Kansas City Royals double down with Italian amore for Alex Liddi and Marten Gasparini

In his three 2015 Royals Spring Training game appearances, Alex Liddi hit .500 with a double,  two RBI and a stolen base.
Prior to being assigned to the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Alex Liddi hit .500 with a double, two RBI and a stolen base in his three 2015 KC Royals Spring Training game appearances.
Royals prospect Marten Gasparini and Nick Leto
Royals prospect Marten Gasparini and Arizona operations manager Nick Leto

Signing Europe’s top prospect Marten Gasparini for a record $1.3 million bonus just two years ago was only the beginning for the Kansas City Royals. During this past off-season, the 2014 World Series runner-up was once again at work acquiring the first Italian-born and developed player to make the Bigs–Alex Liddi. Known for his power stroke at-bat and defensive prowess on the diamond, the 26-year-old slugger is on the cusp of a comeback after making his initial MLB splash for the Seattle Mariners in 2011. Nick Leto, manager of Arizona operations for the Kansas City Royals, is largely responsible for why both Gasparini and Liddi now wear similar colors to their native blue Italia jerseys. The trio could not be happier working together with the same goal of making an impact on the the major league level. Prior to Opening Day, Nick Leto gave an exclusive interview and some invaluable insight as to where the Italians fit in the Italian family.

Roberto: How are you feeling today here at the Kansas City Royals Spring Training camp in Surprise, Arizona?
Nick Leto: Excellent. It’s been a long haul here in Spring Training. We’re cruising along pretty well now.
Roberto: With 17-year-old shortstop prospect Marten Gasparini and proven MLB success story Alex Liddi in the Royals organization, you have two of the finest Italian baseball players in history. How do you feel about leading the Italian baseball revolution?
Nick Leto: I think it is great, and I think it’s great for the Royals to have those two guys here. I think it is good for our brand to have two of the best players out of Europe and Italy. Alex is a man, and Marten is kind of still a kid growing up. But they are excellent ambassadors for European baseball and excellent ambassadors for Italy in the way they go about their business. They are two very professional hard-working players that really represent really well. And they are excellent players too.
Roberto: When the Royals clinch their division and the 40-man roster opens up, it would be a dream come true to bring Alex Liddi and Marten Gasparini up to the major league level together. I know it is a little premature for Marten to ascend up to the Bigs, but the time is now for Alex Liddi to return to Major League Baseball.
Nick Leto: There is no doubt. You know Alex has a special gift–a right-handed power gift. I think his makeup fits what we try to do around here. You know the skies the limit. He is still developing. You know players like that…guys out of Europe and different countries like Brazil and other places in the world. He may be 26 or in his mid-20’s, but he is still developing. He hasn’t reached his ceiling as a player, and we’re going to keep trying to push him to the higher levels. That is why we brought him in. I think he can help our major league team. That’s why he’s here…he has a gift of power. You know he is here to potentially impact our major league team…that’s what we’re hoping for.

Having made his MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners in 2012, Alex Liddi can play both first and third base.
After making his MLB debut with the Mariners in 2011, Alex Liddi has played first and third base.

Roberto: Alex is an exciting player to watch. Having just stepped off the plane after playing his last minor league game for the Dodgers organization, a sleepless Liddi flew over the Atlantic to join Team Italia in the midst of the 2014 European Baseball Championship in Germany. Considering that he had not slept for a couple days and then hit three home runs against England, it was quite an impressive display of athleticism.
Nick Leto: He is a guy I have known of for a long time, and I have kind of admired him from afar. But being in camp with us and really getting to see how he goes about his business day-in and day-out, he truly is a special kid. He goes about his business very professionally.  He is in here early. He is getting his extra swings in. I mean he does everything the right way. He works hard in the weight room. He is very disciplined in his approach, and he is a very hard worker. He is everything you want in a player for sure.
Roberto: He is a consummate professional.
Nick Leto: There is no doubt about it. You know he is great with his teammates. He has fun playing the game. He jokes around out there, but when it comes time to get to work he is all business. He is locked in, he is focused and he is concentrating. His makeup is excellent. There’s no doubt about that.
Roberto: Once he was no longer part of the LA Dodgers organization, who as responsible for signing him with the Kansas City Royals?
Nick Leto: Everything around here is kind of a collective effort.  You know he’s had a good run with Seattle and coming up.  He has had some excellent years in the minor leagues. So we’ve had some scouts that have had the opportunity to watch him as he has gone through the system and see him at different levels.  So we had reports in. He is a player that we have sought before. We have tried to get him earlier, and unfortunately we were unable to acquire him.  And it just felt right this off-season to get him here into camp.  We are very happy to get him, and we are very excited to have him here in our system.
Roberto: He doesn’t have the added pressure to travel with the Royals on a daily basis because he’s taking care of business in developing. Did he have an invite to Royals Spring Training camp?
Nick Leto: He did not have an invitation to Major League Spring Training camp. But he was in here early, and he’s been working out with that group quite a bit. I don’t know if I could speak for him on this, but I think he’s kind of happy to be here with us. Last year was kind of a tough year for him. I think he is trying to bounce back. Fortunately, he lives here in the area and so he was able to spend a big chunk of this off-season coming here to the facility. He was in here every day working out with our coaches, building relationships with our staff. He was able to work with our strength and conditioning staff and all of our coaches here. He went out with the major league team as backup player for a couple of games, but was on a regular routine of playing basically just about every day for our Triple-A team. He filled in for the major league club. He got a few good at-bats here before the end of the spring. He will continue to make an impression and show the organization, the coaches and everybody else what we know he’s capable of doing.

