In late 1976 Lou Colabello got an invitation he could not refuse from friend Ed Orizzi, who was looking for a pitcher to help Rimini compete in the Italian Baseball League. It didn’t take long for the left-handed ace from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to regain his pitching form last seen in the 1969 College World Series to lead Rimini to three Italian Series A titles from 1977 to 1984. Putting together a stellar 94-25 record with a 2.99 ERA, the owners of the other IBL teams did not want to see Colabello’s dominance any longer. As a result, the president of the league and owner of the team in Parma implemented a rule that barred American-schooled Italians over the age of 26 from pitching.
After meeting the love of his life Silvana in Rimini and getting married to her in 1981, the Italian American Baseball Family Tree grew its first branch with the birth of their son Chris Colabello in 1983. Lou was invited to play for the Italian national team in 1984, when he would pitch against USA’s Barry Larkin, Will Clark, Shane Mack, Oddibe McDowell, Mark McGwire, Cory Snyder and B.J. Surhoff at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Fast forward to the first pitch of the 2013 World Baseball Classic warm-up game between Team Italia and the Los Angeles Angels. Halos skipper Mike Scioscia looked out at the sea of Azzurri jerseys and said, “I’m proud to be Italian, and I think everyone on that field is proud of their roots and where they come from.” Then Scioscia asked, “Where’s Sal?” He wanted to know where Sal Varriale was. Sal was the first “oriundo” or immigrant with Italian ancestry recruited by Aldo Notari, the former Italian Baseball Federation President from 1985 to 2000. The Brooklyn native enjoyed a successful playing career in Italy and coached Team Italia in the Olympics from 1992 to 2004.
Today Sal proudly serves as Director of Parma Baseball and as an international scout for the Cincinnati Reds. The Italian American Baseball Family Roots grew during Notari’s tenure governing the Italian Baseball Federation and it continues to prosper with the addition of MLB’s World Baseball Classic under new president Andrea Marcon. Mike Piazza was recruited by former president Riccardo Fraccari to join Team Italia while visiting Italy in 2002. Jason Grilli and Frank Catalanotto also signed up to play for Team Italia in the 2006 WBC.
With Mike Piazza signing on as Team Italia hitting coach for the 2009 World Baseball Classic in Toronto, many notable Italian American MLB players contributed to Team Italia’s surprise 6-2 upset over host Canada. Chris Denorfia went 4-for-4 with three doubles, two runs, two RBI and played great defense. Starting pitcher Dan Serafini picked up the win after middle reliever Chris Cooper kept hitters off balance and closer Jason Grilli secured the 3 1/3 inning save. New Italian American Baseball Family members included Nick Punto, Francisco Cervelli, Adam Ottavino, and Mike Costanzo.
After Team Italia defeated Mexico and Canada to advance to the second-round of the 2013 World Baseball Classic, they would suffer a 5-4 loss to eventual 2013 WBC Champion Dominican Republic and demonstrate how its mixed roster of Italian-born players like Alex Liddi and Alessandro Maestri and Italian American MLB-affiliated newcomers Anthony Rizzo, Chris Colabello, Drew Butera and Pat Venditte could compete with international baseball’s elite.
It was fun to share the enthusiasm of Roberto Angotti visiting our Academy in Tirrenia
— FIBS (@FIBSpress) February 23, 2012
Los Angeles radio deejay and journalist Roberto Angotti could see the writing on the wall and knew something special was happening when he was invited to the Italian Baseball Academy in Tirrenia while visiting family nearby in 2012. Since the day Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball (FIBS) Academy director and Chicago Cubs scout Bill Holmberg signed Italian Baseball Academy graduate Alberto Mineo to the Cubbies in 2010, MLB scouts have scattered around the FIBS-sponsored Baseball Academy like flies hunting down the scent of the next big European prospect. Germany’s most successful player to date–Max Kepler, a product of a similar European Baseball Academy that MLB’s Bill Holmberg frequents in Regensburg and recipient of the Minnesota Twins’ $800,000 signing bonus in 2009, proved to be worth his weight in gold based on his 17 homers and 63 RBI during the 2016 MLB season.
