Team Italy slugger and Cincinnati Reds prospect Leonardo Seminati named to U-18 All-World Team

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After leading Team Italy in runs (5), hits (11), home runs (2), RBI (17), batting average (.423), slugging percentage (.654), on-base percentage (.531), on-base plus slugging (1.185), walks (6), and stolen bases (2), Azzurri first baseman and Cincinnati Reds prospect Leonardo “Grande Leo” Seminati was named and honored as a member of the 2017 WBSC U-18 All-World Team during the closing ceremonies of the 12-country international tournament at Port Arthur Stadium in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. A sold-out stadium of fans and supporters–including 19 of his Azzurri teammates, Team Italy U-18 manager John Cortese along with coaches Rolando Cretis, Stefano Cappuccini, Gianluca Marenghi, Daniele Santolupo as well as FIBS delegation manager Fabrizio De Robbio, trainer Graziano Abbate, physician Guido Squarcia and FIBS media representative Marco Landi–cheered enthusiastically as Seminati stood proudly on the podium next to fellow players selected to the 2017 U-18 All-World Team.

Following the memorable night of glory under the lights at Thunder Bay’s Port Arthur Stadium, Leonardo Seminati packed his bags and headed in a different direction than Team Italy. Unlike most traveling back to Rome, Grande Leo flew to Goodyear, Arizona to report to Cincinnati Reds instructional league camp. Impressed by the way the Team Italy captain and MLB prospect carried himself and his Italian squad in the 2017 WBSC U-18 Baseball World Cup, the Reds wasted no time in getting Seminati on their home turf to begin the process of molding this European all-star into a world-class ballplayer. Leonardo Seminati is a breath of fresh air as baseball media and fans alike will soon find out as he embarks on his minor league journey with sights of a career in the Big Leagues. Grande Leo conducts himself professionally on and off the field. His coaches, teammates and family have nothing but praise for the outstanding 17-year-old slugger. He is one of the most approachable, responsible and intelligent young competitors one will ever meet in the game today. Like promising 20-year-old Italian Kansas City Royals prospect Marten Gasparini, Cincinnati Reds prospect Leonardo Seminati has a bright future ahead of him in Major League Baseball. Thanks to the efforts of 29-year-old Alex Liddi, who was the first Italian-born-and-raised player to make it to MLB, the table has been set for Marten Gasparini and Leonardo Seminati to represent Italy as a viable breeding ground for up-and-coming baseball talent on the global stage. Forza ragazzi! Forza Italia!!!

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FIBS media representative Roberto Angotti with Team Italy’s Leonardo Seminati at the 2017 WBSC U-18 Baseball World Cup in Thunder Bay (Photo by Azzurri coach Stefano Cappuccini)

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The Italian American Baseball Family Tree Grows

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The Italian American Baseball Family is on a mission to strengthen Team Italia and its fan base.

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.

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Italian American Lou Colabello pitched for Team Italia against USA at Dodger Stadium in the 1984 Olympics.

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.

american_italian_roots_postcards-r9c2297463d664483b6c6ab48f30d9bd1_vgbaq_8byvr_512 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.

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Sal Varriale (left) was given the Meritorious Service Award and Mike Scioscia (right) was given the Rawlings Honor Award by the American Baseball Coaches Association at the 2012 ABCA Convention.

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 MarconMike 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.

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After playing in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Hall of Famer Mike Piazza became Team Italia’s hitting coach.

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.

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Chris Colabello and Anthony Rizzo celebrate Italian style after Colabello’s three-run homer against the Dominican Republic in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

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.

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Team Italia catcher Drew Butera and coach Frank Catalanotto at the 2013 World Baseball Classic
Chicago Cubs catching prospect Alberto Mineo was signed in 2010.
Chicago Cubs catching prospect Alberto Mineo was signed in 2010.

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.

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Italian MLB Academy Director Bill Holmberg (far right) smiles as prospect Marten Gasparini signs a pro baseball contract with the Kansas City Royals in 2013.

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.

Manager Marco Mazzieri led underdog Team Italia to the second round of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Manager Marco Mazzieri led underdog Team Italia to the second round of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

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.

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Courtesy of Italian American Family member/artist Christopher Paluso 

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.

MLB Executive VP of Baseball Operations Joe Torre and James Fiorentino
MLB Executive VP of Baseball Operations Joe Torre and Italian American Baseball Family’s James Fiorentino

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.

Italian American Baseball Family's Joe Quagliano and Mike Piazza hold James Fiorentino's portrait of the Hall of Famer.
Italian American Baseball Family’s Joe Quagliano presents Mike Piazza a portrait commemorating his induction to the National Baseball of Hall of Fame by world-renowed artist James Fiorentino.

new-logo-fibs 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.

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The first annual IBAF/FIBS fundraising event sold out in no time upon its initial announcement.
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The Italian American Baseball Family’s mission includes providing scholarships for athletes at FIBS Academy, a residential program in Italy.

