack Santora, a 19th round Arizona Diamondbacks draft pick in 1999, has shown him the ropes after having spent the last eight years playing the infields of the Italian Baseball League. The Monterey, California native Santora, along with Rimini hometown hero and Italian national team captain Mario Chiarini–who played for the 2000 Arizona League Mariners and competed in the 2004 Summer Olympics–are the elder statesmen of the squad. These veterans have been both critical to Rimini’s success and inspirational to newcomers to the team like Ekstrom. However, nothing means more to the players right now than the EU Champions Cup and the right to represent European baseball in the 2014 Asia Series.

Rimini and San Marino are only minutes apart.

Rimini and San Marino are merely minutes apart.


San Marino and "Monte Titano" were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008.

San Marino and “Monte Titano” were added to the exclusive UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008.

Although the battlegrounds for the European Champions Cup Finals will take place nearby, Rimini and San Marino had to travel great distances to play the other EU Championship teams and win their respective Qualifier Champions Cup bracket to get here. Rimini defeated the best from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Ukraine and host Brno, Czech Republic, while T&A San Marino beat a similar group of international squads which included Italy’s Nettuno and home team Vaessen in the Netherlands. Italian Baseball League favorite T&A San Marino may have the edge over Rimini, but the Pirates are not to be underestimated. Rimini outfielder Leonardo Zileri‘s hitting frenzy in the European Champions Cup Qualifier garnered him a .591 batting average (13-for-22) and awards for MVP and Best Hitter in the tourney. T&A San Marino will counteract with Venezuelan slugger Jairo Ramos, whose performance in the European Champions Cup Qualifier (.500 BA, 2-2B, 2-HR, 9 RBI) yielded similar MVP and Best Hitter accolades in the competition.san-marino-rimini-baseball

logo fibs 20 x20(1)With the much anticipated best of three-game series between T&A San Marino and Rimini for the 2014 European Champions Cup taking place beginning August 7th, baseball fever is at its all-time high in Italy. The Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball (FIBS) website will provide up-to-date details and links to the live internet streaming broadcasts. More than a local rivalry between San Marino and Rimini, the ramifications of winning the European Champions Cup extend internationally as the EU representative in the 2014 Asia Series. May the best team win and go on to turn heads in Taiwan. Lord knows an injection of winners’ prize money earned abroad would help nurture the growth of the game in Europe.

Italian baseball ambassador Alex Liddi LA bound?

Alex Liddi will have no trouble wearing Dodger blue (Photo by Nicolo Balzani).

Team Italia’s Alex Liddi will have no trouble wearing Dodger Blue in Los Angeles (Photo by Nicolo Balzani).

Alex Liddi, Major League Baseball’s first Italian-born-and-developed player, has arrived at LA Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate in Albuquerque with hopes of joining fellow Team Italia teammate Drew Butera when MLB rosters expand in September. Liddi will be in good company in New Mexico, where the close-knit Italian-American community in Albuquerque will welcome him.
Italian Americans first arrived in New Mexico in the late 1800's.

Italians flocked to Albuquerque when the transcontinental railroad arrived.

Having a strong presence in Albuquerque since the transcontinental railroad first arrived in the city in 1880, the Italian Americans will now have the opportunity to relish over Italy’s pride and joy and San Remo’s hometown hero as the latest addition to the Isotopes roster this summer. Similar to that of early Italian immigrants’ journey, struggle, and perseverance after leaving their motherland in Italy for better lives in America, Liddi has also endured his own personal and treacherous MLB roller coaster ride up-and-down the ranks in the Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox organizations prior to signing a minor league contract with the LA Dodgers. With most of his Big League experience defensively at first and third, Liddi is a versatile player who can play shortstop and the outfield. Having played in 61 regular season games since making his MLB debut in 2011, the 25-year-old slugger is anxious to prove himself worthy of a trip out west to LA.
Alex Liddi's father, Augustine Liddi, graduated from Beverly Hills HIgh School in 1970.

Alex Liddi’s father, Augustine Liddi, graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1970.

The two-story Italian Hall was built between 1907 and 1908 by Pozzo Construction.

LA’s Italian Hall was built between 1907 and 1908.