San Remo native Alex Liddi, who signed to the Seattle Mariners in 2005 and made his MLB debut in 2011, was inspirational for young Italian ballplayers like Marten Gasparini who dreamed of playing in the Big Leagues. Heralded as the best 5-tool player ever out of Europe, FIBS Academy graduate and MLB prospect Marten Gasparini received a $1.3 million dollar signing bonus from the Kansas City Royals in 2013. The 19-year-old shortstop credits Italian Baseball Academy director and Team Italia coach Bill Holmberg for his success.
Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri has been synonymous with Italian baseball since his playing days in the 1980’s. During his ten-year tenure as the leader of the Team Italia coaching staff, Mazzieri has made the Italians proud with European Baseball Championship titles in 2010 and 2012. The LA Dodgers recruited Mazzieri to become their scout in 2013. Mazzieri went right to work and wasted no time in signing FIBS Academy graduates Federico Celli and Federico Giordani.
Growing up in Los Angeles as a first generation Italian American Dodgers fan, Roberto Angotti understood the strong connection between Tommy Lasorda and Mike Piazza. From the moment Piazza decided to play for Team Italia in the 2006 WBC, Angotti enlisted to become a soldier on the frontline of the Italian baseball revolution. Roberto became friends with Mike during the two weeks Team Italia spent in Phoenix preparing for the 2013 WBC. When Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda dropped in on Team Italia’s practice at Dodgers’ Spring Training Camp in Glendale to address the team, Angotti pledged his support and worked tirelessy behind-the-scenes to provide daily journals of the team’s activities. 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 entitled Artists’ Tribute to Italian Americans in Baseball. The exhibition featured sports artists of Italian descent–including James Fiorentino–and paid homage to Team Italia.
Featured in the New York Times as well as on ESPN, MSG, and FOX, James Fiorentino is considered one of the world’s best sports artists. Fiorentino became the youngest artist to ever be featured in the National Baseball Hall of Fame at age 15 with his portrait of Reggie Jackson. Art seen at JamesFiorentino.com grace the walls of the National Basketball and Cycling Hall of Fames, Ted Williams and Roberto Clemente Museums, National Art Museum of Sport and the Sports Museum of America.
The Italian American Baseball Family grew organically when Mint Pros founder Joe Quagliano reached out to Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri and offered his expertise as a pro sports event promoter to raise funds for baseball development in Italy. With the support of FIBS executives Riccardo Fraccari, Marinella Mojoli, Massimo Fochi, Marco Landi and Riccardo Schiroli, Quagliano represented the Italian Baseball Federation with Marco Mazzieri at the National Italian American Foundation 41st Anniversary Gala and joined Mike Piazza at the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame 39th Annual Induction & Awards Gala.
Mike Piazza, Frank Catalanotto,
Joe Quagliano, James Fiorentino and Roberto Angotti have teamed up for the Italian American Baseball Family Launch and Dinner, the first of many fundraisers to assist in the development of youth baseball in Italy by building and maintaining ball fields, purchasing uniforms and equipment, organizing clinics and supporting FIBS. Like branches on a tree, we grow in different directions yet our Italian family roots remain the same.
Tuscany is regarded as the true birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and home to many influential legends in the history of arts and science–including Petrarch, Dante, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Niccolo Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Amerigo Vespucci, Luca Pacioli and Puccini. The province of Grosseto lies in southern Tuscany and possesses a rich artistic heritage as well as a small and fascinating center of medieval and Renaissance material and archeological sites that preserve Roman and Etruscan treasures.
Baseball in Italy got its first break in the late 19th century when two American naval ships, the USS Lancaster and the USS Guinnebaug, arrived in the Tuscan port of Livorno. The American servicemen held their first baseball game on January 23, 1884 at the Campo d’Osservazione AKA Observation Field. Enthusiastic crowds cheered on the players, and the games garnered enough interest in the media to include coverage by Livorno’s newspaper, La Gazzetta Livornese. With an eager international following in Italy, early baseball pioneer Albert Goodwill Spalding served as a ‘Goodwill’ ambassador of the sport and held tournaments in Florence, Naples, and Rome in 1889. In an effort to unite forces with the allied Italian Army during World War I, the American Army taught Italian soldiers the sport and held baseball games between the two armies.
