UC Davis alums Biagini, Descalso, LaTorre and Grifantini are proud Italian Americans

biaginiThe writing is on the wall just as it was in 2012 when former UC Davis Aggie pitcher Marco Grifantini and catcher Tyler LaTorre helped Team Italia capture its second consecutive European Baseball Championship by defeating a talented Kingdom of the Netherlands squad and again in 2013 when both California natives played in the World Baseball Classic. With the 2017 World Baseball Classic around the corner, two additional UC Davis alums–Toronto Blue Jays reliever Joe Biagini and free agent infielder Daniel Descalso–could potentially give manager Marco Mazzieri a boost if the Italian American players are added to the Team Italia roster. One could make a strong case for Biagini’s participation should fellow Jays bullpen paisan Jason Grilli be playing in his fourth consecutive World Baseball Classic for Team Italia. Joseph Carlo Biagini‘s Italian family bloodlines run deep with relatives in Lucca. His Italian great uncle, Carlo Biagini, was a merchant marine there. Joe’s father, Rob Biagini–who spent time playing ball in the Giants organization from 1981 to 1982–also played abroad in Italy with former teammate Chris Colabello’s father, Lou Colabello. However, it might take an executive order from new Canadian-born Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball (FIBS) president Andrea Marcon to get Biagini onboard with Team Italia in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

After redshirting and playing one year at the College of San Mateo, right-handed pitcher Joe Biagini transferred to UC Davis, where he made 13 appearances out of the Aggies bullpen and went 3-1. He was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 26th round of the 2011 MLB draft after his redshirt sophomore season. On December 10, 2015, Biagini was taken by the Toronto Blue Jays from the San Francisco Giants in the 2015 Rule 5 draft. On April 8, 2016, Joe made his MLB debut when he pitched a perfect ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox and posted his first career strikeout facing David Ortiz. In his six appearances during the 2016 postseason against Baltimore, Texas and Cleveland, Biagini threw 7.1 scoreless innings with six strikeouts. He was the unanimous choice for rookie of the year at the recent annual Blue Jays player awards. The 26-year-old reliever was the only Jays rookie to go wire-to-wire with the team, a major accomplishment for a Rule 5 draftee. Starting out the season as a middle-relief fixture for manager John Gibbons, Joe gained the trust of the veteran skipper who later assigned him to late-inning duty. Biagini has since been the center of attention in the media as a result of being in the audience at a taping of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. During the show, Fallon passed Biagini in the audience and attempted to high-five him along with other audience members, but the popular celebrity TV host missed Biagini’s hand. During the November 18th episode, Fallon stated that he had taken criticism on Twitter for botching the high-five and brought Biagini out on stage briefly to complete their high-five.

Daniel Descalso was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the third round of the 2007 MLB draft following his junior season at UC Davis. Descalso made his MLB debut with the Cardinals on September 20, 2010.  Despite the 30-year-old Italian American utility man only having a .242 career average, Descalso is much more important on the field as he has played every position but catcher and center field. After five successful seasons–including a 2011 World Series title–in St. Louis,  Descalso signed with the Colorado Rockies on December 16, 2014. Rockies manager Walt Weiss recently said, “Daniel has a great pedigree, he’s played in the postseason, played in the World Series. And that goes a long way in that clubhouse. Guys understand how hard it is to get there. He’s a winning player, he’s got a winning attitude, he’s a leader… so, his value goes way beyond the stat sheet.” When asked if Descalso might make a good coach or manager in the future, Weiss replied: “Yeah, absolutely. I think he’s definitely cut from that mold. He’s one of those guys that has obviously been a student of the game. He’s a smart player. He played at a small school, UC Davis, and has probably always had to prove himself and overachieve to some degree but he’s put together a nice Major League career.” Descalso was the second UC Davis Aggie player to ever reach MLB in 2010 and the first to win a World Series ring in 2011. Before becoming the Aggies’ second-highest MLB draft pick, Daniel hit a team-best .397 as a junior in 2007, with 22 doubles, three triples, four home runs, 53 runs scored and 44 RBI. With infielder Nick Punto now retired and serving as the Team Italia third base coach, the versatile Daniel Descalso could prove to be a valuable defensive replacement and offensive spark plug in the World Baseball Classic.

For the past two years, Tyler LaTorre has been working as an assistant baseball coach at  San Francisco State University under head coach Tony Schifano–who spent eight years as the assistant coach at UC Davis, his alma mater. Like Schifano, LaTorre is a former Aggies all-star. Tyler played at UC Davis from 2003-06, earning all-conference honors as a senior when he hit a team-high and career-best .363 with 37 runs and 32 RBI. He drew a team-best 28 walks and led the Aggies with a .451 on-base percentage. LaTorre was signed as an undrafted free agent by the San Francisco Giants on May 29, 2006 after a five-year UC Davis career. The former catcher played 10 seasons in the minor leagues–including nine of them in the San Francisco Giants organization–when he caught the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong before signing a minor league contract with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2015. During his pro ball career, LaTorre played a total of 452 minor league games during which he posted a .241 career average with 60 doubles, 14 home runs, 131 RBI and 155 runs scored. Yet, some of Tyler’s most memorable games included his time playing for Team Italia in the 2012 European Baseball Championship when he nearly won MVP tourney honors after going 14-for-28. Eight of his 14 hits were for extra bases–including six doubles and two home runs. LaTorre absolutely raked at the plate, knocking in nine RBI and scoring nine times during the international tournament. “We had one goal and that was to repeat as European champions,” said LaTorre. “It was awesome.” He also enjoyed serving as backup for Team Italia catcher Drew Butera in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The 33-year-old Italian American started against Team USA and went 1-for-4 with a walk and one run scored. LaTorre’s Italian roots trace back to his great-grandparents in Italy. It took two and a half years for him to become eligible to play for Team Italia as a dual citizen and Italian passport holder after thorough research, documentation and tedious paperwork authenticating his Italian lineage.