Alex Liddi has a strong connection to Los Angeles since his father, Agostino (Augustine), graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1970. Agostino’s parents left Italy shortly after World War II to work as tailors in America. While attending Beverly Hills High School, Agostino Liddi played baseball before repatriating to Italy after graduation. It was there that he met his future wife, Flavia, who played softball competitively in Italy. Alex was literally weaned on baseball by his father and mother. You could say that Alex was a truly a baseball baby because it was reported that Flavia played first base for the first three months of her pregnancy carrying Alex. When Alex was old enough to play baseball, his mother coached his teams. As a teenager, his father drove him long distances to compete in games throughout Italy. With sons, Thomas and Alex, the couple shared their love of the game to transform the Liddi’s into Italy’s premier baseball family.
Alex Liddi's mother, Flavia, during the second-round elimination game of the World Baseball Classic against Puerto Rico in Miami, Wednesday, March 13, 2013.

Alex Liddi’s mother, Flavia, traveled all the way from San Remo to support her son playing for the Italian national team during the 2013 World Baseball Classic in Phoenix and Miami.

Alex Liddi's ultimate destination

Alex Liddi wants to play in LA.

What made Team Italia so heavenly to watch in the WBC was due in part to manager and Dodgers’ European Scout Marco Mazzieri’s faith in Alex Liddi. Mike Scioscia’s Los Angeles Angels became believers in a WBC warm up exhibition game in Tempe prior to the start of the 2013 international competition. Liddi went 2-for-3 with a double, a two-run home run and 3 RBI against the Halos. The Italian cleanup hitter continued his hot-hitting ways and played stellar defense at third base during the first two WBC games against Mexico and Canada. He literally wrecked havoc on opposing pitchers by going 4-for-7 with two walks, three runs and three RBI. The two wins ensured Team Italia’s advancement to the next round of action with USA against WBC Champion Dominican Republic and runner up Puerto Rico. If Liddi can rediscover his offensive prowess while in Albuquerque, then the face of European baseball will be a big name in Little Italy and Chavez Ravine.

Alex Liddi looks on while Drew Butera speaks during a 2013 WBC Press Conference.

Jason Grilli pitches new autobiography while Jason Kendall catches on with his own ‘Throwback’ book

Jason Grilli shuts the door and gets the save for Team Italia against Mexico in the 2013 WBC. (Photo courtesy of FIBS)

Jason Grilli shuts the door and gets the save for Team Italia against Mexico in the 2013 WBC.

Jason Grilli's Just My Game is a must-read.

Jason Grilli’s Just My Game, co-written by Todd Civin, is mandatory reading for baseball lovers worldwide.

Not only do both former MLB All-Stars share a common first name, but coincidentally they have published two new must-read books at the same time. 2013 National League All-Star / Pittsburgh Pirates’ closer Jason Grilli and seasoned veteran catcher Jason Kendall are best-known for their delivery on the mound and calling the game behind home plate. However, let the world know that they also possess a knack for writing good stories. Initially, Grilli was reluctant to share with fans his personal journal which eventually turned into a book.
Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle wrote the foreword for Jason Grilli's new autobiography.

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle wrote the foreword for Jason Grilli’s new autobiography.

DUlisse_FireUpThe_Grilli-1Grilli said, “I kind of was keeping it for them when I thought my career was over in 2010 when I ruptured my quad tendon and thought I would never play baseball again. So I just started writing. It was therapeutic, and I didn’t want to forget things—the good things, the bad things. My career had flashed before my eyes so I just started writing. Here we are three years later writing a book… I didn’t finish college, and I promised my mom that I would. At least I wrote a book so she will be happy.” Asked what readers can expect to get out of his book, Grilli responded: “I think overall there are a lot of flashbacks: the good, the bad and the indifferent. If there is anything to take from it, it’s a feel good SportsIllustrated
story. It’s more about, if you quit then you lose.” Without a doubt, this 215-page book is quite an accomplishment. Grilli discounted the praise and said: “They are short pages, double-spaced. You know all the tricks to make your 10-page paper longer. Maybe that is what it is…a lot of insert pictures in the middle. If you don’t want to read the book, at least look at the pictures.” Just My Game chronicles Grilli’s love of the game of baseball and highlights his incredible and trusting relationship with his best friend and father, former MLB pitcher, Steve Grilli. Just My Game takes readers through the highs and lows of the Team Italia pitcher’s career including his 18 strikeout performance as a junior at Seton Hall, his selection as the #4 first-round pick in the 1997 draft, life in the minor leagues, and his recovery from several near career-ending injuries leading up to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ remarkable
Jason Grilli and Mike Tyson