Infielder Alex Liddi possesses all the mental and physical attributes to become successful in MLB.
Infielder Alex Liddi possesses all the mental and physical attributes to become successful in MLB.

Roberto: This organization has really come along way from the Cinderella story to the 2014 World Series and the expectation that you’ll bring home a World Championship title to Kansas City this year.
Nick Leto: It’s really special and it really starts at the top and we have a very. very special world class leader in GM Dayton Moore, and it’s kind of been his vision. And he stuck with it and never wavered.  There was a lot of criticism, and a lot of people talking about him early on. It was hard, and there were a lot of points where he had to see it through. Yesterday was a culmination of a lot of work from a lot of different people. It is a family. It is a cliché, but it is true around here. It is a family organization around here, and we are all together. Watching the team perform nationally, there was a lot of surprise. A lot of people didn’t see it coming, but the cool thing for us was it was exactly what we thought our players could do. It was exactly what the plan was. It was fun.  It really wasn’t a surprise, but we were very proud. It was a vision. It was exactly what it set out to be. It really just came together. It was beautiful.
Roberto: You do have a long-range vision for Marten Gasparini. What have you noticed about his maturity as an individual and a player since signing him two years ago?
Nick Leto: You know Marten is a very special kid. There is no way to overrate how intelligent, how mature he is. He is a very, very smart kid. It is a very hard transition going from Italian baseball, European baseball.  Any 16 or 17-year-old kid trying to transition into the United States, you know not only culturally and everything else, trying to play baseball and every single day…it’s tough. Going from kind of a game or kind of a hobby and transition over to a career or a profession is a very difficult thing. It is very fast-paced. Marten handled it well. I mean it was up-and-down. It was a little bit of a roller coaster at certain points with some highs and some lows, but he really managed it really well. We are hoping this year he is a little more comfortable and a little easier for him. We are really trying. It is cliché, but for Marten it is every day. It is staying healthy, not trying to get ahead, not trying to get ahead, not trying to think about level jumping, not getting worried about this or that, what kind of prospect he is, when he is going to get into the Bigs, or those types of things. He has all the ability in the world. He is an excellent athlete, and it is just going through the process. It is every day coming out here with the same mindset, working hard, trusting the coaches, trusting the people around here, doing his work in the weight room and in the training room. It is really just a process every day, being healthy and being able to get his at-bats. And you know we think he is going to take off at a point when he gets settled, gets comfortable and gets enough time in. We think he is going to explode.

Roberto: It was encouraging last season to see Marten step it up from Burlington to Idaho Falls, where he got his first home run.  That must have been pretty exciting for you to watch and see him develop on different levels.
Nick Leto: Yeah, there is no question. Getting a chance to go to Idaho at the end of the season, I really think it was beneficial. I don’t know where he was at with his confidence. But he had a tough August and giving him the opportunity to finish up in Idaho Falls and finish on a strong note really kind of had catapulted him into our fall camp, our instructional league last year. He came into instructional league with a little more confidence than maybe what he maybe would have had. It allowed him to have a good fall, and we have been able to build off of that week or so he had in Idaho Falls. He is doing just fine. Marten wants things to come a little quicker, but the organization is very happy with him. We think that he is an excellent player. He is going to have a very, very bright future and a very good career. There is no doubt.
Roberto: I congratulate you on picking Marten out from the slew of players in Europe and landing in here at Royals camp in Arizona. I think you’ve done a great job nurturing him. I have seen him grow and develop naturally. You have not pressured him to turn into superstar status overnight. However, you have supported him in achieving his goals and expectations.
Nick Leto: There is a lot of failure and a lot of things to deal in baseball. Our goal for Marten is just to get him to his ceiling. We can do whatever we can do, give him all the tools and resources necessary to get Marten to his ceiling and create a great man. His parents have already molded him into a great human being, and it is our job to continue what he what they started. You know, we want to develop him fully as a man. Someday he is going to be a husband and all those things. We want to make him not only a great baseball player, but round him out and give him all the tools he needs for the rest of his life.
Roberto: I think he couldn’t have landed in a better spot right here with you. I commend you and thank you for giving us the opportunity to get front and center with Marten again. I wish you, Marten, Alex and the entire Kansas City Royals organization all the best now and in the future.
Nick Leto: Thank you very much. And we are going to try to finish the deal this time, bring home the World Series and be World Champs!
Roberto: Thank you Nick!

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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!

