BASEBALL al Dente

HALFWAY through my summer in Rome I start missing baseball. This year, a 15-game winning streak has put my home team, the Minnesota Twins, ahead of Oakland, and I find I am turning first in my International Herald Tribune to the sports page. For me, even excitement over the rebounding dollar pales by comparison.By chance I learn that Rome's semipro team is playing its first home game. Forget the opera, I make plans to be there. They are playing Nettuno, a small coastal town south of Rome. Driving along the Via Flaminia, I catch my first glimpse of the stadium's floodlights rising into the night sky. The promise of summer. Floodlights aside, the stadium itself is something of a disappointment. There are no seats, only concrete pilings and trenches: construction delays. I find a place to sit near the home team's dugout and watch the warm-up. I note that the players use metal bats that ping when they should crack. The purist in me recoils. I resist invidious comparisons. As handfuls of fans pick their way across the pilings and begin to line the backfield fence, I realize that most are carrying banners from Nettuno. Rome is a city of over 2 million. Where are the local fans, I wonder. I meet Carlo Rossi, general manager for Rome. He is not optimistic about the team's chances for the evening. We're playing Nettuno, he tells me, as if that should explain all. "Nettuno?" I ask. "It's the birthplace of Italian baseball," he explains. "Normally in Italy, the first gift a father gives his son is a pair of spikes and a soccer ball. In Nettuno it's a baseball bat and glove." Danny Newman, a pitcher from San Diego, is on the mound for Rome that evening. Each team, Rossi explains, is allowed two foreigners, usually Americans. Newman strikes out the first batter, gives up a single, and then nails the third batter in the foot with an inside pitch. It's tough being one of the ringers, Rossi tells me. They make three times what the Italians make and are expected to play three times as well. Newman, clearly flustered, gives away a few more hits. By the end of the third inning, the score sounds like a Little League nightmare. Meanwhile, I'm getting hungry. The game started at nine, dinner time in Rome. Where are the hot dogs? I mention the food situation to team president Guido Ballari, a self-made entrepreneur who wears Gucci ties and owns the Rainbird sprinkler franchise for Italy. "You could import hot dogs from the States," I suggest to Ballari. "This could be the new Rome-chic, like Levis and jeeps." He smiles sardonically. His team is down 15 runs and his stadium has no seats. "Piano, piano," he says. Rome wasn't built in a day. Thanks to his sprinkler system, at least the ballpark has grass. By the sixth inning, at 20 to 0, I slip out. A trailer in the parking lot is selling concessions: crusty sandwiches with thinly sliced prosciutto or thick greasy porchetta with lots of rosemary and garlic. Also a tub of olives. Had hot dogs ever tasted this good? I hear the tinny crack of several more hits as I polish off my dinner. I feel bad for Newman and Ballari but realize that if I want to see true baseball this summer, I must visit Nettuno. Rossi has given me a phone number for Silvano Casaldi, custodian for the town offices of Nettuno, author of a book on Nettuno's history, curator of the Museum for the Allied Landing at Nettuno and Anzio, and, finally, public relations director for the baseball team. I meet Silvano at the gateway to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Monument, a lush oasis in the sunbaked outskirts of Nettuno. Silvano carries a Louisville Slugger. The week before a farmer turned it up in a field near the once-formidable Gustav Line. Despite a half century beneath the soil, its sleek lines are unmistakable. If bats could talk. Baseball and Nettuno: The connection finally dawns on me. When the 36,000 soldiers of the Fifth Army landed at Nettuno in 1944, in addition to mess kits and munitions, they brought a supply of baseballs, bats, and gloves. Gifts from the New World. The Army maintained its beachhead at Nettuno for five long months, the coldest, wettest winter in Nettuno history. In their free time GI's played ball, sometimes less than a half mile from the German-held Mussolini Canal. "Before the Allied Landing," Silvano tells me, "no one in Nettuno had heard of baseball. They had never seen a bat." I find this hard to believe. "What about Joe DiMaggio?" I ask. "Surely he was known