07 March 2013

2013 World Baseball Classic: Italy

This is the sixth in a series to introduce everyone to teams participating in 2013's World Baseball Classic.  As this series progress, you will find all of the articles under this key world: 2013 World Baseball Classic.  Previously, we reviewed Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Korea, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, and the USA.

The body of the Italy article was written by Stuart Wallace.

IBAF Ranking (out of 74) 9th
2013 Pool Mexico


2013 Players of Note Jason Grilli, RHP

Alex Liddi, INF

Anthony Rizzo, 1B

Mike Costanzo, INF

Nick Punto, 3B

2009 Record 1 - 2, First Round
2006 Record 1 - 2, First Round

Like many of the other nations competing in this year's World Baseball Classic, Italy's baseball origins can be traced back to the 1880's, and the influence of some seagoing Americans. While the game did not gain traction as a pastime in the country until the late 1940's, Italy's first flirtation with the game came in 1884, when the ships Lancaster and Guinnebaug docked in Livorno in late January and played a game. This caught the eye of the paper "La Gazzetta Livornese", which wrote an article chronicling the (unbeknownst to them) historical event. Years following the impromptu game came another seminal event, in the form of the 1888 Spalding's World Tour, a barmstorming group of baseball players funded and promoted by the sporting goods magnate A.G. Spalding. While primarily a tour built to expand Spalding's market to lands further afield, a secondary goal of the tour was to promote America's pastime in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific. Along with the United Kingdom and Ireland, Italy saw baseball exhibitions courtesy of Spalding, with games played in Florence, Naples and Rome in late February 1889.
From these beginnings, came several decades of hibernation, driven by not only two World Wars, but the banning of many American inspired hobbies by the Fascist regime of Mussolini. Aside from the occasional morale boosting games between the US and Italian armies in WWI, baseball was dormant in the country until following the Second World War. With the end of the war came a renaissance of the sport, thanks to the dedication and efforts of  Max Ott and Guido Graziani. Between the two, the Lega Italiana Softball was formed by Graziani in 1947, with Ott founding the Lega Italiana Baseball in 1948. Soon thereafter, both leagues joined forces and became the FIBS (Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball), who currently govern the modern day professional Italian Baseball League (IBL). In June of 1948, the first game played between Italian teams occurred in Milan, with the eventual first championship being won by Libertas Bologna, precursors to the current day UGF Fortitudo Bologna IBL squad.
While Italy's baseball history doesn't enjoy the rich and lengthy tapestry of a country like Japan, they do boast a professional league that has been around years before those of other baseball playing nations, even Japan's Nippon Profession Baseball, which opened its doors in 1950. The aforementioned IBL currently consists of 8 teams playing a 42 game schedule, but with a couple of interesting quirks that might be unfamiliar to the North American spectator. While similar to the MLB in using wood bats, and to other foreign leagues in limiting each team to four foreign (non-European Union) players, the IBL is unique in teams playing three game series against one another, with the first game set aside for using foreign starting pitchers. It's called the 'Foreign Affair Game', and from there, it sets the pitching roster for the remaining two games of a series. For games two and three, each team is free to use any EU pitcher, with the caveat that if the starting pitcher is considered 'Italian School of Baseball' – ASI for short – then any relievers must be ASI pitchers for the remainder of the game. If the second game is started by a non-Italian EU pitcher, then the third game of the series must use an ASI starter. ASI pitchers are classified as such if they were developed in the Italian baseball youth leagues and academies, or if they have played in the IBL for six or more years.

Even with the quirks of its native professional league, Italy enjoys a reasonable modicum of respect internationally within baseball circles, currently enjoying 9th place in IBAF rankings, second in Europe only to the Netherlands. Italy has done well in other non-WBC baseball competitions, winning the 2010 and 2012 Europeans Baseball Championships, and placing third in the 2010 Intercontinental Cup. With respect to the WBC and Olympics, Italy's fortunes haven't been as rosy, with a 6th place finish in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, and 10th place finishes in the WBC rounding out Italy's faring against other international competition. Like the Netherlands, where it can be argued that most of the talent on the roster is by way of their colonial past, in the form of players from island territories such as Aruba and Curacao, Italy's roster strength also is not necessarily from those born in the country. While World Baseball Classic rules regarding player eligibility to play for a given country is admittedly more lenient than what is normally encountered in other international competitions, Italy nonetheless  takes advantage of a large Italian-American population of players that satisfy the given criteria for eligibility for playing for Team Italia. With only seven players on the Italian roster actually born in Italy, the success of the team in the 2013 WBC is driven almost exclusively by the non-Italy born influence on the roster, in the form of MLB luminaries, such as Jason Grilli, Chris Denorfia, and Anthony Rizzo. In terms of roster makeup, Team Italia does have balance in terms of having both offensive and pitching talent, something that many of the teams of the WBC cannot boast.

For the future of the team and for its WBC fortunes, Italy will look to players such as Seattle Mariner farmhand and Sanremo born Alex Liddi, as well as current Orix Buffalo pitcher, and first Italian born player to sign a MLB contract, Alex Maestri, to carry the torch for the continued success of the national team, and with it, make it a truly national affair. While Italian-Americans will always find their way on to the roster, the fickle and precarious natures of their abilities to play and from an IBAF eligibility and MLB contractual obligations perspective puts the impetus on continuing to find native Italian talent to take Team Italia from a pretty good international team with roster caveats, to one that is making strides in international baseball circles under their own merits, and their own homegrown talent. The makings of a dominant Italian-born squad are already in place, with the rules governing pitching rotations in the IBL determined by nationality, and skewed towards Italian nationals having a larger say in team success than foreign born pitchers. It would not take much to build upon those rules, and to continue to build and grow the already well-established and FIBS run youth leagues and academies. While the influence of the United States has left an indelible mark upon the history of the game in Italy, for baseball to be truly an Italian affair, it will take the homeland to loosen ties with the new country for the sport to truly flourish.

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