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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.

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Team Italia reaches #9 in World Baseball Rankings

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Team Italia pitching coach Bill Holmberg visits with Roberto Angotti (Photo by IandI-GoPro.com).

9 Numeros Turma da Mônica 9 nove dedinhos Colorir Pintar ImprimirThe European Baseball Coaches Association recently recognized Team Italia pitching coach Bill Holmberg for his excellence by honoring him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Having grown the game abroad for over ten years as the MLB director and coach in residence at the FIBS Italian Academy in Tirrenia, Italy, Holmberg has been instrumental in the advancement and development of baseball in Europe. The fruits of his labor in Italy have blossomed from the Youth to the National Team levels as witnessed by the Azzurri’s ascent from #11 to #9 in the WBSC March 2016 World Rankings. A former Chicago Cubs scout who knows what it takes to be competitive in MLB, Holmberg helped Alessandro Maestri, Alex Liddi, Alberto Mineo and Marten Gasparini launch professional baseball careers worldwide. 2016 World Rankings

 

MLBblogger’s MLBforLife.com ranks #7 among MLB.com Fan Websites

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

MLB.com Blogs Central has announced its July 2015 Latest Leaders, and MLBforLife.com has ranked seventh as the most visited MLB.com Fan Website. Providing a global perspective where baseball meets history and pop culture, DJ and blogger Roberto Angotti has written nearly 150 articles to date since 2011. MLBforLife.com prides itself for giving readers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at high profile events such as the Asia Series, the European Baseball Championship, the World Baseball Classic and the upcoming Premier 12 in Japan and Taiwan. Working closely with Team Italia manager and LA Dodgers international scout Marco Mazzieri, MLBforLife.com is dedicated to everything Italian.Beyond DiMaggio Inspired by Beyond DiMaggio: Italian Americans in Baseball author and former Team Italia interpreter Lawrence Baldassaro, MLBforLife.com strives to continue documenting the Italian American Baseball experience. From former Twin and current Blue Jay Chris Colabello‘s dream to become a major leaguer to Cubs’ slugger Anthony Rizzo‘s battle to beat cancer, MLBforLife.com supports the plight of the underdog–especially the efforts of Team Italia and its nurturing coaching staff (including Marco Mazzieri, Bill Holmberg, Tom Trebelhorn and Mike Piazza). Products of FIBS Italian MLB Academy in Tirrenia, Italian-born and developed players Alex Maestri and Alex Liddi have paved the way for MLB prospects Marten Gasparini (Royals) and Alberto Mineo (Cubs). MLBforLife.com pledges to support them and future prospects with Italian blood unconditionally.

Astros #7 Italian American Craig Biggio was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on July 26, 2015.
Italian American Craig Biggio (#7) was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.

Kansas City Royals double down with Italian amore for Alex Liddi and Marten Gasparini

In his three 2015 Royals Spring Training game appearances, Alex Liddi hit .500 with a double,  two RBI and a stolen base.
Prior to being assigned to the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Alex Liddi hit .500 with a double, two RBI and a stolen base in his three 2015 KC Royals Spring Training game appearances.
Royals prospect Marten Gasparini and Nick Leto
Royals prospect Marten Gasparini and Arizona operations manager Nick Leto

Signing Europe’s top prospect Marten Gasparini for a record $1.3 million bonus just two years ago was only the beginning for the Kansas City Royals. During this past off-season, the 2014 World Series runner-up was once again at work acquiring the first Italian-born and developed player to make the Bigs–Alex Liddi. Known for his power stroke at-bat and defensive prowess on the diamond, the 26-year-old slugger is on the cusp of a comeback after making his initial MLB splash for the Seattle Mariners in 2011. Nick Leto, manager of Arizona operations for the Kansas City Royals, is largely responsible for why both Gasparini and Liddi now wear similar colors to their native blue Italia jerseys. The trio could not be happier working together with the same goal of making an impact on the the major league level. Prior to Opening Day, Nick Leto gave an exclusive interview and some invaluable insight as to where the Italians fit in the Italian family.