Jason Grilli and secret admirer Mike Tyson

2013 playoff run. Jason Grilli will be making several book signing appearances in the coming months in support of the launch of his long-awaited autobiography. Be the first to purchase Just My Game before it goes on sale to the public by visiting Jason Grilli’s Facebook. Readers will be pleasantly surprised to find the eloquent foreword to Grilli’s book written by 2013 National League Manager of the Year and Pirates’ skipper Clint Hurdle. Known to be a proponent of the power of positive thinking, Hurdle is the perfect setup man for Grilli’s autobiography.
Hurdle has been busy of late reading Jason Kendall’s Throwback, which was co-written by sportswriter Lee Judge. Throwback
Jason Kendall was the Pirates' #1 draft pick in 1992.

Jason Kendall was the Pirates’ #1 draft pick in 1992.

When asked if fans should buy Jason Kendall and Lee Judge’s Throwback, Hurdle responded: “Give this book a read. I’ve known Lee Judge for over 20 years. He has an unquenchable thirst for ‘Why’ questions and a passion for the game. He doesn’t just want the answers. He wants understanding. I’ve spent time with him in Minor League and Major League cities and clubhouses, and we are still friends! There is a sincere effort and old school way this book has been put together, and it is deserving of your time. You will laugh. You will learn. You will leave with a greater understanding and appreciation for the game we love.”
Prince Fielder holds back an emotional Jason Kendall.

Prince Fielder holds back an emotional Jason Kendall.

America’s favorite pastime has always left fans and amateur players alike yearning for the answers to questions about how pros play the game. Have you ever wondered about pre-game rituals, what is being said at home plate, the signs a catcher uses to communicate with the pitcher, how a team silently communicates and the right way to hit a batter or what goes on behind closed clubhouse doors? All-Star catcher Jason Kendall is more than qualified to shed some light on the subject using his 15-years playing behind home plate with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Athletics, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, and Kansas City Royals as a true testament. Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons summed it up nicely when he characterized Kendall and his new book as winners.
Vladimir Guerrero collides with catcher  Jason Kendall.

Vladimir Guerrero collides with Jason Kendall.

Gibby said, “Jason Kendall is the ultimate competitor, a modern-day gladiator. If you had nine Jason Kendalls, you could never lose.” Undoubtedly, Throwback provides readers an opportunity to gain an insider’s view of the game from a true-grit player’s perspective. Coupled with Jason Grilli’s new offering of Just My Game, baseball fanatics now have a winning combination of required reading guaranteed to bring hours of enjoyment and a fonder appreciation of what makes these players truly inspirational.

Why Mike Piazza is Italian American of the Decade

Mike Piazza prior to the start of the 2006 World Baseball Classic in Lakeland, Florida.

After playing for Team Italia in the 2006 WBC,
Mike Piazza became the country’s hitting coach.

Future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza has been fueling the fire of the Italian baseball revolution for nearly a decade. Since joining Team Italia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, the proud Italian American has had a profound effect on the growth and development of baseball in Italy. Working in tandem with Italian MLB Academy Director and Team Italia pitching coach Bill Holmberg, Piazza has helped Italy become the superpower of European baseball in light of the recent KC Royals signing of five-tool Italian-born prospect Marten Gasparini for $1.3 million.
Italian MLB Academy Director Bill Holmberg (far right) smiles as Kansas City Royals prospect Marten Gasparini signs his professional baseball contract.

Kansas City Royals prospect Marten Gasparini signs his $1.3 professional baseball contract
while Italian MLB Academy Director and Team Italia coach Bill Holmberg (far right) looks on.

Piazza-Chart1
MIke Piazza was inducted into the Mets' Hall of Fame on September 29, 2013.

Mike Piazza was inducted into the Mets’ Hall of Fame on September 29, 2013.

One statistic often overlooked in validating Mike Piazza’s rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame is Career Runs Created by a catcher. Based on the 1,378 Runs Created by Piazza–which ties Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk–Team Italia’s hitting coach was the BEST hitting catcher of all-time (Mike Piazza 1,378; Carlton Fisk 1,378; Ted Simmons 1,283; Yogi Berra 1,265; Joe Torre 1,259; Johnny Bench 1,239; Gary Carter 1,184; Bill Dickey 1,164; Gabby Hartnett 1,161 and Jason Kendall 1,112). Defensively Piazza was the BEST catcher of his time in handling his pitchers. In his career behind the plate, pitchers had a 3.80 ERA when he was catching. Checking the stats for all the other catchers who caught the same pitchers in the same year that Piazza did, they allowed a 4.34 ERA. With 12-time MLB All-Star Mike Piazza coaching Italian ballplayers, the BEST has yet to come for Team Italia.

