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Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Welcome to Italy

By Joe Connor
Special to ESPN.com

QUICK FACTS

Most known (outside baseball) for its … Great food, architecture and beautiful women!

Location: Southern Europe, a peninsula extending into the central Mediterranean Sea, northeast of Tunisia.

Size: 116,305 square miles, or slightly larger than Arizona.

Population: approximately 58 million.

People: Italian (includes small clusters of German-, French-, and Slovene-Italians in the north and Albanian-Italians and Greek-Italians in the south).

Language: Italian (official), German (parts of Trentino-Alto Adige region are predominantly German speaking), French (small French-speaking minority in Valle d'Aosta region), Slovene (Slovene-speaking minority in the Trieste-Gorizia area).

Government: Republic.

Capital: Rome (population: approximately 2 million).

Famous National Anthem Verse: "Let us unite and love one another, For union and love, Reveal to peoples, The way of the Lord."

QUICK ITALY BASEBALL HISTORICAL FACTS

Most Known in baseball for … being home of MLB's European Academy and where MLB hopes to find a marketable star, a la the Giovanni Pizzeria of Italy.

Italy's Baseball Debut: World War II by U.S. servicemen.

First Italian-Born player to play Major League Baseball: Lou Polli: Baveno, Italy (Saint Louis Browns, 1932) Italy's Best Baseballtown: Nettuno, an hour south of Rome along the Tyrrhenian Sea is the birthplace and hotbed of baseball in Italy. There's even a sign entering town letting fans know they've entered baseball central. Not far from Nettuno is where the historic Battle of Anzio took place and it was in this area that U.S. servicemen taught Italians the game.

Italy's Other Baseball Hot Spots: Baseball is also popular in Grosseto and Bologna.

Biggest Sports Competitors: Soccer, basketball, auto racing, volleyball, boxing, tennis, golf.

Italy's Baseball Weather: Predominantly Mediterranean; Alpine in far north; hot, dry in south. In summer: (Texas) Hot in the daytime; (California) cool in the nightime.

Best Baseball Museum: Italy doesn't have a formal baseball museum, but some clubs have informal museums full of trophies and great, old photos. The best one is in Nettuno.

QUICK TEAM ITALY AND PLAYER FACTS

Biggest International Rival: Netherlands.

Biggest International Successes: Italy finished fourth in the 1988 World Cup. On the European continent, it has won the European Championships eight times, but finished second 15 times -- all at the hands of the Netherlands. In the European Cup, a team from the Italian League has won five times.

2006 WBC showing: Italy went 1-2, its only win coming against Australia.

Back from the 2006 WBC team: Allesandro Maestri (Cubs prospect), Jason Grilli, Frank Catalanotto.

Gone from the 2006 WBC team: Mike Piazza (now a coach for the team).

Now on 2009 WBC team: Alex Liddi (Mariners prospect), Nick Punto, Mark DiFelice

PLAY BALL -- IN ITALY!

Overview: Eight teams play a 42-game schedule from April to August in "Serie A1," which stands for amateur number one league. Previously, 10 teams played a 54-game schedule. The top four teams make the playoffs, which features a best-of-seven format and an Italian Championship known as "Lo Scudetto." The two teams with the worst record in A1 are demoted to "Serie A2" for the following season to be replaced by the two best A2 teams. The teams usually play three games a week against the same opponent. The first game is played Friday at 9 p.m., and then two games are played Saturday, one at 4 p.m. and the other at 9 p.m. At least three umpires call the game (usually four); seven during the playoffs.

Each team is allowed two to three non-Italian born players, with one often a starting pitcher. Non-Italian born pitchers can only pitch in Friday night games. In the first Saturday game, the starting pitchers must be Italian or Italian-American, and each team must play three players under 23 at all times. The Saturday night game is limited to only Italian pitchers, but there are no age restrictions. The designated hitter is employed and each team carries a total of 23 players (20 Italian, or Italian-Americans, and three foreigners). Almost all the team uniforms are laced with their main sponsors' logo, and as many as 30 to 40 volunteers for each club make it happen.

Most Successful Franchises: Emilia-Romagna is the strongest baseball region, and includes Parma, land of the cheese. Other outstanding teams are Fortitudo (Bologna); Grosseto; and the self-proclaimed "Baseball Capitol of Italy," Nettuno, which has won the most Italian championships.

Biggest Rivalries: Nettuno-Grosseto is the biggest; Parma-Bologna, Bologna-Nettuno, Rimini-San Marino also are spirited.

Some Famous Alums: Lenny Randle (MLB 1971-1982; 1982-1983, Nettuno); Stephen Larkin (Parma), brother of retired MLB shortstop, Barry Larkin; Jaime Navarro.

Best Ballparks: The 7,000-seat Steno Borghese Stadium in Nettuno, rebuilt in 1991, is the best and most historic ballpark in Italy. The rest can't compare historically or symbolically to Nettuno, but some of the best action in Italy also takes place at Gianni Falchi in Bologna and Janella in Grosseto.

Ballpark Atmosphere: The average turnout at each regular season game varies between 500 people to 2,000. Fans hoot, holler and yell anytime and every time they get a semblance of an excuse to harass the umpires. Grosseto, Rimini, Nettuno and Bologna draw the best crowds. The playoffs draw a full house  and no Pavarotti, sorry. Tickets are cheap by U.S. standards and dogs get in free.

Ballpark Food and Drink: You would think in a land famous for its food you'd be able to indulge in its signature pasta, sausage, cheese and wine. Think again. By and large all that's offered is standard American fare like hot dogs and hamburgers, peanuts and Coca-Cola with the occasional Italian sandwich here and there. But one specialty not to miss on a hot summer afternoon at the ballpark in Italy: gelato.

Distinctly Italian: With all the futbol, futbol and more futbol dominating the sports pages of nearly every newspaper, Italians consequently think in "points" and "matches," instead of innings and games. So if Fortitudo beats Nettuno, 2-1, for example, they scored one more "point" to win the "match. Only in Italy, can you be on a baseball diamond and hear church bells from a nearby cathedral ringing to all their glory every 15 minutes. Can you buy a lollipop at the concession stands. Do pitchers get just three warm-up tosses on the mound between innings (like in Taiwan's pro league, too).

Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com who has visited more than 30 baseball countries on six continents. He's the author of "A Fan's Guide To The World Baseball Classic," which is available for purchase exclusively at his Web sites: www.modernerabaseball.com and www.mrsportstravel.com.