Any inter-war following was soon decimated upon the rise of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, which banned baseball for its American influence. Baseball experienced an Italian Renaissance post-World War II under the leadership of Ottino and Graziani, when the Lega Italiana Softball and the Lega Italiana Baseball leagues were created. The first professional baseball game between two Italian teams was held on June 27, 1948 in front of 2000 fans at Giurati stadium in Milan. These two leagues would eventually evolve into what is known today as the Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball (FIBS), the governing body of baseball in Italy.
The Italian Baseball League (IBL) was founded in 1948 and is comprised of teams from Bologna, Parma, Nettuno, Rimini, Godo, Novara and Grosseto as well as the culturally Italian yet independent country San Marino. These eight teams compete in a 42-game season. Each team is allowed to have up to four non-Italian citizens, and each team must have at least six Italian citizen baseball players on the field at any given time. Former American players have found a second home in the IBL, including Jay Palma–the 1980 sixth-round draft pick of the New York Mets and current coach for the Novara United team.
Perhaps the most interesting catch for the Italian Baseball League is the recently signed 50-year-old Grosseto manager Mike Hartley. The former San Diego Grossmont College ace and Major League pitcher was in his late twenties when he made his MLB debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers on September 10, 1989 and went on to play for the Phillies, Twins, Red Sox and Orioles. In his six Major League seasons, he made 202 appearances and complied a 19-13 record with a 3.70 ERA. Hartley also pitched successfully internationally in Japan for the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1994 and for Nettuno (Serie A1) in Italy in 1998. His coaching skills were just as impressive as he led the German club Heidenheim Heidekoepfe to a national championship in 2009 and the European Champions Cup Finals in 2010. In addition, Hartley coached the Croatian national team back to the 2011 European Championship (A Pool). The new Grosseto manager commented, “At higher levels, I coach to win and I hate to lose. At lower levels, the focus is on development. In short, work hard, believe in yourself and respect the game of baseball.”
Michael Anthony Smith was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 5th round of the 2000 amateur draft at the end of his college career at the University of Richmond. He pitched in 14 games for the Blue Jays in 2002 including six starts. The Minnesota Twins acquired Smith from the Philadelphia Phillies during the 2005-2006 offseason, but he was not called up to the Major Leagues until August 2, 2006. Smith played for the 2009 Brother Elephants team in Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL).
He led the 2010 Brockton Rox of the Can-Am League in wins (12) and ERA (2.87) in 125.1 innings. He was also named to the 2010 Cam-Am All-Star Team, along with Rox teammate and newly signed Grosseto catcher Chris Grossman. Smith went 8-5 with a 3.99 ERA in 94.2 innings during his 2011 Brockton Rox pitching campaign. The 34-year-old MLB veteran will prove to be a valuable asset for the Tuscan squad both as regular starting pitcher as well as mentor and pitching coach for the talented roster of Grosseto hurlers.
Standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing 235 pounds, Grosseto catcher Chris Grossman will intimidate any hitter approaching the batter’s box with his mere physical presence. Having played for the last three-plus seasons for the Brockton Rox, the 31-year-old former Cal Berkeley star is a pitcher’s best friend for having a brilliant mind and an innate sense for knowing how to call a game behind the dish. Former Brockton pitcher and pitching coach (and new Grosetto pitcher and pitching coach) Mike Smith said, “It definitely makes things easier having him catch you. He knows the hitters that have been in the league. He knows how to pitch them and get them out. He is pretty smart about setting up hitters. From a pitching standpoint, you don’t have to worry about what pitch you have to throw. He knows how to set them up, and that is one less thing that you have to worry about. Chris also has a great arm. You know if you can’t hold the guy on, he is able to throw him out. He is always willing to go out there no matter how he feels. He wants to play every day.” The durable catcher hit .296 in 2009 and .313 in 2010 with a career-high 57 RBI, which earned him spot on the Can-Am League All-Star team. A reliable contact hitter who can choose his spots to hit for power,
Grossman can be a manager’s secret weapon strategically with men on base for his excellent hit-and-run potential. Having hit over .300 in the first half of the 2011 season, Chris led in the team in walks (36) and stole 17 bases in 93 games. Former MLB player and current Brockton Rox manager Bill Buckner said, “I have been happy with the way that Chris has played. He is a smart player and base runner.” Having tasted the life of a pro Minor League player while a member of the St. Louis Cardinals organization, Grossman would like to get another opportunity to break into the Big Leagues. He echoed, “I am still hoping to get the chance. Meanwhile, I am enjoying what I am doing and being around guys that enjoy playing the game. It is a lot of fun.”
