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.”

Grilli is a BIG name in Italia and in Pittsburgh, PA

The Roberto Clemente Bridge leads Grilli and Pirates fans to PNC Park in downtown Pittsburgh.
The Roberto Clemente Bridge leads Grilli and Pirates fans to PNC Park in downtown Pittsburgh.
Italian Finance Minister Vittorio Grilli
Vittorio Grilli is currently
the Italian Finance Minister.
“I told the cab driver, just rolling up over the Clemente Bridge and going around the corner, I said, this is my office space,” said Pittsburgh’s new closer Jason Grilli after signing his two-year, $6.75 million contract through 2014 with the Pirates. “This is how I do my best work. There’s sometimes not enough money that can be a good tradeoff to being comfortable and to know what to expect.” Despite leaving money on the table and taking far less than the free agent market offered to stay in Pittsburgh–much to the disliking of Italian Finance Minister Vittorio Grilli, 36-year-old pitcher Jason Grilli remains a Pirate.
In his 2012 campaign for the Pittsburgh Pirates, reliever Jason Grilli established career highs in appearances (64) and strikeouts (90)
Jason Grilli established career highs in appearances (64) and strikeouts (90) with a career-best 2.91 ERA while holding opposing hitters to a .207 batting average in 2012.
ItaliaHowever, Jason Grilli has earned the right to pitch wherever he chooses after picking up the win in Team Italia’s 10-0 shutout of Australia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic (WBC) and a save in Italy’s 6-2 upset over heavily-favored Canada in the 2009 WBC competition. It goes without saying that the sight of Jason Grilli wearing an Azzurri jersey brings more joy and glory to the near-bankrupt European nation than any Italian politician could ever produce.
Jason Grilli pitching for Team Italia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
Jason Grilli pitching for Team Italia in the 2006 WBC.
Yet, politics somehow infiltrated into Italian baseball during the 1996 Olympics. After being invited by the the Italian Baseball Federation to join the country’s Olympic team while playing college ball at Seton Hall, Grilli stood proud and was honored with a parade in his hometown of Syracuse, New York. When joining the team with another Italian American pitcher, they did not receive a warm reception. The other players on the Italian squad that qualified for the Olympics without the two imports threatened a boycott.

italian_american_ Facing an ‘us or them’ ultimatum, the pitchers were dismissed. “I was in tears the whole way home,”
Grilli said. “The good part of it was I got to see Italy, but the worst part of it was it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I didn’t get to play.” Grilli traces his family heritage roots to Florence and Naples. He said, “I’m 75 percent Italian. My last name is every bit as Italian as you can get. The name on the front of the jersey is always more important than the name on the back, but in this case, the two go hand-in-hand.
I wouldn’t have ‘Italia’ on the front if I didn’t have ‘Grilli’ on the back. Obviously, I love the United States. But I’m also proud of my lineage.”