Roberto: How are you feeling today here at the Kansas City Royals Spring Training camp in Surprise, Arizona?
Nick Leto: Excellent. It’s been a long haul here in Spring Training. We’re cruising along pretty well now.
Roberto: With 17-year-old shortstop prospect Marten Gasparini and proven MLB success story Alex Liddi in the Royals organization, you have two of the finest Italian baseball players in history. How do you feel about leading the Italian baseball revolution?
Nick Leto: I think it is great, and I think it’s great for the Royals to have those two guys here. I think it is good for our brand to have two of the best players out of Europe and Italy. Alex is a man, and Marten is kind of still a kid growing up. But they are excellent ambassadors for European baseball and excellent ambassadors for Italy in the way they go about their business. They are two very professional hard-working players that really represent really well. And they are excellent players too.
Roberto: When the Royals clinch their division and the 40-man roster opens up, it would be a dream come true to bring Alex Liddi and Marten Gasparini up to the major league level together. I know it is a little premature for Marten to ascend up to the Bigs, but the time is now for Alex Liddi to return to Major League Baseball.
Nick Leto: There is no doubt. You know Alex has a special gift–a right-handed power gift. I think his makeup fits what we try to do around here. You know the skies the limit. He is still developing. You know players like that…guys out of Europe and different countries like Brazil and other places in the world. He may be 26 or in his mid-20’s, but he is still developing. He hasn’t reached his ceiling as a player, and we’re going to keep trying to push him to the higher levels. That is why we brought him in. I think he can help our major league team. That’s why he’s here…he has a gift of power. You know he is here to potentially impact our major league team…that’s what we’re hoping for.

Having made his MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners in 2012, Alex Liddi can play both first and third base.
After making his MLB debut with the Mariners in 2011, Alex Liddi has played first and third base.

Roberto: Alex is an exciting player to watch. Having just stepped off the plane after playing his last minor league game for the Dodgers organization, a sleepless Liddi flew over the Atlantic to join Team Italia in the midst of the 2014 European Baseball Championship in Germany. Considering that he had not slept for a couple days and then hit three home runs against England, it was quite an impressive display of athleticism.
Nick Leto: He is a guy I have known of for a long time, and I have kind of admired him from afar. But being in camp with us and really getting to see how he goes about his business day-in and day-out, he truly is a special kid. He goes about his business very professionally.  He is in here early. He is getting his extra swings in. I mean he does everything the right way. He works hard in the weight room. He is very disciplined in his approach, and he is a very hard worker. He is everything you want in a player for sure.
Roberto: He is a consummate professional.
Nick Leto: There is no doubt about it. You know he is great with his teammates. He has fun playing the game. He jokes around out there, but when it comes time to get to work he is all business. He is locked in, he is focused and he is concentrating. His makeup is excellent. There’s no doubt about that.
Roberto: Once he was no longer part of the LA Dodgers organization, who as responsible for signing him with the Kansas City Royals?
Nick Leto: Everything around here is kind of a collective effort.  You know he’s had a good run with Seattle and coming up.  He has had some excellent years in the minor leagues. So we’ve had some scouts that have had the opportunity to watch him as he has gone through the system and see him at different levels.  So we had reports in. He is a player that we have sought before. We have tried to get him earlier, and unfortunately we were unable to acquire him.  And it just felt right this off-season to get him here into camp.  We are very happy to get him, and we are very excited to have him here in our system.
Roberto: He doesn’t have the added pressure to travel with the Royals on a daily basis because he’s taking care of business in developing. Did he have an invite to Royals Spring Training camp?
Nick Leto: He did not have an invitation to Major League Spring Training camp. But he was in here early, and he’s been working out with that group quite a bit. I don’t know if I could speak for him on this, but I think he’s kind of happy to be here with us. Last year was kind of a tough year for him. I think he is trying to bounce back. Fortunately, he lives here in the area and so he was able to spend a big chunk of this off-season coming here to the facility. He was in here every day working out with our coaches, building relationships with our staff. He was able to work with our strength and conditioning staff and all of our coaches here. He went out with the major league team as backup player for a couple of games, but was on a regular routine of playing basically just about every day for our Triple-A team. He filled in for the major league club. He got a few good at-bats here before the end of the spring. He will continue to make an impression and show the organization, the coaches and everybody else what we know he’s capable of doing.

Infielder Alex Liddi possesses all the mental and physical attributes to become successful in MLB.
Infielder Alex Liddi possesses all the mental and physical attributes to become successful in MLB.

Roberto: This organization has really come along way from the Cinderella story to the 2014 World Series and the expectation that you’ll bring home a World Championship title to Kansas City this year.
Nick Leto: It’s really special and it really starts at the top and we have a very. very special world class leader in GM Dayton Moore, and it’s kind of been his vision. And he stuck with it and never wavered.  There was a lot of criticism, and a lot of people talking about him early on. It was hard, and there were a lot of points where he had to see it through. Yesterday was a culmination of a lot of work from a lot of different people. It is a family. It is a cliché, but it is true around here. It is a family organization around here, and we are all together. Watching the team perform nationally, there was a lot of surprise. A lot of people didn’t see it coming, but the cool thing for us was it was exactly what we thought our players could do. It was exactly what the plan was. It was fun.  It really wasn’t a surprise, but we were very proud. It was a vision. It was exactly what it set out to be. It really just came together. It was beautiful.
Roberto: You do have a long-range vision for Marten Gasparini. What have you noticed about his maturity as an individual and a player since signing him two years ago?
Nick Leto: You know Marten is a very special kid. There is no way to overrate how intelligent, how mature he is. He is a very, very smart kid. It is a very hard transition going from Italian baseball, European baseball.  Any 16 or 17-year-old kid trying to transition into the United States, you know not only culturally and everything else, trying to play baseball and every single day…it’s tough. Going from kind of a game or kind of a hobby and transition over to a career or a profession is a very difficult thing. It is very fast-paced. Marten handled it well. I mean it was up-and-down. It was a little bit of a roller coaster at certain points with some highs and some lows, but he really managed it really well. We are hoping this year he is a little more comfortable and a little easier for him. We are really trying. It is cliché, but for Marten it is every day. It is staying healthy, not trying to get ahead, not trying to get ahead, not trying to think about level jumping, not getting worried about this or that, what kind of prospect he is, when he is going to get into the Bigs, or those types of things. He has all the ability in the world. He is an excellent athlete, and it is just going through the process. It is every day coming out here with the same mindset, working hard, trusting the coaches, trusting the people around here, doing his work in the weight room and in the training room. It is really just a process every day, being healthy and being able to get his at-bats. And you know we think he is going to take off at a point when he gets settled, gets comfortable and gets enough time in. We think he is going to explode.

