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).
Earlier in the summer, left-handed Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman walked out of his Netherlands hotel and defected, the kind of thing that casts a negative light on the defector’s country. In the best capitalist tradition, Chapman immediately established residency in Andorra, assuring that the millions he earns from the Yankees or Red Sox will go untaxed.
The game I saw concluded without any major non-baseball developments. The U.S. won 5-3, and then repeated the feat three days later, beating Cuba 10-5 to win the championship on Sunday. The title gave the U.S. back-to-back Baseball World Cup titles for the first time since the 1970s.
The next day, I spoke to World Cup organizers who stressed that if baseball is going to succeed as a world sport it needed to succeed in places like Nettuno, considered one of the capitals of European baseball thanks in part to a historic U.S. military presence in the area. On the surface, the argument makes sense. One of the strongest teams in the smallish Italian pro league is based in Nettuno, where the stadium is a handsome structure that seats 8,000. The fans are surprisingly knowledgeable (they applauded loudest whenever there was a "doppia eliminazione" — a double play) and enthusiastic enough to turn out for games even after the Italian squad was eliminated. But there’s no doubt that baseball has a long way to go to become an international sport. A total of 20 teams representing every continent but Antarctica played in the World Cup field. But the range of teams did little but highlight the weakness of the sport beyond its traditional strongholds in North America, the Caribbean rim and in parts of Asia.
The first round was full of laughable competition: Venezuela beat Germany, 12-1, and China, 17-2. Canada won 19-1 against Sweden and 15-0 against Netherlands Antilles. Taiwan beat the Czech Republic, 10-1, and Puerto Rico prevailed 12-0 against South Africa. Look at the biographies of the players from the Dutch, Italian or Australian rosters — the non-traditional powers that made some noise in the second round — and you’ll find them filled with players who grew up somewhere else.
As much as I miss baseball, the Italian version of the sport lacks the same authenticity as most of the Italian food I've had back home. It's almost impossible to find a proper bruschetta or an intense enough espresso when I'm back in Florida, but if I'm there long enough I make do with what's available. I suppose I'll have to do the same with baseball here in Italy.