Tommy Lasorda was honored in 2011 by the National Italian American Foundation when he was presented the NIAF Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports Management by Team Italia Coach and former Dodger Mike Piazza.
Tommy Lasorda was honored in 2011 by the National Italian American Foundation
when he was presented the NIAF Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports Management
by Team Italia Coach, 12-time MLB All-Star and former Dodger catcher Mike Piazza.
“You know, they say the more you hang around Italians, the more Italian you become,”
said Grilli. “And that’s what I am. I’m an Italian,” said the Italian right-hander (il Italiano adopera la mano destra) who reminisced about his experience playing for Team Italia in
the World Baseball Classic. “One day Tommy Lasorda came in to talk to us. It was one of
the greatest speeches I’d ever heard. I wish I’d memorized or recorded it. He talked about the pride that comes with being Italian, with such feeling. It was a great experience.”
Having been invited to attend the 28th Annual Italian Coach Convention in Parma, Italy, Grilli is seriously considering a coaching career in Italy after he retires from Major League Baseball. “I know (former MLB All-Star and Team Italia coach) Mike Piazza has a house
(in Italy), and he goes over for a couple months every year,” Grilli said. “It‘s intriguing.”
Grilli and Team Italia stand at attention during the playing of the Italian National Anthem before facing Venezuela in the 2009 WBC.
Grilli and Team Italia stand at attention during the playing of the Italian National Anthem before being eliminated by Venezuela in the 2009 World Baseball Classic at Rogers Centre.
Team Italian Major Leaguers Jason Grilli, Alex Liddi and Francisco Cervelli celebrate after Grill held Canada scoreless for three innings and picked up the save in the 2009 WBC in Toronto.
Team Italia Major Leaguers Jason Grilli, Alex Liddi and Francisco Cervelli celebrate after Grill held host Canada scoreless for three innings and picked up the save at the 2009 World Baseball Classic in Toronto.
Selected by the San Francisco Giants in the first round of the 1997 First-Year Player Draft (fourth pick overall), Grilli made his MLB debut with the Florida Marlins in 2000 and has made 330 career appearances during his 10 seasons in the big leagues. The Pirates signed Grilli as a free agent on July 21, 2011, and he has posted a 2.76 ERA with 127 strikeouts in 92 appearances over the last two seasons. He hinted at comfort and a heightened sense of excitement for Pittsburgh’s resurgence to Clemente-era dominance as top reasons for re-signing. “I’ve been on 10 different teams,” Grilli said. “The grass is never always greener. It’s really all the same. There’s just Piratessomething fitting here. It’s just a baseball town and it bugs me as much as it bugs everybody else in this city. They want this so bad.” In 2012 Grilli limited opponents to just one run in 15 of his 64 appearances and struck out at least one hitter in 56 of the 64 games. He set a franchise record for relievers by striking out at least one batter in each of his first 19 appearances in 2012. Although a bull in the pen on the mound, Jason is quite the gentlemen to members of the press. The local chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America recently voted Grilli as the winner of the Chuck Tanner Award–an award that recognizes the player who is most cooperative with the media.
Train lead singer Patrick Monahan shares a laugh with Pirates' closer Jason Grill.
Train lead singer Patrick Monahan shares a laugh with Pittsburgh Pirates’ closer Jason Grilli.
Roberto Clemente statue at PNC Park.
Roberto Clemente statue at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
Jason Grilli wants to bring back the World Series glory days to Pittsburgh. As a proud Italian, he supports MLB’s initiative to foster baseball’s popularity in Italy through the Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball (FIBS)-sponsored MLB Italian Academy and international games like the World Baseball Classic. Grilli said, “I’m in the books in Italian baseball, and that’s good. Major League Baseball wants the game to grow globally, and I’m happy to be a part of that.”

Mineo: legendary historical landmark of Sicily or Italy’s finest catch exported to the Chicago Cubs?

A panoramic view of the archaeological site of Rocchicella di Mineo, ancient Palikè, the location
of the most important sanctuary of Sicily's indigenous Sikel people in the eastern part of the
island with Mount Etna, Europe's largest active volcano, towering over Catania seen far away
The Siculi (Sikeloi; Sicels; Sikels) were the native inhabitants of the eastern regions (including Mineo) of Sicily south of the Italian Peninsula over 10,000 years ago. The island of Sicily takes its name from the indigenous Siculi people. With its strategic location at the center of the Mediterranean, Sicily is rich in its history of conquest and empire. It is a melting pot of cultures with over a dozen ethnic groups whose warriors and merchants walked her shores. Although the other two indigenous societies of the Sicanians and Elymians assimilated easily with the Greeks, the Sicels constituted a highly developed society that the Greeks respected profoundly. Despite conflict and its desire to remain autonomous, it took several centuries for the Sicels to completely assimilate and amalgamate with their Greek neighbors. Except for the Romans, the Sicels were the only predominantly Italic people to settle in Sicily in large numbers as colonists.
Italy leads all European countries in its number of immigrants to America. Beginning in the late 1800’s, poverty and natural disasters drove Italians out–especially in Il Mezzogiorno, the southern and poorest provinces of Italy. As late as 1900, the illiteracy rate in southern Italy was 70 percent. The Italian government was dominated by northerners, and southerners were hurt by high taxes and unfair tariffs on the north’s industrial goods. Southerners suffered from exploitation by people of the same nationality and religion.
Piazza DiMaggio commemorated the legendary son of an Italian immigant, Joe DiMaggio, who lived the American Dream of playing baseball and the tens of thousands of Italian immigrants who came to America through the Taylor St. U.S. port of entry seeking a new life in the heart of Chicago's Little Italy during the early part of the Twentieth Century.

