Azzurri catcher Francisco Cervelli spoke with FIBS (Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball) and IABF (Italian American Baseball Family) media reporter Roberto Angotti during Team Italy batting practice prior to the start of the 2017 WBC game against Venezuela on March 11th at Estadio de Béisbol Charros de Jalisco in Guadalajara, Mexico. The Pittsburgh Pirate fan favorite expressed how much love he felt being honored with his own Francisco Cervelli That’s Amore Singing Bobblehead Night at PNC Park on April 8th.
Having received Top 10 MLB.com Fan Website recognition for the past five years, MLB blogger Roberto Angotti has been selected by Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball (FIBS) to report on Team Italy in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. His articles are now exclusively available on the FIBS English language website (www.FIBS.it/en) and also on the Italian American Baseball Family website (www.IABF.it). For frequent updates on Team Italy throughout the 2017 World Baseball Classic, visit the various social media sites for FIBS (facebook/twitter/instagram) and the Italian American Baseball Family (facebook/twitter/instagram). Facing Latin American powerhouses Mexico, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, Team Italy is once again the underdog when the extremely competitive WBC Pool D action begins on March 9, 2017 at Estadio de Beisbol Charros de Jalisco in Guadalajara, Mexico. Prior to heading south of the border, Team Italy will play exhibition games against the Chicago Cubs on March 7th and the Oakland A’s on March 8th in Mesa, Arizona. During all games, social media followers are encouraged to interact with Team Italy by using the following hashtags: #wbc2017, #WBC, #Italia and #Italy.
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.
The writing is on the wall just as it was in 2012 when former UC Davis Aggie pitcher Marco Grifantini and catcher Tyler LaTorre helped Team Italia capture its second consecutive European Baseball Championship by defeating a talented Kingdom of the Netherlands squad and again in 2013 when both California natives played in the World Baseball Classic. With the 2017 World Baseball Classic around the corner, two additional UC Davis alums–Toronto Blue Jays reliever Joe Biagini and free agent infielder Daniel Descalso–could potentially give manager Marco Mazzieri a boost if the Italian American players are added to the Team Italia roster. One could make a strong case for Biagini’s participation should fellow Jays bullpen paisan Jason Grilli be playing in his fourth consecutive World Baseball Classic for Team Italia. Joseph Carlo Biagini‘s Italian family bloodlines run deep with relatives in Lucca. His Italian great uncle, Carlo Biagini, was a merchant marine there. Joe’s father, Rob Biagini–who spent time playing ball in the Giants organization from 1981 to 1982–also played abroad in Italy with former teammate Chris Colabello’s father, Lou Colabello. However, it might take an executive order from new Canadian-born Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball (FIBS) president Andrea Marcon to get Biagini onboard with Team Italia in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
#BlueJays RP Joe Biagini on @FAN590 re whether he’ll play for Italy in WBC: “I’ve got a call with the Italian president right after this.”
After redshirting and playing one year at the College of San Mateo, right-handed pitcher Joe Biagini transferred to UC Davis, where he made 13 appearances out of the Aggies bullpen and went 3-1. He was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 26th round of the 2011 MLB draft after his redshirt sophomore season. On December 10, 2015, Biagini was taken by the Toronto Blue Jays from the San Francisco Giants in the 2015 Rule 5 draft. On April 8, 2016, Joe made his MLB debut when he pitched a perfect ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox and posted his first career strikeout facing David Ortiz. In his six appearances during the 2016 postseason against Baltimore, Texas and Cleveland, Biagini threw 7.1 scoreless innings with six strikeouts. He was the unanimous choice for rookie of the year at the recent annual Blue Jays player awards. The 26-year-old reliever was the only Jays rookie to go wire-to-wire with the team, a major accomplishment for a Rule 5 draftee. Starting out the season as a middle-relief fixture for manager John Gibbons, Joe gained the trust of the veteran skipper who later assigned him to late-inning duty. Biagini has since been the center of attention in the media as a result of being in the audience at a taping of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. During the show, Fallon passed Biagini in the audience and attempted to high-five him along with other audience members, but the popular celebrity TV host missed Biagini’s hand. During the November 18th episode, Fallon stated that he had taken criticism on Twitter for botching the high-five and brought Biagini out on stage briefly to complete their high-five.
Daniel Descalso was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the third round of the 2007 MLB draft following his junior season at UC Davis. Descalso made his MLB debut with the Cardinals on September 20, 2010. Despite the 30-year-old Italian American utility man only having a .242 career average, Descalso is much more important on the field as he has played every position but catcher and center field. After five successful seasons–including a 2011 World Series title–in St. Louis, Descalso signed with the Colorado Rockies on December 16, 2014. Rockies manager Walt Weiss recently said, “Daniel has a great pedigree, he’s played in the postseason, played in the World Series. And that goes a long way in that clubhouse. Guys understand how hard it is to get there. He’s a winning player, he’s got a winning attitude, he’s a leader… so, his value goes way beyond the stat sheet.” When asked if Descalso might make a good coach or manager in the future, Weiss replied: “Yeah, absolutely. I think he’s definitely cut from that mold. He’s one of those guys that has obviously been a student of the game. He’s a smart player. He played at a small school, UC Davis, and has probably always had to prove himself and overachieve to some degree but he’s put together a nice Major League career.” Descalso was the second UC Davis Aggie player to ever reach MLB in 2010 and the first to win a World Series ring in 2011. Before becoming the Aggies’ second-highest MLB draft pick, Daniel hit a team-best .397 as a junior in 2007, with 22 doubles, three triples, four home runs, 53 runs scored and 44 RBI. With infielder Nick Punto now retired and serving as the Team Italia third base coach, the versatile Daniel Descalso could prove to be a valuable defensive replacement and offensive spark plug in the World Baseball Classic.