Roberto: It was encouraging last season to see Marten step it up from Burlington to Idaho Falls, where he got his first home run.  That must have been pretty exciting for you to watch and see him develop on different levels.
Nick Leto: Yeah, there is no question. Getting a chance to go to Idaho at the end of the season, I really think it was beneficial. I don’t know where he was at with his confidence. But he had a tough August and giving him the opportunity to finish up in Idaho Falls and finish on a strong note really kind of had catapulted him into our fall camp, our instructional league last year. He came into instructional league with a little more confidence than maybe what he maybe would have had. It allowed him to have a good fall, and we have been able to build off of that week or so he had in Idaho Falls. He is doing just fine. Marten wants things to come a little quicker, but the organization is very happy with him. We think that he is an excellent player. He is going to have a very, very bright future and a very good career. There is no doubt.
Roberto: I congratulate you on picking Marten out from the slew of players in Europe and landing in here at Royals camp in Arizona. I think you’ve done a great job nurturing him. I have seen him grow and develop naturally. You have not pressured him to turn into superstar status overnight. However, you have supported him in achieving his goals and expectations.
Nick Leto: There is a lot of failure and a lot of things to deal in baseball. Our goal for Marten is just to get him to his ceiling. We can do whatever we can do, give him all the tools and resources necessary to get Marten to his ceiling and create a great man. His parents have already molded him into a great human being, and it is our job to continue what he what they started. You know, we want to develop him fully as a man. Someday he is going to be a husband and all those things. We want to make him not only a great baseball player, but round him out and give him all the tools he needs for the rest of his life.
Roberto: I think he couldn’t have landed in a better spot right here with you. I commend you and thank you for giving us the opportunity to get front and center with Marten again. I wish you, Marten, Alex and the entire Kansas City Royals organization all the best now and in the future.
Nick Leto: Thank you very much. And we are going to try to finish the deal this time, bring home the World Series and be World Champs!
Roberto: Thank you Nick!

Roberto Angotti interviews Kansas City Royals’ Italian Ambassador and MLB prospect Marten Gasparini

kansas-city-royals-logo-11-wall-poster-rp1377 Nick Leto, manager of the Kansas City Royals’ Arizona Operations, is worth his weight in gold for not only signing 17-year-old Italian MLB prospect Marten Gasparini but also for his outstanding work as a minor league affiliate leader. The recent recipient of the organization’s Matt Minker Award after eight years of dedicated service, Leto is critical to the success of the Major League Spring Training in Surprise and the Kansas City’s Rookie League affiliates. It was Leto who recommended Gasparini to the organization after seeing the speedy switch-hitting shortstop in Italy. Having spent much time working at the Italian MLB Academy in Tirrenia in 2006 and 2007, Nick had close connections with former Chicago Cubs’ international scout and FIBS Academy director Bill Holmberg. So when word got out that a very special player was training and developing under Holmberg’s watchful eye, Leto had a distinct Italian famiglia advantage over all MLB suitors.

Italian MLB Academy director Bill Holmberg (far right) smiles as Marten Gasaparini inks his $1.3 million dollar signing bonus contract with the Kansas City Royals
Italian MLB Academy director Bill Holmberg (far right) smiles as Marten Gasparini inks his $1.3 million dollar signing bonus contract with the Kansas City Royals.

Marten Gasparini was the first European baseball player to sign a contract in excess of $1 million dollars when the Royals signed him in 2013. Heralded by Baseball America as “quite possibly Europe’s best prospect ever”, he is the real deal. After starting with 2014 Rookie League Burlington, Marten played his final four games with Idaho Falls and went 5-for-11 with a home run and three RBI. With six stolen bases in 23 games, Marten Gasparini is a natural-born athlete. marten-transport-ltd-logo
Roberto: You have some Jamaican roots, with your mom being of West Indian descent living in London, and your father being Italian. In both cultures, family is very important and is the foundation for everything.