Self-reliant on only themselves for mere survival, southerners had an allegiance to la famiglia (the family) and l’ordine della famiglia (the rules of family behavior and responsibility). Suffering from a scarcity of cultivatable land, soil erosion and deforestation as well as a lack of coal and iron ore needed by industry, life in the South was difficult. Southern Italy was ravaged in the early 20th century when Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna erupted and buried towns nearby. In 1908 an earthquake and tidal wave that swept through the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland killed more than 100,000 people in the city of Messina alone. For many Italian immigrants, fleeing to the United States was not to be interpreted as a rejection of their homeland. Instead, it defended the Italian way of life because the money sent home helped to preserve the traditional order. Rather than seeking permanent homes, they desired an opportunity to work for a living and aspired to save enough money to return to a better life in the country of their birth. Unable to earn enough to support their families in their native Italy, they were migratory laborers. The majority were young men–aged 18 to 25–who planned to work, save their money and return home. Hoping their absence would not be too long, they left behind their parents, young wives and kids.
Fast forward a century later and native Italian athletes are still clinging to their roots and culture despite being lured by U.S. professional sports to homogenize into the American lifestyle. The first Italian-born baseball player awarded a MLB contract was pitcher Alessandro Maestri. Signed by Chicago Cubs scout Bill Holmberg, Maestri never pitched at Wrigley Field–even though he was a Minor Leaguer with a wicked Major League slider. However, the Cubs struck gold in 2010 when Holmberg signed then 16-year-old Italian catching prospect Alberto Mineo to a contract.
Chicago Cubs Italian catching prospect Alberto Mineo at 2012 Spring Training in Mesa, Arizona
Catcher Alberto Mineo calms his pitcher down and discusses strategy to get the next batter out.
Now ranked 58th behind #1 Cubbie Starling Castro in the Chicago Cubs Top Players Under 25 Organizational List, catcher Alberto Mineo has his eyes set on making it all the way to Wrigley. The defensive standout with excellent catch-and-throw skills said, “The part that I like most about being a catcher is throwing runners out at second.” The 5-foot-11, 170 pounder has strong hands and forearms which assist his receiving skills and defensive instincts. Blessed with outstanding arm strength and a quick ball transfer exchange, Mineo looks comfortable behind the plate. Exuding confidence as a first-rate catcher, opponents will need to exercise caution on the bases.
Left-handed hitting slugger Alberto Mineo
played for Team Italia at the 18 Under Junior World Championship in Thunder Bay, Canada

Holmberg watched Mineo develop into a natural talent from age 10 and knew early on he was special. Alberto was mature enough to accept feedback and listened to Holmberg and Maestri’s sound advice. He commented, “Both of them, they would always say to me ‘Work hard everyday because there is somebody somewhere else that is working hard to get to the Big Leagues’ and I started believing that I could sign with an American team.” Exercising good plate discipline, Mineo is a patient hitter who jumps on a pitcher’s mistake. “I always think as a hitter that I must wait for my pitch until I get two strikes,” Alberto explained. The left-handed hitting Mineo can demolish the ball with his technically sound swing, and once on base he can demonstrate great speed for a catcher.
Cubs prospect Alberto Mineo has speed on the bases and is very quick with his glove defensively.

After being signed by Bill Holmberg–who also is the pitching coach for the Italian National team and operates the Major League Baseball International European Academy at the Olympic Training Center in Tirrenia, Italy–Ronchi dei Legionari New Black Panthers catcher Alberto Mineo began his professional career in the month-long MLB Australian Academy Summer League, where he became friends with Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim promising pitching prospect
Alex DaSilva–who later moved up the competitive ladder to play for the Australian Baseball League (ABL)
2012 Runner-Up Melbourne Aces. Mineo played well in Australia (.270 batting average, 1 HR) as did his Italian mentor Alex Maestri, who was so popular that he won the 2012 ABL Fan Choice Award.
Catcher Alberto Mineo has all the tools to follow fellow MLB International European Academy graduate Alex Liddi of the Seattle Mariners and become the second Italian-born player in the Big Leagues.

The ABL’s first Italian pitcher/catcher combo with Maestri and Mineo could become reality if Alberto has his way. Mineo commented, “I had a nice experience in Australia, where I met a lot of great players that I still remain in contact with via facebook. I would really like to play with Alex in the ABL.” The dynamic duo could possibly make their debut in the near future as members of the Italian National team under the guidance and direction of pitching coach Bill Holmberg and former Major League Baseball All-Star hitting coach Mike Piazza. Mineo has played as a member of several Italian National teams at various levels– including the 18 Under Junior World Championship in Thunder Bay, Canada. Italian National team catcher Francisco Cervelli of the New York Yankees now has Mineo as back-up.
Mineo said, “I don’t feel the pressure to be the next Italian to make it in MLB. I just want to have fun and enjoy this amazing experience that I’m living right now. But it would be really nice to play with Alex Liddi on the Italian National team…”
Lady Liberty of a Cubbie kind stands tall and proud in the city of Chicago.

