Classic helps define baseball's growth in Italy
MIAMI -- Mike Piazza felt the disappointment of the present.
The Dominican Republic rallied for a 5-4 victory against Italy, the team Piazza is working with as a hitting coach, in the first game of the second round of the World Baseball Classic at Marlins Park on Tuesday afternoon.
For the future, however, Piazza is encouraged.
A player with Italy in the inaugural World Baseball Classic of 2006 and a coach for the team in 2009, as well as this year, Piazza sees the fact that Italy advanced into the second round as critical to nurturing the development of youth baseball in Italy.
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Oh, there were the what ifs of that 5-4 loss in which Italy took a 4-0 lead in the first inning and then saw it slip away, getting shut down on one hit over the final 4 2/3 innings by five Dominican relievers. There was the inability to cash in on a first-and-third, one-out threat with the middle of the order coming up in the top of the fifth.
There was a catchable popup off the bat of Robinson Cano that fell just out of the reach of Italian shortstop Anthony Granato that set up the Dominican's game-winning, three-run rally in the seventh.
But most of all, there is Italy, having advanced past the first round of the World Baseball Classic for the first time, getting ready to meet Puerto Rico in an elimination game on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. ET on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.
It's a tangible moment that the growing movement to help baseball grow in Italy can point to as a sign of national pride.
"No matter what happens, this tournament is something to build on," Piazza said. "We play hard. We have had success. Everyone respects us. Events like this will encourage more people in Italy to play baseball. You have to look at the big picture."
What the big picture shows is an Italian team that didn't get out of the first round the two previous Classics advanced ahead of Mexico and Canada this time around. That adds to an Italian baseball resume that includes beating the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the last two European Championships (2010 and 2012) and finishing third in the Intercontinental Cup in 2010.
That is a major step up from the past World Baseball Classic experiences.
In the 2006 Classic, Italy beat Australia, 10-0, in Game 1, but was eliminated in the first round with losses to Venezuela, 6-0, and the Dominican Republic, 8-3.
Three years ago, Italy also got knocked out in the first round when Venezuela beat Italy, 7-0, in the first game, and then after Italy knocked off Canada, 6-2, in its second game, Venezuela eliminated the Italian team by a 10-1 score.
This time, Italy advanced past the first round, rallying for two runs in the ninth to beat Mexico, 6-5, on Thursday, and overwhelming Canada, 14-4, before losing to Team USA, 6-2, on Saturday.
"Anytime you perform well on this stage you draw attention to Italian baseball, which will help build the interest in Italy," Piazza said. "It will encourage more people to play."
What helps is that while there are a number of players on the Italy roster who are Americans of Italian descent, the roster includes seven players who were born in the country and 11 players who played last season in the Italian professional league, including Game 1 starter Tiago Da Silva.
Da Silva, born in Brazil to parents of Italian and Japanese ancestry, allowed two runs on 5 1/3 innings. He has pitched the last four years for the Italian pro team in San Marino, where his teammates included Granato.
Alex Liddi, the starting third baseman for Italy, was signed out of a tryout camp by Seattle and appeared with the Mariners in parts of the last two seasons. He is only the seventh Italian-born player to appear in the big leagues, the first since Reno Bertoia, who played from 1953-62.
Piazza, whose grandfather immigrated to the United States from Italy, is committed to build off the foundation created by the success of Liddi and this year's World Baseball Classic team.
"There are thousands of kids in Italy who don't play soccer who are looking for another outlet," Piazza said.
Piazza wants baseball to be an alternative. He has been working with the Italian Baseball Federation to promote the sport, in addition to serving as a hitting coach on the national team. He is pushing Major League Baseball to build a nice Dominican-style academy in Southern Italy. They could use it for players not only from Italy, but the rest of Europe.
"The world is shrinking," Piazza said. "We need to look at Europe. The continent has more than 700 million people. Major League Baseball has spent money in [Asian countries] and Latin America. Italy is the natural next step."
Italy's success on an international stage, such as the World Baseball Classic, enhances the growth potential.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.