Marten Gasparini: Yes, it is. I don’t know know much about Jamaica because my mom and I have never been there. But in Italy…absolutely family is the biggest thing, and nothing is more important than family.

Roberto: You began playing stickball when you were eight-years-old and picked up your first baseball bat at age 10, correct?

Marten Gasparini: Yeah, like for fun with my friends. I used to watch baseball movies and read books and newspapers about the game. Everybody loves America, you know. America is famous throughout the whole world. American sports are famous…baseball, basketball, football. They are kind of attractive. I wanted to try it and see how it would turn out.

Roberto: Did you always play shortstop or with the speed you that you possess and are blessed with did you find playing centerfield gave you more versatility? Did FIBS Academy Director and Team Italia coach Bill Holmberg have a big influence on you while playing for the Italian National team at the various levels?

Marten Gasparini: He has been a positive influence on me and has put me at shortstop because he always thought that was the best position for me to play. I can play in the outfield and that’s where I played my first workout with the Italian National Under 18 team. That was because I was young and they needed players with more experience at that position.

Marten Gasparini in 2012 at the 18 and Under Baseball World Championship in Seoul
Marten Gasparini in 2012 photo at the 18 and Under Baseball World Championship in Seoul.

Roberto: Playing with the Italian National team in Seoul, South Korea and Chihuahua, Mexico must have impacted you personally and professionally as you became a more confident and mature ballplayer.

Marten Gasparini: It was nice. It’s always nice to see different cultures, meet different people from other countries and see how life is over there. It was fun and interesting for me to get to see all these countries. It’s obviously been helpful for me to be a part of these international tournaments.

Roberto: The spotlights were on you.

Marten Gasparini: Exactly. It was exciting and a very important experience for me.

Roberto: Having been on that international stage, has that prepared you now ay you ascend up in the minor leagues with desire to become a major league ballplayer?

Marten Gasparini: I think it is different because when you play for your national team it just because of the pride you have got for the team. You want your team to win when you want your country to have success in these types of tournaments. But here (in Arizona) it’s obviously a game but you have to do if for a job. Any you look forward (to the future). It’s like a project. It’s a path you have to go into. It’s not that important to play hard now if you keep healthy, but maybe in some international tournaments you have to give all you got in a short period of time. I think this is the biggest difference.

Roberto: You have some personal favorite players in Derek Jeter, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. What do these players have that has resonated in your heart to make you desire to be at their level?

Marten Gasparini: Derek Jeter is such a professional player and he is a legend. He became a legend for a team like the Yankees coming from the bottom. He was raised by them, and he became their captain. That’s something that everybody would like to be for their organization. I like the excitement that Kemp and Puig can bring to the table when they play. They are very athletic and explosive players. I like the way they play the game.

Roberto: After visiting the Italian MLB Academy and watching you play with some of the best European prospects, I came to realize the potential of baseball outside of the U.S. Do you think Italy cam be one of the best emerging markets for the game?

Marten Gasparini: We’ve been working a lot to make things possible. I think there are more players to come. There have already been some players that have been signed by professional teams, and I think that I can be a big part of it.

Roberto: Watching Team Italia in the 2013 World Baseball Classic must have been inspirational to you. Did you wear your pride on your sleeve during the competition?

Marten Gasparini: Yes. We were at the Italian Academy in Tirrenia watching the games. We were all watching the TV and not missing a minute or a pitch. We were all super excited when the games ended in our favor over Mexico and Canada. It was one of the most amazing feelings I have ever had.

Roberto: While working out at the Italian Academy, you had frequent visits from Team Italia hitting coach Mike Piazza.

Marten Gasparini: I didn’t really get to know him well. Just having him there with Bill Holmberg was amazing. I know that they are very close friends. Just having a person like him coming down to watch us play is an honor for me.

Roberto: Mike Piazza wants to give back to the game in Italy in honor of his heritage.

Marten Gasparini: He has pride in his origins and this is a good thing that everybody should have.

Roberto: What are your personal goals now that you have reached the professional level with the Kansas City Royals?

Marten Gasparini: It was my expectation and in my plan to go pro since I started playing baseball to be this type of player and achieve these results. I’m very happy to be here. I’m blessed to be here. Now I just have to keep working.

2014 Burlington Royals shortstop Marten Gasparini, center, is tended to by trainer Saburo Hagihara and manager Tommy Shields after he was struck in the face by a thrown ball which nearly broke his nose.
2014 Burlington Royals shortstop Marten Gasparini is examined by trainer Saburo Hagihara and manager Tommy Shields after being struck in the face by a thrown ball which nearly broke his nose and put him on the disabled list.

Roberto: What does it mean to be a part of the Kansas City Royals family with the rich history of great all-stars that have come out of the franchise?

