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When Team Italia Ruled the Baseball World

By Todd M. Civin

The World Baseball Classic seems to be trudging into the championship rounds with a mixed level of enthusiasm. This week the final four of the WBC stagger to the finish line playing before thousands of fans disguised as empty seats.

Stories about the classic are all too abundant as writers speak of the event's unpopularity, while MLB officials try to spin the event as a rousing success in bringing a global sport to the globe.

As I watch the games, I admit, that I have not watched a single inning thinking about the event from a National perspective. I couldn’t care less. But I do continue to think about what it must mean to the players themselves. Not the MLB players, but the Dutch and the Italian, and even the Korean and Cuban players. Players who rarely get to play on the World Stage.

As a little leaguer, I never viewed myself as playing for Spencer, MA or for Williamsport, PA. I thought of my glove, my teammates, my turn at bat, my bubble gum, my mom and dad watching me from the stands.

Watching the Classic, has truly stirred up my own inner emotions. I think of Tommy Gregory and Jimmy Grady, the slick double play combination of my Little League team. I think of the sport itself, not of the event.

The flowing of my emotions caused me to pick up the phone and call my friend, Ken Germano. Ken is the principal owner of Wellness Fitness Consultants and past president of the American Council on Exercise. A finer human being you will never meet.

But there’s a side of Ken that not many know. Ken was an integral part of first European Champion Italian Baseball Team in the mid 1970’s. He played with heroes of Italian baseball like Hall-of-Fame catcher, Giorgio Castelli. He forged life long friendships with Ed Orrizzi and Mike Romano when he played in Rimini, Italy in 2004.

Most importantly he played for the country of his ancestors and the country that he still thinks of lovingly as home.

I called Ken, needing to pick his brain. I needed to feel the love of the sport and the love of his country. It exploded through the phone wires. Ken’s zest for life, his passion for the sport and his love for Italy poured through the wires.

“This recent WBC has really stirred up memories, Todd. It kind of validated what we did over there 35 years ago."

"We were the building blocks and keystones for generations to follow in the game“ said Germano who tried out for the Chicago Cubs in the late 1970’s.

“I was really pleased and proud to find everything so well archived on the FIB site as it had not been previously there over the last 10 years."

“If you go to http://www.fibs.it/, you will arrive at “Il Federazioni del Baseball’ e Softball Italia“. Click on “La Storia Della Nazionale. It lists all Italian International Players including my teammates and me from the first European Championship team."

I could feel Ken’s enthusiasm as he talked of his historic team from the towns and villages of Italia.

“It tells the entire story of Italian baseball in Italian. Somehow reading the history of baseball itself in the language of my heritage makes it feel so warm. It makes the sport come to life."

“We were the first to defeat the Netherlands. I remember it as if it were yesterday, and yet it was almost 35 years ago. I can name each on of my teammates, my brothers and can visualize what they looked like when we walked into the Olympic Stadium in 1976 to play as an exhibition sport in Montreal. We looked slick in our Italian suits and hats. The crowd cheered for us, louder than anything I’ve ever heard."

Germano went on to tell me the history of the sport in Italy.

“Italian baseball started by an American Irish Soldier named Horace McGarrity on the beaches of Anzio where I had the honor of playing in 1975 for the champion Nettuno baseball club. That is where the American War Cemetery is located for WWII heroes and where I also had the privilege and honor of meeting with General Mark Clark when he was still alive."

I asked my “amico” about the television coverage of the event and how he felt about the future of the WBC and Global Baseball.

“The TV coverage has been great, but there is so much that ESPN and MLB network are missing on the little teams, e.g. Italy and Netherlands.”

"Its been interesting listening to Bruce Sutter announce the World Baseball Classic games while watching Italy versus Venezuela. He was speaking of fellow countryman, Mike Piazza, and the Italian Baseball Federation. How the global reach of the game is now getting there and the need for resources and money."

"I feel that the insertion of US Major League Baseball players into International play is needed to make the sport and the event flourish. Wouldn't it be superb for MLB like Major League Soccer to loan players, good minor leaguers, high A, AA+ to these leagues during their season to help them build and promote a global game?"

"These players would also get to see the world and learn a new language. Talk about an experience." "But. MLB doesn't seem to be thinking like this and if they are, they are not saying. It's not rocket science, it just needs resources and the right audience to get done. MLB should hire us to do this, we have the credentials!"

"As baseball Italia and ESPN's Bruce Sutters coverage of the team, Ken added, "It's been thriving there for decades. In Holland, for example, they can recruit many players from the Netherlands, Antilles, Sidney Ponson, Andruw Jones to name two."

"I can remember playing this tournament in Barcelona and the baseball was as good as it gets. Our ace Mike Romano, a Dennis Eckersley look alike, threw harder than Eck. We just didn't get the same looks when we got to the States."

Ken explained that the Italian team also worked for the Italian Olympic Federation /Baseball Federation and put on clinics and worked with kids all over Italy.

"The only American contingency having anything to remotely do with MLB to come over to Italy was Joe Garagiola with NBC when he had the show "The Baseball World of Joe Garagiola" aired before the game of the week with Tony Kubek, Bob Costas, and Jim Palmer. Of course Joe was Italian and grew up with Yogi on "The Hill" in St. Louis, but this was right in his wheel house to televise back to the States. He spent two days with us in Nettuno, Italy and our folks go to see us back home doing what we loved."

I asked Ken, who used to work out with Arnold Schwatzneger, what he thought of the escalating baseball salaries of 2009.

"I always dreamed of earning six figures playing baseball and I finally did."

He laughed and said, "Yup, I earned L600,000 per month, which was equal to $300 US in the early '70's. Six figures, at last. Playing ball, hmm?."

"Back in those years soccer was down and we were gaining momentum and playing in front of up to 10,000 in the right cities. We beat Olanda, the Netherlands, for the first time and European supremacy in baseball."

"I think MLB can do whatever they want, wherever they want if they are willing to invest the dollars to market and grow the game globally. The interesting thing though is before global coverage and the Internet, global baseball was going on and we were playing against the US, Japan, Korea, Canada, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Spain, France, and England even had teams, as well as, West Germany."

"It was unreal for me to play on the same field with future Hall of Famer, Paul Molitor. We played against other US major leaguers, like Ron Hassey and Denny Walling who played for great Oakland and Houston teams in their day."

"What MLB has finally done with this tournament is shine a light on what has been here for many years. What the IBF, the International Baseball Federation in Indianapolis drove for all these years with a US National Team coached by great college coaches like Itchy Jones from Southern Illinois."

As our hour long conversation came to a close, my buddy climbed on his exercise soap box and had one more pitch for International Baseball and why the WBC may be more important than we are giving it credit for.

"It would be great to see MLB players get behind overall conditioning and fitness programs for kids. To help the nation combat inactivity and obesity. Kids in the coming decades will not outlive their parents if the data and statistics are correct. The incidence of juvenile type II diabetes on the rise and how can over 300,000 kids have arthritis already."
Through these generic programs they could become specific in regards to their sport of choice. Programs have to effect the most versus the least at the school level where all kids have to be each day for 75 percent of each year."

I hung up the phone and sat back on the couch. I thought of Ken and his Italian buddies jumping up and down in the middle of a baseball diamond after "conquering Europe" for the first time.
And somehow, the WBC felt a little more important to me.

Todd Civin is a writer for redsoxmixed.com. All his stories can be seen at http://www.bornandbredredsoxred.blogspot.com/

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