35-year-old switch-hitting shortstop Jay Pecci has wanted to play in Italy for nearly a decade when he tried out in January of 2005 for the Italian national team that played in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Although he had hit a home run and a single
in his final scrimmage game, Pecci was cut from the Italian team before the international competition.
Pecci recalled, “It was real close. I felt like I was on
the bubble.” The versatile athlete has always had a knack for high drama going back to college when
Pecci walked on to the Stanford baseball team and impressed enough to become a everyday starter.
A 1998 All-Conference player, Pecci led Stanford to
the 1995 and 1997 College World Series and boasted one of the all-time best College World Series batting averages after going 10-for-17 (.588). At Stanford
he played with MLB success stories Jody Gerut,
Joe Borchard, Chad Hutchinson and eventual Gary SouthShore RailCats teammate Tony Cogan.
Originally selected by the Oakland Athletics in the 11th round of the 1998 Major League Entry Draft out of Stanford, Pecci played four seasons in the Oakland A’s system–including a stint at Double-A Midland in 2001. The Novato, California native was claimed the following season by the Seattle Mariners in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. He advanced all the way to Triple-A Tacoma before the end of the 2003 season. Pecci finished 2003 as a San Francisco Giants farmhand and spent the entire 2004 season with the Double-A Norwich Navigators in the Eastern League.
Pecci came close to early retirement in 2004 when he fractured his skull and broke his jaw colliding with a Norwich teammate while chasing a flyball in Trenton, New Jersey. Having his jaw wired shut for a month, Pecci was determined in making a comeback. He remarked, “I thought at that point, I wouldn’t let that be my last game in baseball.” In his 15-year pro career, nothing came close to his personal best 2008 campaign with the Indy League Gary SouthSide RailCats. Pecci set the RailCats single-season hits record (115) that season and hit a career-best .317 batting average and .474 slugging percentage along with 26 doubles and nine home runs. He homered in the Northern League All-Star Game in 2008 and earned Most Valuable Player honors after hitting the game-winning home run in the ninth inning of the decisive Game Four of the Northern League Semifinals. Following the 2008 season, Pecci earned his first Post-Season All-Star commendation from the league as the circuit’s top shortstop. An agile and seasoned veteran ballplayer with well over 1000 games of experience, Jay Pecci will give Grosseto a competitive edge in the IBL.
Grosseto hitting coach Jefferson Infante played baseball at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he earned All-City honors and played the all-star senior game at Yankee Stadium. After high school, Jeff played in the Dominican Republic in a recruiting league against professional teams before accepting an athletic scholarship to play at Louisberg College and leading his squad to the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series. MLB scouts took notice of Infante while playing for Ramapo College, where he was named to the All-Conference team and earned All-American Honors. Jeff was drafted as a catcher by the Kansas City Royals in 2004. He went on to play for three years in the Royals farm system for Idaho Falls, and later signed an Indy League contract with the St. Joseph’s Black Snakes in Missouri. Although Jeff’s professional baseball playing career would come to an abrupt ending when he sustained a shoulder injury, he remained in the game as an invaluable coach to collegiate players. As the assistant baseball coach at Baruch College in Manhattan, Infante’s ability to convey information to players and make the game simpler has paid off as Baruch has made three championship appearances and won the 2009 championship title. With over 10 years of baseball instructional experience, Infante has been sought after to serve as personal training coach for some of New York’s finest. While offering private baseball instruction for the Cooperstown Athletics Sports Performance Training Facility in Manhattan, five of Jeff’s private alums have gone onto playing professional baseball within the last few years. Coupled with the injection of manager Mike Hartley and pitching coach Mike Smith, Infante and the new blood on Grosseto’s coaching staff now have the ability to positively impact the team’s bright future ahead. Finishing 13 games behind 2011 IBL Champion San Marino last season, the newly revamped and much improved Grosseto squad will be a top contender in Europe as a result of the 2012 MLB Italian Renaissance in Tuscany.