Game Over: France manager and former All-Star closer Eric Gagne weighs in on the Dodgers, Derek Jeter, Mike Piazza and European Baseball

MLBblogger Roberto Angotti interviews Team France manager Eric Gagne at the 2014 European Baseball Championship (Photo courtesy of Donato Resta/www.IandI-GoProm.com).
MLBblogger Roberto Angotti interviews Team France manager Eric Gagne at the 2014 European Baseball Championship (Photo courtesy IandI-GoPro.com).
After qualifying for the second round of the 2014 European Baseball Championship and placing sixth overall in the 12-nation competition, which was won by the Netherlands after the Dutch defeated two-time defending Euro champion Team Italy 6-3 in the final on September 21st at Draci Ballpark in Brno, Czech Republic, Team France manager Eric Gagne took time out to share his thoughts.

On the Dodgers chances in the playoffs: “They can win it all with their starting pitchers they got. I mean they have got a lot of guys, especially with Kershaw. He goes out there, it’s pretty much lights out every time. You know in the playoffs you need two starters…they have six! They are going to be good. Their bullpen was a little shaky for a while, but they pitched a lot of innings. I think they’ve made some good moves. I think the Dodgers are the favorite team for me. Of course, they are my favorite. I played so many years in the Dodgers minor leagues, and I was only in Boston for four months. I was good in LA and never got a ring. But I was terrible in Boston, and I got a ring. So I can’t complain. I was lucky.”

As part of the Jeter Farewell Tour, the Cleveland Indians gave the Yankees Captain a customized Gibson guitar.
For the Jeter Farewell Tour, the Indians gave the Yankee Captain a customized Gibson guitar.

On Derek Jeter’s retirement: Number 2!!! That’s pretty simple. He’s done everything in the game you can think of. A lot of people were wondering five years ago if he was done. Just to have him around in the clubhouse and having his attitude is amazing. He’s done so much for the game. Everybody knows it. If you go to France, people know Jeter. There’s over 10,000 people playing so it’s really, really good. He’s the Jordan and the Gretzsky of the sport. It’s cool to see a guy like him. It’s not like he just hits home runs. He’s just a winner, and he’s won everywhere he went. It’s good to see him retire on top. It’s awesome to see him go out with the Yankees.”

On growing the game in Europe along with Team Italy coach Mike Piazza: “It’s in our blood. We certainly aren’t doing it for the money…that’s for sure. It’s just fun. It’s fun to watch guys get better, listen and learn. For us that’s what I guarantee Mike loves about it. The kids learn…you can tell and see improvement every day, every single at-bat. It’s very rewarding and for us baseball is our life. For me it is, and I’m sure it is for him too. He’s a catcher. They are aware. They love to control the game and stuff like this. And I love baseball.”

Under the guidance and direction of Team France manager Eric Gagne, the French baseball revolution has just begun. (Photo courtesy of IandI-GoPro.com).
Under the guidance and direction of Team France manager and Cy Young winner Eric Gagne,
the French baseball revolution has only just begun. (Photo courtesy of IandI-GoPro.com).

Alex Liddi’s road less traveled to join Team Italia at the 2014 European Baseball Championship

italy_luggage_stickers-r5ead578a42a148359828c82518a1861f_v9wf3_8byvr_512Shortly after his pinch-hit single for the Dodgers AA-affiliate Chattanooga Lookouts in the fifth inning of the 2014 Southern League Championship game against Miami Marlins top pitching prospect Justin Nicolino of the Jacksonville Suns, Alex Liddi would embark on a marathon travel expedition from Florida not suited for the weak at heart to strengthen Team Italia’s chances of capturing its third consecutive title in the 2014 European Baseball Championship. After defeating Belgium, Sweden, France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, and Czech Republic, Team Italia battles the Netherlands in the final today.

Team Italia 3B Alex Liddi in action against Spain on September 18, 2014 in the 2014 European Baseball Championship.
Team Italia 3B Alex Liddi in action against Spain in the 2014 European Baseball Championship at Draci Brno in Czech Republic (Photo courtesy of Donato Resta for IandI-GoPro.com).

Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri said, “Let me tell you…Alex could not to wait to be here with us. He played his last game in Double-A ball on Friday night, September 12th then rode the bus for eight hours back to Chattanooga before driving to Atlanta on Saturday morning so that he could catch an eight hour flight to Munich. From there he had another two hour ride to Regensburg. When he arrived on Sunday morning, he went to the gym to work out with our strength and conditioning coach Gianni Natale for two hours. Then he ate lunch, and we told him to go to bed and rest but he couldn’t. He had so much adrenaline pumping that he couldn’t sleep after two nights of not sleeping. Then he came in to play and hit a big home run and double. He was just tremendous. I mean Alex is Alex… For us, Italian baseball around the world…it’s Alex along with Alessandro Maestri. Whenever we can, we just love to have them with us.”

A successful career playing in the Japanese Professional League has kept Team Italia pitcher Alessandro Maestri from participating in the 2014 European Baseball Championship.
A successful career playing in the Japanese Professional League has kept Team Italia pitcher
Alessandro Maestri from participating in the 2014 European Baseball Championship.