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Team Italia’s Luca Panerati, Tyler LaTorre, Marco Grifantini and Pat Venditte at the 2013 World Baseball Classic
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Team Italia reliever Marco Grifantini pitching in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

Having spent his 2007-08 seasons as a reliever in his final two years of college at UC Davis, Marco Grifantini did not register on MLB’s radar and was not drafted. Unfazed by pro baseball’s cold shoulder, Marco’s passion for the game grew stronger and he chose a path less traveled. Upon securing dual citizenship and an Italian passport, Grifantini was given the opportunity to pitch for Cariparma Parma in the Italian Baseball League and Team Italia in the 2009 World Cup. Marco helped his 2010 Parma squad secure its first national title since 1997 after going undefeated all season and pitching four scoreless innings to pick up the save in the decisive game seven of the Italian Baseball League Championship. Later that year pitching for Team Italia, Grifantini notched another important save in relief to allow the Azzurri to dethrone the Dutch and win the 2010 European Baseball Championship. In addition, Marco got the win in games against South Korea and Taiwan in the 2010 IBAF Intercontinental Cup to assure Team Italia a bronze medal. Team Italia won its second consecutive European Baseball Championship in 2012 thanks in part to the relief work of Marco Grifantini. Prior to pitching for Team Italia in 2013 World Baseball Classic, Grifantini made 53 appearances over four seasons for Cariparma Parma in the Italian Baseball League and posted a 19-4 record with a 1.89 ERA. His impressive performance against the Los Angeles Angels in a 2013 pre-WBC exhibition game in Tempe, Arizona led MLB scouts to scratch their heads in disbelief that Grifantini had been undrafted out of UC Davis five years prior. Immediately following the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Grifantini signed a minor league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. In his only season playing pro ball for the Single-A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays in 2013, Marco started six games and went 3-2 with a 5.21 ERA. The proud 31-year-old Italian American has since returned to his home in Redding, California. Grifantini said, “I am now starting my career in a local hospital as a pharmacy technician, and I plan on getting married in the summer. As for baseball, I have helped train a few youngsters and plan on coaching  locally to give back to a sport that gave me so much.”

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An elated Marco Grifantini signed a minor league contract with the Blue Jays in 2013.
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Team Italia in 2016 Euro Baseball Championship

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Hoofddorp, Netherlands is host to the 2016 European Baseball Championship beginning September 9th.

Marco Mazzieri’s Team Italia will need to dethrone host and 2014 Euro Champ Holland to reclaim the Gold Medal in the upcoming September 9-18 tournament which also features talented teams from Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Belgium, Russia, the United Kingdom, Croatia, Sweden and Greece. In the 33-year history of the competition, the Dutch lead with 21 Gold Medals while Italia follows with 10. Hoofddorp’s state-of-the-art complex in the tourist-friendly Haarlemmermeer municipality just outside Amsterdam opened in 2014 after satisfying all stringent field requirements set by Major League Baseball in an ongoing effort to bring MLB games to Europe.

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Visit the new and improved FIBS/Team Italia website.

Team Italia play their opener on September 9th against 2014 tenth place finisher Greece, a much improved team now under the management of Mauro Mazzotti. The Azzurri return the following day on September 10th to face France, led by manager Eric Gagné, whose leadership nearly landed the French a Bronze after a loss to third place Spain in 2014. The Italians are under the lights on September 11th when battling 2014 seventh place finisher Belgium. Then Team Italia quickly come back for a day game on September 12th against Spain. They close out their Pool B action with an afternoon game versus 2014 twelfth place finisher Croatia on September 13th. Italia must dominate Pool B for a rematch against reigning champ Holland. Forza Italia!

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Visit the official European Baseball Championship website for tickets and more information.

MLBblogger’s MLBforLife.com ranks #6 among MLB.com Fan Websites

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MLBblogger Roberto Angotti has been a Top 10 writer since launching his MLBforLife.com website in 2011.

MLB.com Blogs Central has announced its March 2016 Latest Leaders, and MLBforLife.com has ranked sixth as the most visited MLB.com Fan Website. Embracing the motto “where baseball meets history and pop culture”, radio DJ and writer Roberto Angotti has produced over 150 articles to date since 2011. Inspired by the great Roberto Clemente, Roberto spent his youth in the right field pavilion of Dodger Stadium at every Pirates game to get up close to his favorite player. After Clemente’s tragic death in 1972, Roberto set out on his own mission to promote athletes and musicians that gave back. MLBforLife.com prides itself for giving readers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at international events such as the upcoming 2016 European Baseball Championship and the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Supporting Team Italia manager and LA Dodgers international scout Marco Mazzieri, Roberto is dedicated to help grow the game in Europe. 13083246_10206575538330569_52384910019491970_n

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.