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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‘Tis the season for HOF’s Mike Piazza and La Befana

NIASHF Only second to Santa in holiday appearances, National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame spokesman Mike Piazza began early before Thanksgiving when he emceed NIASHF’s 37th Annual Awards Celebration and inducted John Andretti, Babe Parilli, Scott Pioli, Angelo Pizzo and Frank Zamboni at the InterContinental Hotel in Chicago.

Mike Piazza's popularity in Italy is second only Venezia's Santa Clause.
Mike Piazza’s popularity in Italia comes a close second to St. Nick but nobody can touch La Befana.

International baseball ambassador and Italian National team hitting coach Mike Piazza got a jump start on Babbo Natale, otherwise known as Father Christmas, when he traveled to Veneto, Italy last January 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.” Borrowing a page straight out of Ted Williams’ book, Rudolph the red nose reindeer leads Cometa, Ballerina, Fulmine, Donnola, Freccia, Saltarello, Donato, and Cupido so that Babbo Natale is able to see which homes to hit and deliver presents to millions of Italian children every year. However, La Befana, the elderly woman who delivers gifts on Epiphany Eve (January 5th), is a cultural folklore tradition favorite and reigns as the undisputed Italian holiday champion.

La Befana is one of Italy's oldest and most celebrated legends.
La Befana is one of Italy’s oldest and most celebrated legends.

La Befana is a nice old woman who some believe takes flight on her broom stick every year in the middle of the night in preparation of the arrival of Epiphany day on January 6th. She showers children with gifts to reward them for their good behavior. La Befana’s big sack on her back and basket is usually full of sweets and chocolates, which will make their way into the stockings of kids who have behaved on the day of the Epiphany. However, those children who didn’t do what they were asked by their parents and were naughty throughout the year will end up with a stocking full of lumps of coal. Yet, everyone loves La Befana. She is sometimes portrayed as having white or black hair with a long crooked nose, broken shoes and a patched dress. Unlike in America where children generally leave milk and cookies for Santa Claus, it is customary to have a nice glass of red wine waiting for La Befana upon her arrival to your house considering the long overnight journey she had to endure getting there.

Some believe the Mike Piazza soccer jersey handed out at Italian Heritage Night at Citi Field may have been the best Mets giveaway of all-time.
Attendees of Italian Heritage Night at Citi Field received a Mike Piazza soccer jersey to the delight the Azzurri.

Mike Piazza deserves more than just chianti for the seemingly endless journey he has had to experience to become enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The Mets Hall of Famer is a fan favorite, and anytime he is affiliated with a night at the ballpark it is an instant hit. The Mike Piazza soccer jersey giveaway at the 2014 Italian Heritage Night at Citi Field was considered to be best Mets promotion of the season.

Mike Piazza appears in a Norelco commercial.
Mike Piazza featured in Philips Norelco commercial

Commercial endorsements from Philips Norelco as well as special guest interview appearances on Complex News and TMZ Sports are just the tip of the iceberg of mass media that has spotlighted Mike Piazza recently. Expect nothing less than an avalanche of additional coverage in 2015 to follow with Piazza’s support of the National Italian American Foundation and the NIAF 40th Anniversary Gala.

Mike Piazza and friends at the National Italian American Foundation Gala
Mike Piazza and the Hollywood crowd at the NIAF Gala
Author and University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Emeritus Professor Lawrence A. Baldassaro summed up why this blogger believes Mike Piazza is Italian American of the Decade when he wrote: “Of all the younger Major League players I interviewed for my book, Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball, none was more in touch with, and interested in, his Italian heritage than Mike Piazza. And his commitment to baseball in Italy is unmatched among those his age.”

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Italo-Canadese John Mariotti gives Team Italy winning spirit in 2013 World Baseball Classic

In the 2012 European Championship against the Netherlands, Team Italia winning pitcher John Mariotti limited the Dutch to three hits and one earned run while striking out six.
In the 2012 European Championship final, Team Italia winning pitcher John Mariotti limited the Netherlands to three hits and two runs (one earned) while striking out six in six innings of work.
Italia celebrates after defending the 2012 European Championship
Italian players celebrate after successfully defending the throne and winning its third consecutive European Championship and 10th title win in history since 1958.
Having been previously drafted twice by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim after graduating from Toronto’s Chaminade College School in 2003 and again in 2004 while attending Florida’s Gulf Coast Community College, the third time was the charm for the Baltimore Orioles as their 18th round 2007 draft pick John Mariotti. He signed on the dotted line and began his pro ball career after leading the nationally-ranked Coastal Carolina University Chanticleers to Big South Conference prominence and compiling an impressive 13-2 career record.
2007 Coastal Carolina graduate John Mariotti
Coastal Carolina University pitching ace John Mariotti led the Chanticleers to the top in 2006 and 2007.

The six-foot-one right hander made his professional debut in 2007 with Orioles’ Short-Season Single-A Aberdeen and posted a 2-2 record with a 1.46 ERA. He spent his entire 2008 campaign at Single-A Delmarva. Mariotti began the 2009 season at Single-A Advanced Frederick and moved up to Double-A Bowie, where he started 13 games and compiled a 3.44 ERA. The Orioles’ farmhand was back at Frederick in 2010, when he made 41 appearances out of the bullpen and chalked up three saves.

The Quebec Capitales won their fourth consecutive Can-Am League Championship in 2012.
Italo-Canadian John Mariotti now pitches closer to home for the Québec Capitales, winners of their fourth consecutive Can-Am League Championship title in 2012.
Quebec Capitols' John Mariotti
Québec Capitales’ starting pitcher John Mariotti has found his groove in the Independent Can-Am League.
The Woodbridge, Ontario MiLB expat was a welcome addition to the 2011 Québec Capitales‘ starting pitching rotation. Mariotti went 11-1 in the regular season with 2.74 ERA in 108.1 innings of work before going undefeated in the postseason with a 1.98 ERA. The Philadelphia Phillies came calling for Mariotti as he was signed to a minor league contract and invited to 2012 Spring Training. The hype was short-lived, and he retreated to comfy Les Capitales de Québec, where he tallied a 10-1 record in 98.1 innings with a 4.03 ERA in 2012.

Representing the "Azzuri" Team Italy, John Mariotti will face Mexico, USA and Canada in the 2013 WBC.
Representing the “Azzuri” Team Italy, John Mariotti will face Mexico, USA and Canada in the 2013 WBC
at Chase Field (Phoenix, AZ) and Salt River Fields
at Talking Stick (Scottsdale, AZ) beginning March 7th.
Under the leadership of manager Marco Mazzieri, pitching coach Bill Holmberg, hitting coach Mike Piazza, third base coach Alberto D’Auria and first base coach Claudio Vecchi, Team Italy remained undefeated (9-0) in the 2012 European Championship by outscoring opponents 45-4 during the first five games of Pool A competition and then continued with their winning ways by outscoring others 18-6 in the remaining four games of the medal round. By defeating the Netherlands twice back-to-back on their home turf during the final two days of the 2012 European Championship, Team Italy demonstrated its resilience against a squad which was the biggest surprise of the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Remember the Dutch defeated the Dominican Republic twice and moved on to the second round of play.

Event_WBC Let’s put the Italian victory over the Netherlands in the 2012 European Championship into perspective. By the Dutch winning the 2011 World Cup after upsetting a talented Cuban team in the finals, does that make Italy the new elite class of European baseball and the spoiler in the upcoming 2013 World Baseball Classic? With John Mariotti’s winning spirit, Italy has got a real shot.