Marten Gasparini: I think the Royals are one of the greatest organizations in all of sports. I’m very happy to be a part of it. I think I’m with the greatest group of people that I could choose. Of course, their history speaks for itself just by saying the name George Brett and the kind of player he was. He has been a very important part of the baseball game history.

Roberto: Coincidentally, the Royals and Team Italia share the same color uniforms. You couldn’t have predicted a better outcome.

Marten Gasparini: Maybe a coincidence?

Roberto: Or more like by design..

Marten Gasparini: Yes!

Roberto: Showing up at the Royals Instructional Camp in Arizona. You must have met a melting pot of cultures from the Caribbean and South America who share the same passion for baseball.

Marten Gasparini: There is even a Korean player. I think the Royals have always been doing a great job of signing international players. We have here a great group of international players that have pride and passion for the game.

Alex Liddi, the first Italian-born-and-developed player to make it to MLB, is currently competing for a Kansas City Royals organization.
Alex Liddi recently played for Team Italia in the 2014 European Baseball Championship and is competing for a Kansas City Royals roster spot.

Roberto: Do you hope to become a role model for Italian baseball players wo have the same dream to play professionally as Alex Liddi did by being the first Italian-born-and-developed player to make it to the Big Leagues? What do you and Alex Liddi have in common?

Marten Gasparini: He already achieved the feat to become a Major League baseball player. I still have to work my way to get there. But if I can say something. We both might be good examples for young players in Italy to believe in their dreams and believe in themselves. Just for them to work hard and be what they want to be.

Roberto: Let’s predict the 2017 Team Italia WBC lineup and say that both you and Liddi play the infield next to each at shortstop and third base. That must be on your mind.

Marten Gasparini: It is absolutely… I’m looking forward to it. It will be a great honor for me to play in that tournament with Alex Liddi and Mike Piazza on the coaching staff. But like I said I have to work hard and to focus to get there.

Roberto: Have you ever thought of how it have been for you had you would have been invited to play shortstop for Team Italia in the 2013 WBC?

Marten Gasparini: I don’t think I would have been ready to go there. I have respect for the shortstop that played for Team Italia. It wasn’t easy for anybody to play in that kind of tournament. It was the first-time for many of the Italian players who had no international or major league experience. That is just something that happens. I don’t know how I would have dealt the emotions and everything. I still think that Italy has done a great job in the World Baseball Classic. It’s just the first of years to come. I think we will have a very good team in the next World Baseball Classic.

Roberto: Enough respect to Team Italia shortstop Anthony Granado. We love you like pasta. It was commendable for him to step up in the WBC.

Marten Gasparini: I think that he was a great player.

Roberto: It’s just how the game goes. Baseball is a game of chance and strategy. Where the ball bounces, nobody knows… Despite many of the players just meeting for the first-time in the WBC, Team Italia played like a family as if they had been playing together for years.

Marten Gasparini: That shows the pride that these players have for their origins. It’s nice to know that people have respect for Italia.

Roberto: You were raised in a part of Italy near the Slovenian border. What was that like?

Marten Gasparini: It really didn’t influence my life. I’m pretty far from it. But I’m still in a region that also has multi-cultural roots. It is near Slovenia and Austria so you can see and hear people talking in German, Slovenian and Italian as well. So it’s kind of a multi-cultural region.

Roberto: You spent a lot of time in London with family as well.

Marten Gasparini: Yes, with my mother’s mother and her brothers and sisters.
291603__bob-marley_tRoberto: So you must have had some Jamaican reggae music influence?

Marten Gasparini: Yes. I like reggae music. I’m not really a good dancer, but we could see the Jamaican roots.

Roberto: As Bob Marley did in promoting reggae internationally, you are doing the same thing for baseball in Italy and Europe.

Marten Gasparini: I’m honored to have the opportunity to do that and represent my country in that way.

Roberto: What kind of music are you listening to now in America?

Marten Gasparini: Maybe some rap or some deejays with electronic music. It’s very popular here so I just get into the mood and listen to the beat.

Roberto: Did you learn about Italian American icon Joe DiMaggio growing up?

Marten Gasparini: Joe DiMaggio was more popular in Italy for his marriage to Marilyn Monroe than a baseball player. But obviously baseball wise he’s one of main parts of Italian baseball history. We’re very proud of having him. He’s just one of many Italian American players that made this sport so great.

Roberto: And his visit to Nettuno only confirmed how big of an impact Americans had on baseball’s growth in Italy.

Marten Gasparini: Obviously Nettuno was the biggest thing for baseball in Italy when the Americans introduced the game during World War II. But also near where I live in Trieste the Americans were there too teaching baseball to us Italians.

Roberto: Are you learning any other languages so that you can continue to teach others the game?

Marten Gasparini: I have translated for American coaches coming over to talk to Italian teams. Right now I’m learning how to speak Spanish so that I can help some of the Latin players. A lot of the players here have been friendly and have asked me to help them learn some words in Italian and how to speak the language. It’s very hard for them to understand it, but I’m trying to do my best.

