Recently, I have been making up for lost time, years of my life when I wandered in the wilderness. I have come in from the cold. I have been soaking up ItaliaBall.
As the opening game of Italian Baseball Week, last Sunday’s friendly between Italy and China-Taipei came wrapped in ribbons, flags, and pomp. After the presentation of a few awards, the introduction of the two teams, and the release of balloons, a 40-person marching band strode onto the field from a gate in the center field wall under the colorful illumination of a fireworks display. The organizing committee had done their work well. Despite a few errors here and lots of inevitable sacrifice bunts there, the game itself was baseball played well in front of a knowledgeable and engaged crowd.
The announcer gamely tried to pronounce the Chinese names, though I can only wonder what those players were thinking of his versions. One aspect of baseball as I’ve always known it that unfortunately has not taken hold here on the boot is the 7th inning stretch. The public address system did play a recording of “Take me out to the ballgame,” but I may have been the only one actually stretching and singing along.
If I train my lens away from the international stage and turn to Codogno’s team, I find a more significantly Italian take on America’s national pastime. I have started going to baseball practice when I can, which is to say every time they have it. My reasons for going are many: it's right outside my door; the players have for the most part welcomed me as a new acquaintance; I enjoy team camaraderie and gobbling up the odd grounder that rolls my way; I can use the language practice; and, heck, it's better than trying to decipher "Walker, Texas Ranger" in Italian.
I haven’t played organized baseball since I was 13 so I can't speak with authority on regional variations but there are certain touches that strike me as purely Italian. The pace of practice, like much of Italian life, is molto lento. The manager wears shorts but (gasp!) no baseball cap and rarely leaves the area behind home plate. The other night, one player snuck a cigarette while shagging flies in left field, sending what I thought would surely be tell-tale smoke signals to the enemy camp across the mesa.
Before the game on Saturday, the players warmed up to, among other songs, the Cindi Lauper hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Perhaps there are inspiring hidden messages in the lyrics?... A mere minutes before game time, most of the team convened by the snack bar for a quick espresso. Others went a step further down the additive lane... As John Fogerty sang, “Put me in, coach. I’m ready to play.”
Unfortunately, Codogno lost both games of the Saturday doubleheader. Mark played third base in both games and came in to pitch with one out in the fifth inning of the second game. Despite a long, injury-related exile from the mound, he pitched masterfully, like Maddux of old. Painting corners, hitting spots, mixing speeds, throwing peas, confounding the Sala Baganzans. You can see the box score here. Teens flirted in the shadows of the grandstand. Toddlers sword fought with the inflatable thunder sticks. We drank beer and ate grilled sausages, though we had to bring our own senape (mustard). It would seem that baseball is baseball. [On a related note, you may be interested in this short documentary about baseball in Ghana that a friend of mine made. Don't know if they drink espresso in West Africa before games but...]
Tomorrow, I'll travel with the team to just north of Milan for the last regular season games. All the chips are on the table as the Jaguars are clawing for the last spot in the playoffs. Maybe Ernie Banks will be smiling on Codogno, 'cause they're playing two.