Alberto had an exceptional Cubs 2011 Arizona Instructional League four-game campaign with a
.500 batting average, .556 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage. “The Cubs Instructional League was an awesome experience. I really like
to practice with Casey Kopitzke, the catching coordinator. I think he’s really good,” Mineo said.
“So far Cubs Spring Training is going very well. I like to work hard on the field and in the gym. It’s the best place you can go if you love this sport. A couple days ago Kerry Wood, Ryan Dempster and Rodrigo Lopez came to the complex to talk to us about the right way to get to the Big Leagues, but my favorite Cubs player is still Marlon Byrd. Inspired to play baseball at age five by his father and become a catcher three years later, Alberto followed American baseball religiously. “My favorite player has always been Derek Jeter. Now it is Joe Mauer. I really like how he plays, and I also think that he’s a very professional guy,” Mineo said.
Wrigley Field, National Historic Landmark and home of the Chicago Cubs since 1916, is the second oldest ballpark in the Major Leagues and the oldest standing National League ballpark.
Although there had been a long-time association of Italians being die-hard Cubbie fans,
the connection got even stronger when the late and great Hall of Fame Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray–whose real Italian last name was Carabina–signed on to the super station WGN Network in 1982. Although he passed on to baseball heaven in 1998, his legacy is still alive and well today as the legendary Caray’s Italian Steakhouse remains a Chicago restaurant icon. Now with Alberto Mineo in the Cubs organization, Italians in Chicago and beyond should rejoice and be thankful for their ancestors’ sacrifices years ago for the opportunities bestowed upon us in 2012. In the case of the young catching prospect Mineo–not only does he possess the natural skills necessary to become a professional ballplayer–
but he has the unconditional love and support of a dedicated team of international coaches, players, fans and family to be a true Italian baseball ambassador worldwide. Forza Italia!

Italian Cubbie fans of all shapes and sizes await Alberto Mineo's imminent arrival at Wrigley Field.

Italian coaching, cuisine, and culture make Italy world-class for MLB hopefuls and European scouts

Baseball in Italy received a Major League surprise last month when an unannounced MLB manager graced the 436 registered attendees with his presence at the Italian Coaches Convention Dinner at Castelnuovo de Garda (Verona). Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, a first-generation Italian-American whose father was born in Italy, was overjoyed by the warm reception received at the gala dinner which pays tribute to the coaches that make a difference in the internationalization of baseball in Italy. Madden exclaimed, “I feel at home here, because in the small city in Pennsylvania where I live there is a big Italian community.”

Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon embraces his Italian roots.

His grandparents original surname was Madonnini, but after emigrating from the Region of Abruzzo to America
their last name was shortened. Maddon continued, “It is always a pleasure for me to visit Italy. I am proud of my heritage.” The Rays were very well represented in Italy as Maddon brought along members of his coaching staff to lead instructional clinics for the delegation of Europe’s best coaches.

Italian National team coach Mike Piazza (shown here as coach of Team U.S.A.) and Seattle Mariners Alex Liddi (shown here playing for Team World) in the 2011 All-Star Futures Game
Alex Liddi became Italy’s first successful export to MLB and the Seattle Mariners on September 7, 2011.

Riccardo Fraccari, president of the Federation of Italian Baseball and Softball (FIBS), spoke of Alex Liddi becoming the first Italian-born and developed player to play Major League Baseball and its great significance to baseball in Italy. He said, “Alex’s story is really the tip of the iceberg, and we really need to take into account the daily work of the coaches in Italy who are the base of the movement.” Liddi was signed by the Seattle Mariners after being selected to attend the inaugural MLB International European Academy in 2005 and in September 2011 became the first graduate of the MLB International European Academy to play in the Major Leagues.

Italian National team coach Bill Holmberg encourages New York Yankee catcher Francisco Cervelli sitting next to Alex Liddi during the World Baseball Classic.
Like a fine Italian wine, MLB / FIBS Italian Academy Director and Field Coordinator Bill Holmberg has been getting better with age by improving the quality of Italian baseball and coaching Europe’s finest players since landing in Italy in 1989.

Bill Holmberg is one such coach that FIBS President Fraccari was referring to in his compelling speech. Holmberg has been living under the radar since 1989, when he came to Italy to serve as manager and technical director of the Godo baseball club for 12 years. He later became the pitching coach for San Marino as well as the Italian Junior and Senior National teams. Coach Holmberg was named Director and Field Coordinator of the MLB Italian Academy nearly a decade ago and has been instrumental in signing the best homegrown talent as a former international scout for the Chicago Cubs. Everyday he tirelessly trains the cream of the crop at an elite sports academy in the quaint beach community of Tirrenia near the Italian cultural iconic city of Pisa. Alessandro Maestri, the former Chicago Cub minor leaguer and recent Brisbane Bandit / 2012 Australian Baseball League (ABL) Fan Favorite Award recipient, was signed by Holmerg in 2006, when he became the first Italian-born pitcher ever signed by a Major League Baseball team.