18-year-old Chicago Cubs catching prospect Alberto Mineo during Team Italia's recent visit to Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. (Photo by  )

19-year-old catching prospect Alberto Mineo, who signed for $500,000 with the Chicago Cubs, was under the guidance and direction of mentor Mike Piazza during Team Italia’s 2014 Spring Training Exhibition Series at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. (Photo by Claudio Vecchi)


Tommy Lasorda and Team Italy hitting coach Mike Piazza (Photo by Jon SooHoo/LA Dodgers)

Team Italia hitting coach Mike Piazza and legend Tommy Lasorda (Photo by Jon SooHoo/LA Dodgers)

“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.

Italian Americans Sal Varriale and Mike Piazza at the 29th Annual Italian Coaches Convention in January 2014.

Italian Americans Sal Varriale and Mike Piazza at the 29th Annual Italian Coaches Convention

Mike Piazza’s “Science of Hitting” was a highlight at
the 29th Annual Coaches Convention in Veneto, Italy.

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.” fibs_logo 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.”
Team Italia pitcher Alessandro Maestri had much success playing in Japan.

After reaching Double-A ball in the Chicago Cubs organization, Team Italia pitcher Alessandro Maestri ventured abroad and had great success in Australia and Japan.

Alex Liddi carrying the Italian flag while ascending up the MLB ranks in 2008

Alex Liddi has carried the Italian flag from the minute he signed with the Mariners in 2005 until now playing for the White Sox.

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.
Former Team Italia catcher Francisco Cervelli and manager Marco Mazzieri at Dodgertown in 2014,

Former Team Italia catcher Francisco Cervelli visits with manager Marco Mazzieri at Dodgertown during 2014 Spring Training (Photo by Claudio Vechi)

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.”

Bill Holmberg, Mike Piazza, Frank Catalanotto and Jason Grilli

Team Italia coaches Bill Holmberg, Mike Piazza, Frank Catalanotto with closer Jason Grilli

niashofExhibitBannerSm3RGB 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.

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.”

Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck join Tommy Lasorda in Artists’ Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball

Bugs Bunny is considered by many insiders including Nomar Garciaparra as baseball’s best all-time player.

Bugs Bunny is considered by many insiders including Nomar Garciaparra as baseball’s best all-time player.(Photo courtesy of Warner Bros./MLB Productions)

There is absolutely nothing looney about recently selected Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame inductee Nomar Garciaparra being Bugs Bunny’s biggest fan. As one of the best shortstops in the game in 1997, Garciaparra won AL Rookie of the Year honors with a 30-homer, 98-RBI season. Nomar was an All-Star in five of his nine seasons in Boston (1996-2004) and was a runner-up for AL MVP in 1998 after hitting .323 with 35 homers and 122 RBI. The Whittier, California native and St. John Bosco High School All-Star standout knew early on that he wanted to be like the talented and versatile rabbit:
Bugs Bunny is the consummate all-star in "Baseball Bugs" (1946).

Bugs Bunny is the star in “Baseball Bugs” (1946).(Baseball Bugs appears courtesy of Warner Bros.)

“Back then, my idol was Bugs Bunny, because I saw a cartoon of him playing ball – you know, the one where he plays every position himself with nobody else on the field but him? Now that I think of it, Bugs is still my idol. You have to love a ballplayer like that…” Nomar is not alone in the Wascally Wabbit Fan Club. Proud Italian American Tommy Lasorda marched with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in a 2008 LA holiday parade and said, “Bugs would be an excellent baseball player. He’s more than just an ordinary steak sauce, a heckuva lot more!”
Baseball Bugs Poster by Kim Reynolds (photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Warner Bros. Senior Production Artist Kim Reynolds produced this Baseball Bugs poster.

Bugs Bunnys says: "Watch me paste this pathetic palooka with a powerful paralyzing perfect pachhydermas percussion pitch!" Otherwise known as the "Bugs Bunny Changeup", many MLB pitchers including all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman and current aces Justin Verlander and Johan Santana rely on this pitch in their arsenal.