For the past two years, Tyler LaTorre has been working as an assistant baseball coach at San Francisco State University under head coach Tony Schifano–who spent eight years as the assistant coach at UC Davis, his alma mater. Like Schifano, LaTorre is a former Aggies all-star. Tyler played at UC Davis from 2003-06, earning all-conference honors as a senior when he hit a team-high and career-best .363 with 37 runs and 32 RBI. He drew a team-best 28 walks and led the Aggies with a .451 on-base percentage. LaTorre was signed as an undrafted free agent by the San Francisco Giants on May 29, 2006 after a five-year UC Davis career. The former catcher played 10 seasons in the minor leagues–including nine of them in the San Francisco Giants organization–when he caught the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong before signing a minor league contract with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2015. During his pro ball career, LaTorre played a total of 452 minor league games during which he posted a .241 career average with 60 doubles, 14 home runs, 131 RBI and 155 runs scored. Yet, some of Tyler’s most memorable games included his time playing for Team Italia in the 2012 European Baseball Championship when he nearly won MVP tourney honors after going 14-for-28. Eight of his 14 hits were for extra bases–including six doubles and two home runs. LaTorre absolutely raked at the plate, knocking in nine RBI and scoring nine times during the international tournament. “We had one goal and that was to repeat as European champions,” said LaTorre. “It was awesome.” He also enjoyed serving as backup for Team Italia catcher Drew Butera in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The 33-year-old Italian American started against Team USA and went 1-for-4 with a walk and one run scored. LaTorre’s Italian roots trace back to his great-grandparents in Italy. It took two and a half years for him to become eligible to play for Team Italia as a dual citizen and Italian passport holder after thorough research, documentation and tedious paperwork authenticating his Italian lineage.
Having spent his 2007-08 seasons as a reliever in his final two years of college at UC Davis, Marco Grifantini did not register on MLB’s radar and was not drafted. Unfazed by pro baseball’s cold shoulder, Marco’s passion for the game grew stronger and he chose a path less traveled. Upon securing dual citizenship and an Italian passport, Grifantini was given the opportunity to pitch for Cariparma Parma in the Italian Baseball League and Team Italia in the 2009 World Cup. Marco helped his 2010 Parma squad secure its first national title since 1997 after going undefeated all season and pitching four scoreless innings to pick up the save in the decisive game seven of the Italian Baseball League Championship. Later that year pitching for Team Italia, Grifantini notched another important save in relief to allow the Azzurri to dethrone the Dutch and win the 2010 European Baseball Championship. In addition, Marco got the win in games against South Korea and Taiwan in the 2010 IBAF Intercontinental Cup to assure Team Italia a bronze medal. Team Italia won its second consecutive European Baseball Championship in 2012 thanks in part to the relief work of Marco Grifantini. Prior to pitching for Team Italia in 2013 World Baseball Classic, Grifantini made 53 appearances over four seasons for Cariparma Parma in the Italian Baseball League and posted a 19-4 record with a 1.89 ERA. His impressive performance against the Los Angeles Angels in a 2013 pre-WBC exhibition game in Tempe, Arizona led MLB scouts to scratch their heads in disbelief that Grifantini had been undrafted out of UC Davis five years prior. Immediately following the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Grifantini signed a minor league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. In his only season playing pro ball for the Single-A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays in 2013, Marco started six games and went 3-2 with a 5.21 ERA. The proud 31-year-old Italian American has since returned to his home in Redding, California. Grifantini said, “I am now starting my career in a local hospital as a pharmacy technician, and I plan on getting married in the summer. As for baseball, I have helped train a few youngsters and plan on coachinglocally to give back to a sport that gave me so much.”
Prior to traveling to Guadalajara to battle Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Team Italia will play exhibition games against the Chicago Cubs on March 7th and the Oakland A’s on March 8th in Mesa, Arizona. Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri knows the importance of these contests because it is his first opportunity to see his Italian national team work together with the Italian American MLB-affiliated passport players in a competitive setting and also his last opportunity to fine tune the Team Italia roster. In a 2013 WBC exhibition game against an A’s split squad, Mazzieri used ten pitchers in a 5-4 Team Italia loss. Tickets for the upcoming March 8th A’s exhibition game at Hohokam Stadium are now on sale HERE.
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 Grilliand 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 Buteraand Pat Vendittecould compete with international baseball’s elite.
It was fun to share the enthusiasm of Roberto Angotti visiting our Academy in Tirrenia
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 FamilyLaunch 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.
Having pitched 3.2 scoreless innings in the 2016 AL postseason with three strikeouts and just one hit allowed, Blue Jays setup man Jason Grilli was worth his weight his gold. Toronto exercised its option to pick up the 40-year-old Italian American’s $3-million contract option for 2017. Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins called the reliever’s option “as near to a no-brainer to pick up as you can get.” After being acquired on May 31, Grilli appeared in 46 games during which he had 58 K’s in 42 innings with two saves and 21 holds.
Grilli is synonymous with Team Italia since he is the only active player to participate in all three World Baseball Classics since its start in 2006–when he pitched a one-hitter with seven K’s to earn Italia’s first win over Australia. Now serving as Team Italia manager Marco Mazzieri’s official closer, Jason is proud of his role and his Italian heritage. “You know, they say the more you hang around Italians, the more Italian you become,” said Grilli. “And that’s what I am. I’m an Italian. I’m a relief pitcher for the Italians.”