Marten Gasparini went 3-for-3 with a three-run homer in the Rookie League Idaho Falls Chukars' 2014 finale.
Marten Gasparini slides safely into third base after going 3-for-3 with a three-run homer
for the Kansas City Royals Rookie League affiliate Idaho Falls Chukars in their 2014 finale.

Roberto: You are blessed with speed. Have you have always been gifted to be the leader of the pack?

Marten Gasparini: Yes. Since I have been in school, I have always been one of the fastest in my class. I had fun showing off my speed by playing games and playing soccer. I have always had fun running fast.

Roberto: In baseball your mind has to be in the present one pitch at a time rather than daydreaming about the future.

Marten Gasparini: That’s the mindset that every player has to have if you want to have success. You have to work. Like I have been told it’s a grind, and it’s not easy for anybody. But you have to keep working and keep your mind focused on what you have to do in order to have success.

Roberto: What advice do you have for all the young players aspiring to become professional ballplayers?

Marten Gasparini: You just got to have fun. Keep in mind your dreams and remember to be professional by playing the game in a professional way. Most importantly enjoy…

Roberto: Any words for Bill Holmberg, director of the Italian Academy and the people behind the scenes at FIBS?

Marten Gasparini: Thank you very much for all the things you have done for me. I appreciate it a lot. I will always keep you in my thoughts, especially all the things that you have taught me. It’s still a big part of my mindset every day.

Italia manager Marco Mazzieri chats with Roberto Angotti at the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship

After two consecutive  European Baseball Championship titles in 2010 and 2012, Team Italia had to settle for the Silver Medal in 2014.
After two consecutive European Baseball Championship titles in 2010 and 2012, Italia placed second after a heartbreaking 6-3 loss to 2014 Euro Champion the Netherlands.
Roberto Angotti interviews Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri at the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship (Photo courtesy of IandI-GoPro.com).
Roberto Angotti interviews Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri at the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship (Photo courtesy of IandI-GoPro.com).

Roberto: It’s a pleasure seeing you again after over a year. It’s quite an honor to be with you at the 2014 European Baseball Championship. Thank you for taking time out to talk.

Marco Mazzieri: Thank you. We enjoyed our last experience in the World Baseball Classic with you so that’s why it was no problem doing this.

Roberto: Did you feel confident or did you have butterflies in your stomach when you faced your strongest opponent, the Netherlands, for the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship?

Marco Mazzieri: Well I think you always have butterflies in your stomach when you face competition like this and most of all when you wear the Italia jersey on your chest. With that being said, we knew it was going to be a very, very tough European Championship because all the teams got a lot better than in the past. We knew that this bracket was going to be tough so we came prepared. With good preparation after 10 days in Verona, where we played Italian Baseball Week against Spain and the Czech Republic, we are very happy with the guys we put together even though we are playing with younger players than in the past. As you can probably see, we have a lot of our products of our Italian Baseball Academy on this team.
Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri (second from left) with bench coach Marco Nanni (far left) prior to the Netherlands game on September 20, 2014 at Draci Ballpark in Brno, Czech Republic (Photo courtesy of Mister-Baseball.com).
Italia manager Marco Mazzieri (second from left) with bench coach Marco Nanni (far left)
prior to the Netherlands game on September 20th during the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship
held at Draci Ballpark in Brno, Czech Republic (Photo courtesy of Mister-Baseball.com).
Most of Team Italia's  players are graduates of the Italian Baseball Academy.
Most of Team Italia’s young players are graduates of the Italian Baseball Academy in Tirrenia, which is under the watchful eye of MLB director Bill Holmberg.

Roberto: And you are very proud of all of them after they have spent so much time under your guidance and that of Italian Baseball Academy director Bill Holmberg. Considering these players are a work-in-progress, it must be rewarding to see them perform in pressure situations.

Marco Mazzieri: I believe a player is never a finished product, so for these kids to be here is a tremendous experience. Hopefully they will pick it up a couple notches. They need to start walking with their own feet now. By playing competitive games, it will help them get to the next level.

Team Italia pitching coach Bill Holmberg visits with Roberto Angotti in the dugout (Photo courtesy of IandI-GoPro.com).
Bill Holmberg, Team Italia pitching coach and Italian Academy MLB director, visits with Roberto Angotti in the dugout (Photo courtesy of IandI-GoPro.com).

Roberto: You must also be proud of the Italian Baseball Academy graduates who are now representing Team Italia.

Marco Mazzieri: I am proud of all the guys we have right now. We’re proud of Cubs catching prospect Alberto Mineo, Royals prospect Marten Gasparini and all those guys we have there in MLB. I think it’s to the Italian Baseball Academy’s credit with all the work Bill Holmberg is putting into this project that we see results. It’s something we’re proud of, and we hope there are more in the future.

