Friday, February 19, 2010

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio

In baseball, there is a long history of Italian players in the game. Starting with the mass immigration of Italians to the United States at the turn of the century, many of the children learned, and grew up playing, baseball. Eventually the Italians supplanted the Irish and the Germans as the main non-American nationality playing baseball.

The list of greats of Italian heritage (notice I don't use hyphens here) read from the DiMaggio brothers, Yogi Berra, and many more that I can't think of right now. Additionally, there have been 6 players born in Italy. However, baseball and Italy isn't necessarily a one way street coming this way.

During World War II, and after, G.I.'s in Italy would play baseball. Many of those G.I.'s were second generation, and could speak the language, which helped in the teaching/coaching aspect. What's the point to this, you might ask:

Italians are completely crazy about football. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owns one of the country's finest teams, AC Milan, and one million people tuned in to watch the wedding of a soccer star from Rome. But not far from the eternal city, in the same province, America's pastime rules.
Yeah, baseball in Europe. Good stuff. But this is not just laying out a field in a pasture and playing some pick up games:

In the seaside city of Nettuno, 70 kilometers (43 miles) south of Rome, kids grow up playing baseball, a tradition that began during World War Two. Nettuno, named for the Roman god of the sea, has played and followed baseball since then and proclaims its passion loud and proud. Signs are placed throughout the city alerting visitors that they are in "Nettuno - the city of baseball." The city founded in the 9th century may offer a scenic port with a Renaissance-era castle and even have the remains of a saint on display in a church. Baseball, however, beats all.
This, most definitely, is not just a fad, or even an anti-soccer issue. It's, pure and simple, a love of the game.

"They call Nettuno the 'little United States' because in this town only, the first ball (game) is baseball."
Nettuno's children learn to play baseball at school and compete in local leagues.
And what helps sustain the interest:

Nettuno has won five European championships, 17 Italian titles and a handful of locals are signed to Major League Baseball organizations in the US.
If anyone watched the World Baseball Classic, and saw the Italian victory over the Canadians and good game against the United States (because of the efforts of the actual Italian players, and not the hyphenateds), then you know baseball in Italy isn't just a recreational sport. It's for real, it's professional, and it's serious.

And there is one town leading the way.

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