In the 1946 “Baseball Bugs” cartoon, Bugs Bunnys says: “Watch me paste this pathetic palooka with a powerful paralyzing perfect pachhydermas percussion pitch!” Otherwise known as “the Bugs Bunny Changeup”, many MLB pitchers today including Justin Verlander and Johan Santana rely on this pitch to make hitters look silly while helplessly striking out. (Created by Friz Freleng/Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Trevor Hoffman was a promising college shortstop who had trouble hitting in Minor League Baseball. Converting to a pitcher, Hoffman was never the same in MLB after shoulder surgery eliminated his 95 mph fastball in 1994 and 1995. He learned the changeup, which was so good it earned the nickname of “Bugs Bunny” because of the cartoonish swings it would induce from hitters. Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, “When I think of Trevor Hoffman, I think of his virtually unhittable changeup. They called it the Bugs Bunny changeup. Basically, it stopped at home plate. Guys hadn’t seen a pitch like that, and they couldn’t adjust to it. He pitched so well off his fastball they couldn’t just sit on it every pitch. But even if they did, they hadn’t seen a pitch like that so they didn’t know how to hit it.”
Illustrator Kim Reynolds of Warner Bros.

Artist Kim Reynolds of Warner Bros. has contributed his Lasorda illustration to the Tribute to Italian American Baseball Exhibit.

Despite Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander being compared to Bugs Bunny by MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac, it’s Tiger teammate Austin Jackson who aspires to have the superpower of the Looney Tunes character. The speedy outfielder said, “If I was a cartoon character, I think I’d be Bugs Bunny. I’d be the baseball Bugs Bunny, because I’m kind of sneaky a little bit.” Warner Bros. Management came up with a pretty sneaky idea for a retirement present to Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda in 1996 by giving a little bit of Looney Tunes love from Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck kissing Lasorda in a customized one-of-a-kind illustration. Warner Bros. Senior Production Artist Kim Reynolds said, “Bugs has always been tied into baseball with ‘Baseball Bugs’ released in 1946 so it was only fitting. It has always been a fan favorite. Daffy was added just to finish it. We decided on a newer uniform to give the piece a updated look.”
Daffy Duck, Tommy Lasorda and Bugs Bunny by Kim Reynolds is now on display at the Artists' Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball at Convivio in San Diego (photo courtesy of Warner Bros.).

Kim Reynolds’ Daffy Duck, Tommy Lasorda and Bugs Bunny illustration is on display at the Artists’ Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball Exhibition through the end of March at Convivio Center, 2157 India Street in San Diego’s Little Italy (photo courtesy of Warner Bros.).

Legendary Baseball Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda in San Diego celebrating his 86th birthday and the grand opening of Artists' Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball.

Legendary Baseball Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda in San Diego celebrating his 86th birthday and the Grand Opening of the Artists’ Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball Exhibit with curator Roberto Angotti on September 21, 2013. (Photo by Donato Resta)

The multi-talented artist Reynolds spoke enthusiastically about Lasorda’s reaction to receiving the retirement gift from Warner Bros. “As far as I know, Lasorda loved it! It’s always fun doing dedication projects, but it was especially fun doing this for Lasorda. I’ve always been a Dodger fan and it was a real pleasure creating this art for him.” Fans can see the piece in the Artists’ Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball Exhibit at the Convivio Center in San Diego through March 30. The traveling exhibition will soon pass through Orange County and Los Angeles to coincide with the beginning of the 2014 MLB Season. More cities will be announced in the near future.
Due to popular demand, the Artists' Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball Exhibit has been extended through March 30 in San Diego. Visit www.ConvivioSociety.org for more details.

Due to popular demand, the Artists’ Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball Exhibit has been extended through March 30 in San Diego. Visit http://www.ConvivioSociety.org for more details.


Replacement for Manny Ramirez, Team Italia’s Matt Torra ends 2013 with Taiwan’s EDA Rhinos.

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.

Matt Torra spent the last part of 2013 in Taiwan pitching for the RDA Rhinos.

Matt Torra and his family spent the last part of 2013 in Taiwan with the EDA Rhinos.

Pitcher Matt Torra was a first-round MLB draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Matt Torra was a 2005 first-round pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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 tampa_bay_rays_wallpaper-29833again 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.
Matt Torra in 2012 as a member of the Rays organization.

Pitcher Matt Torra was acquired by the Tampa Bay Rays organization in 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.

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.

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.

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.

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: 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.

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