Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri will have his mixed roster of seasoned MLB players and up-and-coming prospects ready for combat in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Guadalajara will be declared a war zone beginning March 9th when 2017 WBC host Mexico seeks revenge against a ‘never say die’ Italian squad that attacked closer Sergio Romo to pull off a miraculous 6-5 come-from-behind victory in the opening game of the 2013 WBC in Scottsdale, Arizona. Team Mexico will be managed by Edgar Gonzalez, who will be depending on his brother Adrian Gonzalez to lead the Mexican’s offensive charge with the support of sluggers Khris Davis and Danny Espinosa. In the opening battle on March 9th, Team Italia will most likely face starting pitchers Jamie Garcia, Miguel Gonzalez or Oliver Perez. It will be critical for Team Italia to strike first and score runs early because the Mexican bullpen is filled with some of the MLB’s finest relievers including: Roberto Osuna, Sergio Romo, Joakim Soria, Fernando Salas and Carlos Torres.
Team Italia will use a day off to strategize and prepare their troops for the March 11th clash versus Venezuela. Not only will this be one of the Team Italia’s biggest challenges of the 2017 WBC, but it is life-or-death for Venezuelan-born catcher Francisco Cervelli–who played for Team Italia when Venezuela eliminated the Italians from the 2009 WBC competition following their devastating 10-1 defeat. Fellow Venezuela native Luis Lugo, a 22-year-old Cleveland Indians pitching prospect who secured a Team Italia roster spot in the 2016 European Championship, would absolutely love the opportunity to get the ball and turn the tables on Venezuela. However, it will not be an easy task for Team Italia as Venezuela manager Omar Vizquel’s roster of MLB All-Stars includes Felix Hernandez, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Altuves, Asdrubal Cabrera, Rougned Odor, Martin Prado, Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez, Ender Inciarte, Odubel Herrera and Sandy Leon.
Team Italia will face Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez’s talented roster on March 12th. Starting pitcher possibilities include Seth Lugo and Hector Santiago. Relievers include Alex Claudio, Edwin Diaz, Joe Jimenez and Joe Colon. Puerto Rico boosts a strong MLB All-Star caliber lineup with the likes of Javier Baez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Yadier Molina, T.J. Rivera and Eddie Rosario. Puerto Rico, the runner-up of the 2013 WBC, eliminated Team Italia in the second round of play when they rallied late in the eight inning from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Azzurri with a 4-3 victory. As with the 2013 WBC, the first round will again be a round-robin format with the top two teams advancing to one of two second-round pools. However, for the first time in the worldwide tournament’s history, a single-elimination tiebreaker game will be played if necessary to determine the second advancing team in both the first and second rounds. In the case of the first round in Guadalajara, the tiebreaker contest would be played on March 13th. The two top teams will then move on to the second round of action slated to begin on March 14th at San Diego’s Petco Park.
Team Italia and host Mexico have a favorable advantage over rivals Venezuela and Puerto Rico due to the scheduling of the round-robin tournament. Both teams have a day off following their head-to-head combat match-up on opening night March 9th. However, when Team Italia returns recharged for a day game against Venezuela on March 11th, the Italians can take advantage of a sleep-deprived and fatigued Venezuela pitching staff that will have been taxed after being used the night before versus Puerto Rico. Team Italia will once again enjoy the same luxury when they play their second consecutive day game against a tired Puerto Rico squad that will have undergone back-to-back night battles versus Venezuela and Mexico. Although Team Italia remains the underdog, manager Marco Mazzieri’s army of blue-collar baseball players will fight to the death to repeat as they did in the 2013 WBC and advance to the second round.
“Fastball John” by John D’Acquisto and Dave Jordan rivals Mike Piazza’s “Long Shot” as one of baseball’s best books of the decade. “Fastball John”features a prolific foreword by baseball historian Dan Epstein as well as references to a soundtrack of pop culture including: the Everly Brothers, the Byrds, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Carpenters, the Temptations, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Donna Summer, Nicolette Larson, Blondie, Dave Mason, Don Henley, the Pretenders and New Order. “Fastball John” D’Acquisto will be signing his new book on September 24th and 25th from 1 to 4 PM at The Pennant, 2893 Mission Blvd. in San Diego’s South Mission Beach. It will be a family reunion of sorts since John Francis D’Acquisto was born in San Diego on December 24, 1951. He would later become a hometown hero while attending St. Augustine High School, where he excelled in both football and baseball.