In 2006 Chicago Cub European Scout Bill Holmberg signed Cesena’s Alessandro Maestri,
the first Italian-born pitcher signed to a MLB contract. (Scott Powick / SMP Images / ABL)
Italian National team pitcher Alessandro Maestri showed the world that he could compete against baseball’s elite in the World Baseball Classic.

Chicago Cub scout Holmberg knew early on that Alessandro was something special when he saw the young Italian play baseball for the first time. Holmberg said, “Alex can do whatever he wants to. He’s got the temperament and composure. He’s hit 95 mph, and his slider is at 86 or 87. He competes as hard as anyone out there.” Maestri still to this day works under the guidance and direction of Coach Holmberg. The Cesena, Italy
native made World Baseball Classic headlines in 2006 when his first offering to the Dominican Republic’s Moises Alou was rocketed out of the park for a home run. Despite the rocky start, he would not allow another earned run in his 4.2 combined innings in both the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics.

Alessandro Maestri as a Cub minor leaguer

Maestri demonstrated great promise in the Midwest and Florida State leagues as a two-time All-Star. As as starter and relief pitcher in the Chicago Cubs minor league system for five seasons, he racked up a 24-17 record with a 3.75 ERA and 19 saves. The right hand throwing pitcher put away hitters with his evasive slider–which was once voted as the best slider thrown by anyone in the entire franchise. Maestri made his preseason MLB debut against the Oakland A’s during Cubs Spring Training in Phoenix on April 1, 2009 when Cub manager Lou Pinella summoned him out of the bullpen. Maestri struck out Orlando Cabrera and then he sized up against slugger Jason Giambi–who was lucky to squeak out a single through the hole. MLB All-Star

Closer Alessandro Maestri was not afraid to show his winning Italian spirit by striking out Jayson Nix to beat Team U.S.A. for the first time in 21 years on November 9, 2007 during the 2007 Baseball World Cup.

Matt Holliday was caught looking at a third strike slider for the second out, and Eric Chavez went down swinging at his Italian slider in the dirt to end Maestri’s almost perfect outing. Nearly three years later, Alessandro is still as dominant as ever as witnessed by his numbers in the most recent 2011-12 ABL season. As the workhorse and ace of the Brisbane Bandit pitching staff, Maestri led his team in wins (4) and proved to be one of the best pitchers in the league. He finished third in the ABL in innings pitched (63.2) and in strikeouts (53), fourth in the ABL in WHIP (1.16) and sixth in the ABL in ERA (3.25). In Round Eight of the regular season, he earned the Pitcher of the Week award after pitching a stellar complete game two-hitter against the Canberra Cavalry. Based on his most recent form, Maestri is worthy of a second look by international scouts to make his long-awaited MLB debut. He will always be a competitor who lives on the edge to bail his team out of pressure situations.

MLB / FIBS Academy Director
Bill Holmberg is committed to producing Italy’s finest athletes.

Of the frequent MLB-sponsored instructional clinics throughout Europe, none has had the impact of MLB / FIBS Academy host Coach Holmberg’s annual three and a half week summer invitational Major League Baseball International European Academy at the Olympic Training Center in Tirrenia. Designed to provide promising junior teenage players with both the environment and the instruction to reach their full potential, the European Academy brings together around 50 or more of the brightest young playing talent in Europe and Africa with the best in Major League coaching and instruction. The Academy seeks to provide a path for elite players from this region to improve their skills in preparation for the rigors of professional and international baseball. In addition to helping these bright young stars develop their skills, the Academy enables MLB Clubs to scout the best future talent. Holmberg explained, “It’s a pretty good place to see all the best players in Europe at one time. We’ve had between 18 and 20 scouts that have watched the games this past year.”
The Tirrenia baseball camp, which began in 2005, has much to do with MLB’s accelerated rate of signing the European elite to professional contracts based on the fact that the numbers have more than tripled from 2005 (2.33 average) to 2011 (9.0 average). So far 49 Academy graduates from ten countries (45 players from Europe and 4 players from Africa) have signed professional contracts with 19 different Major League Baseball franchises. Holmberg commented, “We’re not the Dominican Republic yet, but I think we might be sneaking up on Australia.”