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.
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.
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. Team 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.
Parma, Pisa, prosciutto, and baseball… I just posted a gallery about my last month in Italy. http://t.co/HO8SuM3RhR pic.twitter.com/3pcA564X2L
— Baseball RTW (@RTWBaseball) April 30, 2014
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.
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.
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.