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Musings of a homesick baseball fan

At the US-Cuba match in Italy, fans munch on ... bruschetta?

Jon Weber poses with the American flag after the U.S. won the Baseball World Cup 2009 at the Steno Borghese Stadium in Nettuno, Italy, Sept. 27, 2009. (Giampiero Sposito/Reuters)

NETTUNO, Italy — It's been more than 15 years since I last lived in the U.S., and when people ask me what I miss most my answer is always baseball.

I was never much of a player, but I'm a long-time fan and started out as a journalist covering spring training and minor league games in my home state of Florida. But attending a baseball game in Italy, where I live now, is a little bewildering.

Bruschetta is the game-time food of choice, served free to fans in order to show off the olive oil from the company behind the Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil scoreboard in center field. Players and coaches sip San Pellegrino in the dugout, and the seventh-inning stretch sparks an espresso break in the stands. At one game last week, the announcer tried too hard to make a poignant comment where there was none to be made — “Oliviera is the second baseman, but he hit the ball to first base!” The recently concluded Baseball World Cup gave me the opportunity to follow an American team here in Italy. On Sept. 24 the U.S. and Cuba were on the field in Nettuno, south of Rome. This was David versus Goliath, but not in the roles you'd imagine. The U.S. was the defending World Cup champ, true, but Cuba won nine consecutive titles before that, and 25 of 37 championships going into this year's tournament.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a U.S.-Cuba baseball game. The UPI wire service sent me to cover the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, where the two national teams clashed for the first time since the Cuban revolution. Caught up in the geo-political significance of that game the Cubans started out playing nervously, falling behind 4-0 — Fidel Castro reportedly cancelled plans to appear at the game in person at that point. They eventually calmed down enough to win the game 9-6. The Cubans won the medal round rematch as well, 6-1, en route to a gold medal.

There are different geo-political factors at play this year, with a debate stateside about the merits of the nearly 50-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba. That context was not lost on the mostly pro-Cuban crowd, which held up signs calling for an end to it (“If we can play baseball together, why can’t our economies trade?” one Spanish-language sign read).