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Friday, March 1, 2013
Nick Punto, pride of Florence

By Mark Saxon

Nick Punto was engrossed in a ping-pong match between Chad Billingsley and Mark Lowe Friday morning, so he couldn’t hear Jerry Hairston Jr. trying to get his attention from across the room.

“What do I have to do, speak Italian?” Hairston joked.

Actually, Punto knows only a few words and phrases, which he picked up from his paternal grandmother, born in the Tuscan capital of Florence. His grandfather was born in Sicily. That heritage is Punto’s link to Team Italy, which he’ll be part of for the second time in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. Punto wishes he knew more about his Italian roots.

“It’s kind of sad. I should know more and I will,” he said. “I’ve just got to let the kids get a little older before we go over there and see some family.”

The Italians face a steep climb, to say the least. They’re in the same pool as the United States, Canada and Mexico, with games beginning in Phoenix March 7. Unlike those teams, Italy has scant major-league talent. Beyond Punto, there is Pittsburgh reliever Jason Grilli, Minnesota catcher Drew Butera, Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo and a couple others with major-league time.

Punto said he enjoyed the experience in 2009, particularly the Italians' upset of Canada in Toronto, and he has higher hopes for this tournament.

“I hope we knock off Canada and Mexico and the U.S.,” Punto said. “It’s baseball. Anything can happen in baseball.”

The Dodgers lose Punto, Hanley Ramirez (Dominican Republic), Adrian Gonzalez and Luis Cruz of Mexico to their WBC camps beginning Sunday. Manager Don Mattingly apparently isn’t high on Italy’s chances.

“I’m not counting on missing Nick the whole time,” Mattingly said.