In the 1920’s, most Italian immigrants who settled near downtown San Diego were fishermen from Genoa and Sicily. Many other Italian fishermen and their families moved to San Diego from San Francisco after the devastating 1906 earthquake. Like Joe DiMaggio’s father– who was a fisherman in the Bay Area–John D’Acquisto’s father, Fred D’Acquisto Sr., also depended on the fishing industry to put food on the table. As serendipitous as it may sound, the two sons of Italian immigrant families would meet in 1975 when John was honored by Joe DiMaggio and the Italian-American Society as its “Italian-American of the Year”. John’s father, Fred D’Acquisto Sr., was a local San Diego celebrity for 51 years as he worked for the legendary Anthony’s Fish Grotto Restaurant in the vibrant downtown Little Italy community. Starting out as a young teenager, John’s father worked himself up to dining room manager and would split his time between the original restaurant and their sister location, the Star of the Seas.
A first-round pick in the 1970 amateur draft, John D’Acquisto was selected by the San Francisco Giants. Blessed with a death-defying fastball, “Johnny D” made his MLB debut for the Giants late in the 1973 season. He was named National League Rookie of the Year and National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News in 1974. During the span of his ten season career, John D’Acquisto pitched for the Giants, Cardinals, Padres, Expos, Angels and Athletics from 1973-1982. Read John’s blog and order “Fastball John” today by clicking HERE.
Former New York Yankee prospect and current Seattle Mariner secret weapon Pat Venditte will be fondly remembered by the Staten Island Yankees on August 19th when the Yanks Class A Short Season affiliate host Pat Venditte “Switch-Pitcher” Bobblearms Giveaway Night. Venditte made his pro debut for the “Baby Bombers” against the Brooklyn Cyclones on June 19, 2008. With two outs and a runner on first in the bottom of the ninth inning, a switch-hitter came to the plate representing Brooklyn’s last hope. He entered the batters box batting right-handed, so Venditte switched his glove to his left hand. The hitter then decided to bat lefty, so Venditte switched his glove back to his right.
After a prolonged delay switching sides at the plate, the hitter was ordered to bat right-handed. Ambidextrous pitcher Venditte then struck out the batter on four pitches to end the game and secure a Yankees win. Two weeks later on July 2nd after consulting with the Major League Baseball rules committee, the Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation announced what has become known as the Venditte Rule: A switch-pitcher has to declare which hand he is going to use first. It ultimately afforded opposing managers the luxury of knowing the pitcher’s hand.
Selected by the New York Yankees in the 20th round of the 2008 draft, the Omaha native spent seven seasons in the Yankees’ farm system before signing a minor-league deal with Oakland. After an impressive 1.55 ERA with 40 strikeouts at AAA Nashville, the proud Italian American made his MLB debut with the A’s on June 5, 2015. He finished the season with a 2-2 record and a 4.40 ERA. Toronto claimed Venditte off waivers during the off-season, and the 31-year-old was traded to Seattle on August 6th.
Known best for his excellent defensive prowess and as a pitcher’s catcher calling games behind the plate, Drew Butera has been experiencing an offensive renaissance for the 2016 Kansas City Royals. Making the most of his 47 at-bats, the 32-year-old Italian American is hitting .298 with six doubles, two homers, four walks and eight RBI. Royals manager Ned Yost has rewarded Butera with more playing time this season by putting regular backstop Salvador Perez in as DH. The Florida-native is the son of Sal Butera—a journeyman catcher who played 359 MLB games for the Blue Jays, Twins, Reds, Expos and Tigers from 1980-1988. Drew was selected by the Blue Jays in the 2002 MLB Draft but instead opted to play at the University of Central Florida. After throwing out 48% of potential base-stealers and hitting .325 in his last season at UCF, Butera was a 2005 fifth-round draft pick by the NY Mets.
A big opera fan who used to listen to Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti in the clubhouse before games while in the Mets’ minor league system, Drew was named Florida League All-Star and subsequently promoted to AA in 2007 before being traded to the Twins—where Butera family history was made as Sal and Drew became the first father-son combination to play for Minnesota when he made his MLB debut on April 9, 2010. Being able to handle pitches with grace rarely seen at the Major League level while producing a calming effect on his pitching staff, Drew Butera kept lefty Francisco Liriano focused on every pitch which led him to a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox on May 3, 2011. While playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 25, 2014, Butera caught Josh Beckett’s no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies and became only the fifth catcher in Major League Baseball history to catch a no-hitter in both leagues.
