Tre strikes and you're fuori

The language is Italian, but baseball is universal. A young American finds it's a strong connection between boys, dissolving differences.

They're cheering my son; from the dugout they're chanting his name, a Hebrew name they've never encountered before. I've grown accustomed to this; he's a lefty pitcher with a mean natural curve.

In the Irish-Catholic enclave of the Bronx where we lived last year and he won the Little League Cy Young award, no one asked why his name wasn't Sean or Patrick. That's New York.

This year we're living in Florence, Italy, but surprisingly, here, too, we've found baseball - and a powerful common denominator. Indeed, many Italian boys have never met a Jew in their lives. But, united by the great American phenomenon of baseball, no one is inclined to focus on differences.

We're in Nettuno, at a four-day Little League tournament; we're Florence, and are pitted against Turin, Grosseto, and the reigning Nettuno champs.

Among the outdoor tables and chairs at the cafe behind us, a priest has just finished an abridged Easter mass. Fans milling about sip espresso, snack on panini and gelato, and parents call out from the bleachers in Italian. Otherwise, you'd never know this was anywhere but in the US.

A coastal town south of Rome, Nettuno is most widely known as the site where the Allies landed to liberate Italy in 1943 - and where, shortly afterward, GIs introduced that most American of all sports to Italy.

"Baseball actually started in Italy at the American cemetery right after the landing," says Brooklyn-born Joseph Bevilacqua, who first arrived in Italy as a GI in 1955 and now serves as superintendent of the American military cemetery and memorial, a somber 77-acre site on the northern edge of Nettuno. It contains the remains of 7,371 American soldiers and commemorates another 490 unknown and 3,095 missing.

"We had GIs in foxholes in the general area of the cemetery, which had been a grape vineyard," relates Mr. Bevilacqua. "Some were hitting a baseball with a bat, and others [were] chasing the ball, with a few young Italian kids watching - and then they started chasing balls, too.

Like the Little League World Series venue in Williamsport, Pa., the Nettuno baseball complex sits on the site of a former garbage dump, the stadium lovingly built with elbow grease by a handful of American soldiers driven by pangs of long-distance baseball passion.

Three bases, a home plate, a pitcher's mound, a few wooden bats, and some home-grown American spirit, it appears, were all that were needed to win the hearts and minds of the locals in the months and years after the arrival of the US military.

Today, those early efforts are still paying off in a burgeoning Little League network and a fledgling professional federation.

"The first commander of the burial unit at the cemetery started the first Italian team, which consisted of most of the cemetery workers," says Bevilacqua. "He trained them and taught them how to play, remained after military service, and was the first manager/trainer of the Nettuno pro team."

Today, the Nettuno complex boasts three diamonds, a snack bar, and a stadium rivaling any American minor-league set-up. It's also home to the offices of manager Alfonso Gualtieri. Rumored to be an unofficial scout for the Florida Marlins, Mr. Gualtieri beams as he points out the photographs lining the walls of his office - there he is, posing with Barry Bonds; there, with Tom Lasorda when he managed the Los Angeles Dodgers; and there, that's a shot of the scoreboard at San Francisco's 3-Comm Park welcoming the Nettuno Lions.

The American advantage

Military bases still spawn much of the baseball spirit, and often provide equipment as well, so towns such as Grosetto - once the site of an important American air strip - are known to enjoy consistently high levels of playing. Florence, however, has benefited from the constant influx of college students spending a year abroad - many of whom head to the Campo di Marte baseball stadium for practice.

A cultural mecca such as Florence also enjoys a steady flow of American families on sabbatical leave: There's an American or two playing on the Florentine Little League team every year, and during one recent season that team boasted three American players, making it the status symbol of the region.

Other towns, such as Rimini, Parma, and Palermo, boast winning semipro teams akin to the American Triple A division, and the halo effect extends to a Little League aura of confidence - and good strong playing.

By now, between 4,000 and 5,000 boys make up 200 Little League teams across Italy; girls' softball teams are beginning to form, too.

