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July 18, 2012
Baseball in the Old Country
On Aug. 4, 1962, the New York Yankees already had a 5 ½ game lead over the Minnesota Twins, and the Bronx Bombers would go on to win the AL pennant handily. In the National League, meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers were enjoying a five-game lead over the rival San Francisco Giants, and no one could have imagined how the rest of the season would play out. We know now, of course, that the Giants and Dodgers would finish the season with identical 101-61 records, and San Francisco would defeat Los Angeles in a three-game playoff and go on to lose to the Yankees in a long and hard-fought championship series.
On Aug. 4, 1962, in Fairfield, Connecticut, about 45 miles northeast of the Bronx, my parents were married. In a couple of weeks they will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. To mark the occasion, they rented a house in Tuscany and invited their family and friends to join them. As I type this, I’m looking over an olive grove, surrounded by the people I love most in the world. The only thing that could possibly make this better would be some baseball.
Luckily, Italy has a professional baseball league. The IBL was founded in 1948, and currently has eight teams, two of which are located within a couple of hours of our temporary home base outside of Pisa. Italian baseball luminary Renè Saggiadi informed us that Bologna was a better team than Grosseto, the other nearby option, so Tracy, my wife and fellow fervent baseball fan, and I hopped in the car and punched in the coordinates for Stadio Gianni Falchi.
We were pretty excited about the whole adventure and managed to get to the stadium more than two hours before game time. In fact, the visiting team had just arrived, and the stadium hadn’t yet opened. There was an ancient gentleman sitting outside the ticket office, however. He spoke no English and we spoke very little Italian, but we managed to convey to him that we were here for the game. We purchased two tickets for a total of €20, even though the tickets were listed at €12 each. Maybe it was ladies’ night, or maybe there’s a discount for redheads with megawatt smiles.
Batting practice in Italy looks a lot like it does anywhere else, except some guys are wearing soccer sandals, and others have extremely questionable left-handed swings.
Other things at an Italian baseball game are very, very different from what you’d see at a baseball game in North America.
Because of course it does. Also, note the Run-Error-Hit column configuration. That took some getting used to.
2. Players are permitted to hang out by the concession stand, with their girlfriends, until a few minutes before game time. I’m not sure you’d even see this at a high school game back home.
3. Players shoot espresso right before game-time.
This is a custom I could really get behind.
4. Like everywhere in Italy, the food options at the yard are vastly superior to those in the States. But instead of hot dogs, they serve hog dogs.
Truth in advertising!
5. You can bring your dog to the game every day, and not just on designated dog days.
6. Also, you can smoke! It’s like the 1970s again.
7. The games start at 9 p.m. I don’t know if that’s a weather thing—it’s swampy hot over here during the day—or a societal thing. Most Italians still take a two-hour midday break for lunch/siesta/trysts/what have you, meaning most work until 7 p.m. or so. That would make it tough to get home, get cleaned up, and get out to the yard and grab a hog dog much before 9.
Cody Cillo, former Marlins farmhand and now ace reliever for Bologna, informed me that the Italian game was the same as what we were used to at home, but that the umpiring isn’t. Marlo Nava (formerly of the Twins org, and now bench coach for San Marino) told me that he has to help out the umps. “When my guy throws a strike, I yell ‘attaboy!’ so the ump knows to call it.” We watched this happen at least twice.
Cillo also informed us that this was the final game of the season, and that his Bologna club and San Marino were tied for first with identical records. Both teams would reach the playoffs, but the winner of this game would be the No. 1 seed and get to play the fourth-place team, and that the loser would play the third-place team. So basically we picked the best game to go to. (Had we gone to Grosseto, we would have seen the last place Novara club (4-37) lose to the second-to-last-place Grosseto Gryphons (10-31)—thanks, Rene!)
I was pleasantly surprised by the level of play. I feared it would be sub-high-school, but it was more like a decent college game. The pitching wasn’t great—there were no guns present, but I don’t think anyone touched 90 MPH—but the players seemed fundamentally sound. The only defensive standout was one Juan Carlos Infante, a 30-year-old Venezeluan shortstop who, once upon a time, was in the Expos organization. He made a couple of plays at short that transcended the game he was in and reminded us that there are still levels of play for which to strive. He’s also managed to put together a .339/.426/.500 line in his age 31 season. Not too shabby.
As befits a crisply played game, it was tied going into the ninth inning. San Marino came up empty in the top half, and it was set up for Fortitudo. After a walk and a base hit by Juan Carlos Infante, there were two men on with one man out.
First baseman Gabriele Ermini stepped in against Gregory Palanzo, another American import, and Ermini promptly served a single to center. Center fielder Carlos Duran appeared not to grasp the urgency of the situation, because he loped to the ball and made a weak throw in the direction of home plate. The ball rolled over the mound and eventually reached home well after pinch-runner Daniele Malengo had scored the winning run. The home dugout emptied and Ermini was eventually run down by his teammates and congratulated in the usual fashion. We didn’t see him get a pie in the face, but I bet even Italian shaving-cream pies are far more delicious than their American counterparts.
All in all our Italian baseball adventure was an unqualified success. If you find yourself in this part of the world and have the means to make it to a game, I strongly suggest you do so. You probably won’t find the next Alex Liddi, but I can virtually guarantee that you’ll have a fantastic time.