Butera was a big hit for Team Italia in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Delivering a two-run home run that helped defeat Mexico and a two-run double that buried Canada, Drew was instrumental in each of Team Italia’s victories to earn la squadra Azzurri the right to advance with Team USA to the second round of play.
Drew Butera is playing well over in Arizona. Just laced a two-run double and Team Italy is up 9-4 over Canada. Hit a HR yesterday. #MNTwins
Drew Butera cannot wait to suit up for Team Italia in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. He spoke enthusiastically about playing for manager Marco Mazzieri’s eclectic mix of talented Italian-born players and MLB-affiliated Italian American passport holders. Butera said, “It was a great experience for me personally. To experience it for myself, there’s really no word that could describe it: the intensity, the passion of the games, just the amount of fun that we had. It was really great.”
Serie del Caribe, also known as the Caribbean World Series, is the highest baseball tournament at the club level in Latin America and features the champions of Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. Having recently signed a minor league contract with the Baltimore Orioles, Alex Liddi became the first Italian to play in the Caribbean Series as a member of the 2016 Champion Venados de Mazatlan from Mexico. In his final four games, Liddi went 4-for-17 with a triple and a double.
Alex Liddi’s wife and daughter helped celebrate with their number one man in the Dominican Republic at the 2016 Caribbean Series. I asked Alex a few questions about his new family.
Roberto: Congratulations on the birth of your daughter, and I see a ring on your finger too so all the female baseball fans are probably crushed now knowing that you are no longer on the market.
Alex Liddi: Yeah, I got married too. Married with a kid. Game over.
Roberto: Well, that’s it, this is everyone’s year. We are all blessed. We have our health and happiness. We have our families. We know how important family is to us. That’s everything to us. We give our left arm in a heartbeat for our families.
Alex Liddi: Yeah, definitely Italian culture is really big on family. It’s definitely the number one spot in my mind and in my life, my family. So I’m really proud of my family, and really proud to be a father and a husband.
Roberto: Yeah, and you have a future softball star that could fall in the shadows of your mom who was a great softball star.
Alex Liddi: Yeah, my mom has been talking about it already, playing softball, but we gotta see. We gotta wait and see.
The top 12 nations in the world of baseball will square off in the inaugural 2015 Premier 12 in Japan and Taiwan. In the first round of play, eleventh-ranked Italia faces ninth-ranked Puerto Rico on November 10th, fourth-ranked Chinese Taipei on November 11th, fifth-ranked Kingdom of the Netherlands on November 12th, seventh-ranked Canada on November 14th and third-ranked Cuba on November 15th. A welcome addition to the Team Italia pitching staff is MLB prospect Trey Nielsen from the St. Louis Cardinals organization. The crafty right-hander was originally selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 42nd round of the 2010 Draft out of Salt Lake City’s Skyline High School. Highly-touted as a 2010 Preseason Rawlings honorable mention All-American and two-time first-team all-state player, Nielsen chose not to sign with the Cubbies in favor of becoming a student athlete at the University of Utah. Playing his first two seasons exclusively as an infielder, he returned to the mound during his junior year and made four pitching appearances. Under the guidance of former MLB player and father Scott Nielsen, Trey opted out of his senior collegiate season in favor of a professional baseball career when taken in the 30th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. Postponing his minor league pitching debut due to Tommy John surgery, Nielsen pitched well for the 2014 NY-Penn League Champs State College Spikes by posting a 3-2 record with 49 strikeouts, 14 walks and a 2.50 ERA in 50 1/3 innings of work while holding opponents to just a .201 average.
Trey Nielsen was among the elite invitees to the 2015 Cardinals Spring Training Early Program Camp. In each of his seven starts for Single-A Advanced Palm Beach Cardinals between May 19 and June 26, he limited his opponents to no more than one earned run. After recording six shutouts this summer, the fast-rising Nielsen moved up to number 19 in the Cardinal Nation’s Top 40 prospect ranking. With the spotlight on him now in the Premier 12, Trey is ready to give underdog Team Italia a big boost with quality starts on the international stage.
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.
Great to see Alex Liddi and Marten Gasparini in @Royals camp today. KC is the favorite baseball team of Italy. Great colors too. #Azzurri
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.
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.
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.
Marten Gasparini. Remember the name. Europe will be a baseball factory, and a lot sooner than you might think.
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!