By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – At 53, Mike Piazza looks like he could still put on the gear and catch a game for Italy in the upcoming World Baseball Classic if the need arose.
The 16-year veteran of Major League Baseball still sports the goatee from his playing days, making him easily recognizable, but he’ll be at the helm for Italy in this WBC, rather than behind the plate as he was in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
“My father… had so much pride in his Italian heritage, and it was just something he’s always instilled in me,“ Piazza said at Italy’s practice at Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. on Sunday. “His family came over from Italy with nothing, and I will always be grateful to the U.S. for giving us the opportunity to make our way in business and have a better life, but he still really always connected with his Italian heritage.”
In the years following his retirement as a player, Piazza, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Florida Marlins, New York Mets, San Diego Padres, and Oakland A’s, has built upon that pride that his father instilled in him, building a life for his family in Italy while staying connected to the game.
“When I retired a few years ago, my wife and I just decided we needed something different for our kids, and we decided to move to Italy. And at the time, I wasn’t really that engaged with the national program,” Piazza said.
In the years since, Piazza and the Italian American Baseball Foundation have done a lot to grow the game in Italy and get Italian players over to the U.S. to develop.What American baseball fans may not realize is that there is a baseball culture in Italy, albeit a small one, but it’s there, and thanks to Piazza, it’s growing.
“We have about four guys that have played in the league over there, and then a few guys here that aren’t going to be on the team that are in colleges in the U.S.,” Piazza said.
“Baseball does have history in Italy. It was brought there by the service members during World War II in Nettuno, which as they always like to point out there, is the home of baseball in Italy. But it’s like anything, the league has gone through several gyrations. They had some good years in the 80s and then it kind of tailed off.”
“I think the league is interesting. It has some good players, some guys that have had a few pro years over here and then have gone back,” Piazza said of the Italian Baseball League professional circuit. “But generally, the quality in the last few years hasn’t been what we wanted it to be as far as a development league.”
Thanks in a large part to the work of Piazza and the Federacione Italiana Baseball Softball, the sport’s governing body in Italy, a bridge of sorts has been built across the Atlantic Ocean.
In Italy, Piazza said, “we’re going a different approach with our young guys. We’re trying to get them to attend college in the United States, and that’s with the help of the Italian-American Baseball Foundation. So we’re placing some kids over here that are growing and maturing and it gives them two opportunities. Number one, to learn English and learn a different culture, and also play baseball and develop, and hopefully if they enter pro ball they’re more prepared.”
On March 1, Piazza and his team will travel to Taichung City for Pool A, featuring Italy, Cuba, the Netherlands, Chinese Taipei, and Panama. Italy will open the World Baseball Classic against Cuba on March 9 at 6 a.m. ET. The game will be streamed on Tubi.
“When we really put this team together, we wanted flexibility. We wanted experience. But we also knew that we had to… go young as well,” Piazza said of his squad, which has a lot of players with major league experience, a number of minor leaguers, and a few native Italians.
“We wanted guys… who have something to prove, and that’s good too, because we don’t want to have a lot of interference from the clubs, you know, if guys are not being used the way they want them to, and these guys are hungry.”