Roberto: You also invited Alberto Mineo along with Reds pitching prospect Davide Anselmi to Team Italia Spring Training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida.

Marco Mazzieri: Yes, we did. In fact, Alberto looked very good back at the time in February and now seeing him seven months later he looks even better as you can tell.

Roberto: Having seen Alberto when he first reported to Cubs Spring Training Camp in Arizona a couple years ago as compared to how he is today is remarkable. He has matured immensely and his body physique has filled in.  The confidence that he exudes now at the plate now is impressive. I know you have worked diligently with him to become the player that he is today. You must be like a proud father to him now.

Marco Mazzieri: Well, I think we are all proud of Alberto Mineo and the way he has developed. As you said, he has a tremendous attitude. When he just walks around the field, you see a player. I think this kid has a chance to be really, really good.

Roberto: No doubt MLB European scout Bill Holmberg made a great catch for the Chicago Cubs when he signed catcher Alberto Mineo.

Marco Mazzieri: It was…I hope that he can get some more playing time in the higher levels. It is not my job to say, but I think he could become a lot better player beyond the Rookie League.

Roberto: Earlier in the first round of the competition in Regensburg, Germany, I saw you arrive early at the ballpark to give one-on-one hitting instruction to Alex Liddi in the batting cages. I observed the dynamic between you and Alex, and it was incredible. He listened intently to everything you said and absorbed it in like a sponge. Then he applied what he learned from you an hour later in the game when he was at-bat against Great Britain and hit three consecutive home runs.

Marco Mazzieri: We have been working together since he grew up playing professional baseball. It’s long story with Alex actually. Because we have been together since 2005. He moved up from San Remo to Grosseto, where I live. He was not even 16 at the time when started to work with me on his hitting and with Gianni, our strength and conditioning coach, on his physical side. Since then, we’ve been working together almost every winter offseason working on his hitting. He’s been getting good results and that’s why he listens.

Roberto: Your current roster is probably 75% Italian-born-and-developed players, right?

Marco Mazzieri: Yes, but I think we should all be proud of this group of guys no matter if you have major league guys, rookie league guys or guys who work and play baseball. When they all get together, it’s just one single group.  Of course, you have different personalities but they play and lead as a team. And they like it as a team because I think for me and my coaching staff, which I am very proud to be working with such a great group of coaches, one of the biggest accomplishments through all the success we had through the years. But the fact that this group of people have a tremendous energy when they get together. You can tell actually from the WBC to now in the Euro Baseball Championship– win or lose–it’s just a great group of guys.

Roberto: The energy and chemistry of the Italian National team combined with the MLB-affiliated players made Team Italia one complete family playing together. One can tell that the future is looking bright for Italian baseball.

Marco Mazzieri: Well, we hope so. The team chemistry is really crucial for me and my staff. We believe that a group of individuals going towards the same direction can accomplish a lot more than just talented guys who just play for themselves. It has always been my idea, and when we put a group together we try to make the right decision based on the people first and the players second. Because we believe in the chemistry first with everone in the same direction, we try to channel all energies toward one single goal and luckily we have been able to do that.

Roberto: After having spoken to many of the MLB-affiliated players who have played for Team Italia over the years including Jason Grilli, Chris Denorfia, Nick Punto and Drew Butera, they have all cited the experience as being some of the best times of their career.

Marco Mazzieri: Well, by you saying this–and I know it’s true because I have talking to the guys–it just gives me goosebumps when you have those kind of players. All those guys are tight with this team. Every time we see them, and we are together they are part of the family. We shared a common energy that we were able to get for the two World Baseball Classics in 2009 and 2013.  I happy to know that they cherish those times as much as I do.

Roberto: Considering Major League Baseball has injected millions overseas in Asia and Australia, I believe the time is now for MLB to invest in European baseball.

Marco Mazzieri: I think you are right. They have invested everywhere in the world, and I think sometimes Europe gets underestimated because baseball is not the number one sport. But as we have seen in the past, you can get good players from everywhere. Just getting back to Bill Holmberg and what he is doing for MLB at the Italian Baseball Academy. I have met many, many coaches in my life and in my career, but I have never seen one with that much dedication and who cares more than he does for his pitchers.

Roberto: Team Italia spent Spring Training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida with hitting coach Mike Piazza. I’m sure everyone missed him during the 2014 Euro Baseball Championship.

Marco Mazzieri: We missed Mike. He is a tremendous guy. He is a tremendous hitting coach and former Team Italia player. So we missed him very much and wished he could have made it but he couldn’t.

Passaportoitaliano2006Roberto: How do you react to criticism from the media when they claim that the Team Italia roster includes international players born outside of Italy?

Marco Mazzieri: It’s not the color of the passport that matters, it’s about the passion in the heart. We are on a mission even if we have a younger team.

Roberto: Team Italia and European baseball will soon reap the fruits of your labor of love in developing tomorrow’s stars. Thank you!