Baseball fights to find a foothold in Italy's sports landscape

How did a team of 12- and 13-year-olds from northern Italy end up at the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., on baseball's biggest stage?

Group of preteens doing their best to make it work at Little League World Series

Italy's Francesco Segreto pitches against Mexico in the 2016 Little League World Series. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

When you think of Italy, baseball is not the first thing that comes to mind. 

There is the food, the wine and, of course, the rich Italian culture. If any sport is associated with Italy, it's soccer. The roots and passion run deep.

So how did a team of 12- and 13-year-olds from northern Italy end up at the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., on baseball's biggest stage?

On the Italian sports landscape, baseball remains at best a curiosity, buried far behind other sports.

"It's very difficult, in Italian culture soccer and other minor sports are mixed into the culture of Italy," says Michele Gerali, whose son Mateo is on the team. "Baseball is a secondary sport. It is difficult, but we are working to explain the game."

The roots of the game run surprisingly deep. Most of the kids on this Italian team have a family connection to baseball.

"In Italy, most of the kids who play baseball, their parents played or a family friend played. That's how they arrive to play the game. It is not a very popular sport," says Fillipo Tiburtini, whose son Federico plays on the team.

Tiburtini played for 19 years in the Italian Baseball League, an eight-team loop that is regarded as the top circuit in Europe. 

Member's of Italy's Little League representative. (Jamie Strashin/CBC Sports)

The league and baseball in Italy date back to the Second World War, when American soldiers introduced the game.

"Baseball in Italy started from the north to the centre," Tiburtini explains. "There [are] not many baseball fields from the centre to the south."

In areas like Bologna, where this team is from, the game enjoys some popularity. Most towns have baseball fields and quality equipment is easy to come by.

Most of Italy's roughly 400 Little League teams come from those areas. This team, representing the Emilia Little League in the Bologna region, had about 130 kids try out for 13 spots. And despite the high calibre of baseball being played here in South Williamasport, many on the team are relatively new to the game compared to other teams.

"I saw it on TV and I really enjoyed watching it and i just wanted to try it," outfielder Jacopo Borella says through a translator. 

"I saw the game being played, I liked the catching, the hitting, the fielding. And I wanted to try it," says Riccardo Ravegnani, who started playing only three years ago.

Both say more of their friends are starting to play, but progress is slow. Ground zero for growing the game is the school system, where baseball has had trouble finding room.

"It's hard to find space if you will, the schools say we don't have the coaches, the facilities, it's hard work," Tiburtini says.  "There is no baseball at school. There is no help there."

Italian pro teams helping grow game

And while there is long and growing list of players of Italian heritage playing in the major leagues to show what's possible, it is the Italian professional teams doing the hard work. 

"The teams in the first division invite local kids to games, have them down on the field before the games start. The families come and stay for the games," Tiburtini says.

It's a way to grow the game and identify players with potential like Riccardo Ravegnani.

"A coach came to our school to demonstrate the game and we did three or four sessions and they saw I had some ability and said why don't you give this a try."

Ravegnani and his teammates worked hard to earn their spot here in South Williamsport. They beat out 20 other teams for the Italian championship. They then journeyed to Poland where they beat out 13 other teams for the right to represent the Europe-Africa region at the Little League World Series.

American-born Mike Romano, himself a former Little Leaguer, is serving as translator for Team Italy at this year's tournament. (Jamie Strashin/CBC Sports)
It's not just the players and their parents who have been wrapped up in this improbable journey. The team needed a translator for their trip overseas. Enter Mike Romano, who was born in the U.S. and played minor-league baseball before moving to Italy to play professionally. He still lives there.

He understands how special this is.

"This is an opportunity you can't say no to," he says. "I played Little League in New York when I was a kid. And it's every kid's dream to come here. I'm doing it now at age 64."

It is unlikely Italy will win a game at this tournament. They were trounced by Canada in their opening game but the experience of playing in a place where baseball is everything won't be forgotten.

"People at home do not understand what kind of competition this is," Tiburtini says. "In soccer there are many competitions, but there is nothing like this."

"When my friends ask what is this championship I explain this is like the World Cup of soccer but for Little League," Michele Gerali says.

A perfect Italian explanation.


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