Riding the train one day from Bologna, Italy, to Florence while on vacation a few years back, I was struck by an unusual sight: a baseball field. Given recent events, I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised.
Returning to the Cubs’ clubhouse Saturday at HoHoKam Park with his Team Italia equipment was first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo was one of several Americans of Italian descent playing for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic. But there also were born-and-bred Italian players, including Alex Liddi, the first player born and developed in Italy to make it to the major leagues, with the Seattle Mariners.
The Italians and Italian-Americans had a nice little run in the WBC, beating Mexico and routing Canada before losing 6-2 to the United States, 5-4 to the Dominican Republic and 4-3 to Puerto Rico and finally bowing out of the tournament. “It’s bittersweet, with the Classic going on,” Rizzo said. “I’m now fully focused on getting ready for April 1.”
Rizzo, of whom the Cubs are expecting much this season, enjoyed the experience of a lifetime playing for his ancestral country and getting to know his short-term teammates, both from the U.S. and Italy. “It’s unexplainable,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun, especially with the group of guys we had and the coaching staff. We all had a great time. There are no egos. Everyone did what they were asked. We had fun with it.”
In Italy, soccer (calcio) is still king, whether one follows the national team (the Azzurri) or club powerhouses Juventus or AC Milan and their mercurial star, Mario Balotelli. But baseball is gaining a following.
Randy Bush, the Cubs’ assistant general manager, traveled to Italy several years ago to do some clinics. “I did some clinics for high school coaches,” Bush said by telephone from Las Vegas, where a split-squad of Cubs is playing this weekend. “I would say it’s very passionate about baseball over there. They’re still learning some of the nuances of the game.
“The high school coaches we worked with, you could tell they were very passionate, but some of the questions they asked would have seemed second nature to us over here. The development is still in the early stages, but baseball is gaining more attention over there, and it is gaining traction.”
Rizzo said he was told there was a buzz about the WBC back “home” in Italy. “I heard everyone was loving it,” he said. “Everyone was pulling for us in the whole country, really behind us, as I think they should be.”
Family, friends and Cubs teammates over here were into it, too. “It was a roller coaster,” Rizzo said. “The guys here were so excited. Everyone I talked to was so excited. No one expected us to do well. We had guys pulling for Italy over USA. It’s just funny because we were the underdogs. We played well. We gave everyone a run for their money.”
Because of the tournament format, Rizzo got to experience a playoff atmosphere with Team Italy. Both the highs and the lows in this kind of play are greeted with a lot more emotion on the field.
“You’ve got to really slow the game down as much as possible every single pitch, every inning, especially as the game got later on and your at-bats mean more,” he said. “It’s really about slowing the game down and focusing. That’s something I wouldn’t be able to get here, even in the regular season, probably. If you win or lose a game, you can still play tomorrow. This was kind of like a playoff atmosphere. You lose, you’re done.”
Rizzo started for the Cubs on Saturday against the Kansas City Royals and went 0-for-3 in his first Cactus League action since March 3. Now it’s time to focus on getting ready for the April 1 season opener at Pittsburgh. He was asked if the WBC experience put him ahead of his teammates. “No, I don’t think so,” Rizzo said. “The guys in this clubhouse have done it. They know what to do. They know what to expect the first time going into April 1.
“It’s like every other year; I go out and compete. The intensity was 10 notches higher than spring training. But I still go out here and compete the same way I did there. It’s just that the intensity is a little higher.”
Rizzo said he’d treasure the Team Italy jersey the most. He also said he has a helmet signed by all of his WBC teammates.
I asked him finally if he’d like to go to Italy someday and do some clinics, much the same way Bush did. “I think I want to go and see the country first and get away from baseball,” he said. “Maybe see some of the guys and see what their hometowns are all about because they know the ins and outs there, and get the good food and see the scenery.”
Kid’s wise beyond his years.