in Italy." How could the most famous Italian American in history be unknown in his ancestral land? Silvano flashes the historian's smile of insider's knowledge. "Censorship," he states. "This is what Mussolini did best." Following the war, Nettuno, previously both hospital and burial ground, became the site for the Sicily-Rome cemetery. Superintendent Horace McGarity, a sports enthusiast from the States, formed and coached the Nettuno softball team. They played on land donated to the commune by the local nobility, Prince Borghese, a newly converted baseball fan himself. Players rigged a backfield fence from corrugated steel the Nazis left behind. Several seasons later, McGarity switched his team to hardball, and they joi ned the newly formed Italian baseball league. Players from Nettuno were guaranteed jobs at the cemetery. Most seasons they finished with a near-perfect record. In 1953, DiMaggio finally figured into Nettuno history when he visited the ballpark and, according to local legend, said he'd like to take a couple of swings at some pitches. Nettuno put up its best pitcher. DiMaggio swung and missed the first pitch. The crowd roared. He took off his coat and tie and hit the next pitch over the backfield fence, the road, a row of houses, and into the sea. I stop for lunch at a restaurant in the town's piazza. Sitting at a nearby table is an American. He's paging through a catalog of discount sports equipment. I ask what he's doing in Nettuno. Predictably, he plays for the team. We chat. Bob Galassi, an almost 40-something pitcher, has played professionally for 16 years with 18 months in the majors. The rest of that time he bounced from one farm team to the next. Retired from baseball, he was working for an Atlanta bank when he got the call from Italy. "The good Lord saw fit to give me a couple more seasons of baseball. I can't complain," he says with a far-off smile. Last year he finished his season in Nettuno with a 19 and 1 record. "And that one," he says, "was a tie." This year he has a daily meal at the local restaurant written into his contract. Italian players live at home where mothers turn out hearty meals twice a day. They also iron their sons' pajamas. Galassi gets a lot of ribbing for his wrinkled shirts and messy travel bag. He's probably the only member of the team who's spent time in the Nettuno laundromat. Galassi, I later learn, is considered the best ballplayer in the Italian league. Local hero in Nettuno and father figure to the dozens of Americans who wind up playing in Italy, he's Nolan Ryan, Carl Yastrzemski, and Doctor Spock rolled into one. I return to Nettuno a couple of weeks later for their next home game, my last night in Italy, and the opening, coincidentally, of their new stadium, a 7,000 seater with a verdant Rainbird infield and plastic seats for the 7,000 fans who show up. It is the Field of Dreams all over again. Build it and they will come; 7,000 Italians miraculously transformed into baseball fans. With suntans, polo shirts, Bermuda shorts, and Docksiders, they define the bella figura of baseball. Some sip espresso from tiny pla stic cups, all savor a perfect summer evening of entertainment. This is baseball al dente, the best of both worlds. I run into Silvano, who presents me with a copy of the 300-page "Baseball, La Sua Storia e Nettuno." Reading material for the plane? Galassi is on the mound, pitching like a true veteran, giving up some hits, a few walks, loading the bases once, but always salvaging the inning. Surrounded by teammates seemingly drafted from Renaissance frescoes, it is Galassi who fills the park with an aura of summertime in the States. Unfortunately, I have to leave at the end of the seventh inning. I must return the car I borrowed and pack before going to bed. As I shove my tired clothes into my suitcase one last time, I think of Galassi's wrinkled pajamas and wonder if he's kept his job in Atlanta. Eighteen months in the majors, he is, nonetheless, the real thing. I fly back to the States, where the Twins, God bless them, have beaten all odds, the first team in baseball history to finish one season at the bottom and the next at the top. Twins pitcher Scott Erickson led both divisions in win/loss percentages, but curiously I find myself more interested in Italian pitching. I will never know how Galassi ended his final season, but at least I've learned that even with tin bats you still can play ball.

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