As in every red-blooded Little League community, games in Italy run throughout the summer; rules and base paths are in strict compliance with American Little League regulations. Ask for the count, however, and you may get the feeling you're not on home turf: Out may sound more like fuori; Safe will sound like salvo; coaches urging their outfielders to "throw it home," shout "A casa! A casa!" But strike? As everyone everywhere knows, a strike's a strike - and tre strikes always mean you're out. Er, make that fuori.

Here in Italy, there's no televised Major League Baseball coverage. Professionals can hope to pull in $36,000 a year, maximum. Yet there's a thriving cult baseball phenomenon.

Fame and fortune, status and power go to the soccer players. So what's driving the Italian passion for baseball? Amore. Sheer love of the game.

At first, perhaps, it was the novelty. "When the GIs came, it was a new sport for us - and we love new things, here in Italy," says Giannini Pinto, president of the regional baseball federation in Tuscany. But more than half a century later, there's clearly more to it.

Mr. Pinto attributes it to the deep appreciation Italians have for true beauty and grace: The same culture that gave us Ferraris, Pucci, and Michelangelo can't help feeling passion for the aesthetics of baseball.

That's amore

"Baseball is a sport that's easy to fall in love with," he says, "and if you fall in love with it, it refuses to leave you alone, because it's too beautiful. Anyone who has watched really good baseball knows it's like a very graceful dance."

Then too, there's admiration for what some might call the "American spirit" of the game. "There's a lot of respect in baseball," Pinto notes, "and a spirit of gamesmanship. It's an intellectual sport that requires mental focus; it's a team sport but in fact, it's a sport of individuals and a culture of community. Baseball teaches you to compete with self-control, without unbridled aggression. The culture of soccer, which is so popular in Italy, is much more aggressive and violent; fans of each team are kept on separate sides of the stadium because otherwise, it would be mayhem. But the rivalry in baseball isn't ugly or violent. When we watch American baseball we never see violence in the crowds - even when it's the Yankees against the Mets; even if the team loses. There's a spirit of respect and sportsmanship, and there are no real feelings of hate."

Expatriate Jeannie Finocchiaro concurs. The mother of a 13-year-old with a penchant for stealing bases, Ms. Finocchiaro - who arrived in Italy 30 years ago as a college student and never left - has veered away from soccer because "it's become so aggressive and violent."

"Baseball is a sport where you can build real friendships with your teammates," she adds. "It teaches strategic thinking. It also gives my son a way to relate better with his cousins in the States. And, of course," the American abroad finally admits with a laugh, "I'm fond of it myself; it's bringing me a little bit of home."

The learning curve is steep

Like Americans struggling to make a real Spaghetti Alla Carrettiera, however, Italian sluggers face handicaps. "In the States," says Valerio Ranieri, the baseball federation's Florence coordinator, "the kids already know how to hold the ball and swing the bat when they start playing in the Little League. They know the rules because it's so deeply embedded in American culture. American kids see it everywhere and learn by imitating the older players. By the time Americans get to the diamond, a lot of the [coach's] work is already done."

In contrast, he notes, "here, you need to start by teaching them where first base is. It takes months just to develop the basics. Baseball is a very difficult sport, and it takes time to develop skills - but Italian kids these days tend to want things immediately."

Nevertheless, Italian baseball is making inroads into the national consciousness. Mr.Ranieri - a physical education teacher who has been playing baseball for Florence since he was 9 years old and lived across the street from a diamond - is taking baseball to Italian elementary schools.

There will be an Italian baseball team at the Olympics, building awareness and enthusiasm, and a new program is launching next year in Terrenia, which will offer full academic/sports scholarships to 10 athletes who will live in dorms at an immersion center, continue their formal academic studies in the Pisa/Livorno area, and train for a professional career in baseball under the guidance of members of the Italian national team.

In the meantime, many of the best Italian Little Leaguers are California-bound come August, when they will travel to San Diego and San Francisco for two weeks of global competition.

There, pitted against Brazil, Japan, South Korea, and Mexico, they will rejoice in the universal language of baseball. And just as surely, will laugh gleefully at the local Spaghetti Alla Carrettiera.

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