Soccer is religion in Italy. It is every youngster’s dream to play in a World Cup for Italy.
It’s just like playing in a World Series, a Super Bowl or an NBA championship series for an American youth.
But there are pockets of baseball in soccer-crazed countries like Italy and those who have seen the Italian team from Friuli Venezia Giulia in the Senior League World Series at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor have to be impressed.
In a nutshell, they carry themselves like baseball players. They look like they’re from a country that places baseball among its favorite pastimes.
They are well-schooled in fundamentals.
Their outfielders know how to angle a fly ball and their infielders and catchers have solid techniques. The infielders field the ball with their hands out and their rear ends down and they try to get in front of the ball. The catchers move their feet to block balls in the dirt instead of reaching for them.
And all of them throw properly over the top.
Through their first three games in the SLWS, they had committed just four errors.
They made only one in Tuesday’s 11-8 win over West Madison, Wis., the first win by a European-Middle East-African regional champion since 2005.
Their pitchers get good leg drive and have strong arms.
Kevin Ainger, father of Italian first baseman Luca Ainger, explained that Italian youngsters get the benefit of being coached at various times by Cuban coaches.
Baseball is the No. 1 sport in Cuba.
“They send good coaches over to Italy in the summer and it’s a good way for the Cubans to earn some real money,” said Ainger.
He said the Cuban coaches, some of whom have coached the national team, emphasize the fundamentals.
“It has really helped,” said Ainger.
He also said they have a gorgeous baseball field courtesy of the U.S. 88th Infantry Division’s Fighting Blue Devils who stayed in Italy after World War II to monitor the transition and “carved a field out of rock. It’s like a cathedral.”
Italian second baseman Federico Ugrin got interested in baseball when he saw a major league game on television.
“I looked to see if there were any teams in Italy and found a team near my hometown,” said Ugrin, who has played for nine years.
Catcher Alberto Varin said Italy is so saturated with soccer, it’s enjoyable to be involved in another sport. He also prefers baseball to soccer.
“It’s soccer every day, every week, every month. It’s not possible.
“Playing baseball is better,” stated Varin, who drew laughs from his teammates and the Italian parents and fans with his declaration.
Luca Ainger said since there aren’t many teams in Italy, they get the opportunity to participate on a variety of baseball teams in the country, including national teams, for their particular age group.
“We always have fun. I love baseball,” said Ainger.
“There are a lot of hard core baseball fans in Italy who know the game,” said Kevin Ainger.
Italian manager Diego Schina went to Brigham Young University and said he once spent “10 days talking to [former Los Angeles Dodgers manager] Tommy Lasorda” about baseball.
“We know the fundamentals of baseball and how they work. Our kids just have to learn the mentality and the will to win,” said Schina. “It’s important to enjoy the game but you have to be determined to win. That’s our challenge.”
If this team is any indication, it’s certainly an attainable goal.