By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network
For Royals fans who watch Team Italy’s games at the 2023 World Baseball Classic, the right side of the infield might look awfully familiar.
Five-year Major League Baseball veteran Nicky Lopez and Vinnie Pasquantino, who appeared in 72 games with Kansas City as a rookie in 2022, will both be wearing blue for Italy, an ‘I’ on their caps instead of the interlocked ‘KC,’ providing significant big league experience when Italy hits the field in Pool A on March 7.
“Vinnie’s come in and really done an incredible job in not a lot of time with Kansas City, and Nicky as well,” said Italy manager Mike Piazza. “They’re really proud of their Italian heritage, which is good to see. Because quite honestly, my generation was second, one generation removed. Now we’re getting the third and fourth generation, so to see them really engage their heritage and be proud and identify as being an Italian-American is very rewarding for me. And it’s good for baseball – I mean, ultimately, we want to put a quality team out there and really, hopefully, make the tournament more competitive and make the teams that win… really earn it.”
Pasquantino, with the build of a linebacker at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, has a jovial personality that is reflected in the nicknames bestowed upon him by teammates and coaches.
On Baseball-Reference.com, which lists nicknames on each player’s individual page, Pasquantino’s nicknames are “the Italian Breakfast,” a nod to former Royal Billy “Country Breakfast” Butler, “Pasquatch,” an allusion to his physical size, and “the Italian Nightmare.”
“‘Italian Nightmare’ came from George Brett,” Pasquantino said, laughing. “Christian Okoye, who was a running back for the Chiefs, was the ‘Nigerian Nightmare.’ And I don’t know if he talked to Christian or whatever happened, but then he came up with ‘Italian Nightmare.’”
Getting a nickname from a Hall of Famer can’t be a bad thing, right?
Pasquantino’s rise from Old Dominion University to Kansas City has been rather meteoric. He missed the 2020 season when the minor leagues were shut down because of the Covid-19 Pandemic.
“When it came to baseball, it kind of took a back seat a little bit, and I got a job working as a chef in a burger place just to kind of get some money coming in,” Pasquantino said. “And we were fortunate enough that the Royals still continued to pay us, which was great. I went and worked. And every Tuesday, we had a group of guys who would go to my high school, a bunch of professional players would go, and that’s kind of how I got better.”
“Vinny’s a big personality, you know, outgoing like beyond his years with the clubhouse leadership type stuff without trying to be a leader,” said new Royals manager Matt Quatraro. “Nikki’s always up, he’s really somebody that the guys gravitate to. So both of them are really good in there.”
Quatraro is looking forward to managing the two of them when the regular season opens on March 30 against Minnesota, especially Lopez, who he conceded was a “pain in the butt” when he was in the other dugout as bench coach with the Tampa Bay Rays from 2018-2022.
Lopez, who’s eligible for Team Italy via his mother’s Italian heritage, said that the experience
“My dad has a little bit of Italian in him, but this, to be able to represent my family, represent where my mom’s family came from, I’m super, super excited,” Lopez said. “When I let her know that I was playing for team Italy, they were ecstatic. So, I wish it was a little closer so that they can come and watch, but they’re going to have to wake up at 3 a.m. to watch it. “
Lopez said the main objective is to win games in Taiwan, hopefully earn a spot in a quarterfinal at the Tokyo Dome, win there, and go to Miami.
“I’ve never been to Asia, Taiwan, that area. So really looking forward to the culture and learning it. It’s going to be exciting,” Lopez said.
“We’re really excited about it,” Pasquantino said, smiling, with Lopez standing right behind him. “Just two guys from the Royals going across to Taiwan.”