By Hirokazu Yokoo
At a time when the minds of little leaguers in Japan were filled with thoughts of pros throwing at 140 kph, the Cuban ace Braudilio Vinent was regarded as having the world's strongest fastball. He was definitely not going to let a 24 year old Japanese hitter get anything off him so, of all things, burning with competitive spirit he threw a 150 kph fastball behind the batter's head to intimidate him. Later going on to win the Triple Crown three times as a pro, Hiromitsu Ochiai looked back on that time in the batter's box and said, "If I hadn't avoided that ball and it had hit me in the head I might not have become a professional ball player. I felt that this was world class level baseball." This scene was in Italy, the leader in European baseball, at the 25th Amateur World Series (The first was held in 1938 in England and even though it was simply a competition between the US and UK it is said to be the 1st Amateur World Series).
Italy became the leader of the European countries in baseball. It is said that in 1919 a young Italian, Max Otto, who was living in America, visited Turin and brought the game over. The next year, 1920, Otto along with a university professor, Guido Graziani, formed two teams and held games. In that way some students became interested in baseball and in 1931 went over to the US to study the game more. After returning home they played games on university grounds that attracted many spectators but, Otto and Graziani went to America, World War II began and the popularity of the game gradually declined. However, along with the Allied armies that invaded Anzio, Otto and Graziani came home again. Just after the war, on March 12, 1948, Otto founded Italy's first baseball league in Milan. Incidentally, Graziani founded a softball league and in 1949 they combined into the Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball (FIBS). Using this opportunity, the Italian team played its first international game against Spain, and in 1953, by calling on nearby countries, a European baseball federation was established. Looking at this chain of events one can surely say Italy is the leader of European baseball.
The Italian league had just started play but in 1967 after 17 years Aldo Notari finished as an active player. He assumed the post of vice chairman of the Lega Italiana Baseball and took great pains to improve the quality of the league. In 1970, he sent an Italian representative team to the 18th Amateur World Series held in Colombia. Moreover, in 1976, he became a committeeman of the International Amateur Baseball Association (the antecedent to the International Baseball Federation) and, in 1978, held the 25th Amateur World Series in his home country. He worked hard to get baseball adopted as an Olympic event. Notari played a key role in the events leading to baseball being played as an open competition at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and, in 1992, at the Barcelona Olympics, becoming an official event. His contribution was recognized and he took on the post of chairman of the International Baseball Federation in 1993. For fourteen years, until his death at the age of 73 in July 2006, he carried a heavy burden for baseball on the one hand while himself managing a construction company that built several baseball stadiums mainly in Europe.
The domestic league started in 1948 is called Serie A. Below that there is a full organization made up of A2, B, C1 and C2 which was planned to increase the competing population. However, with soccer dominating the top levels of the world, in baseball they were not so easily able to catch up to the Americas and Asian countries, first among them Japan. So, in the 1960's, aiming to improve their playing skills Italy invited coaches from America and Cuba to come over. Starting in the 1970's, with the support of Notari, Italy began to actively participate in international tournaments. Because of this, at the Barcelona Olympics they were able to fight hard in the elimination round and were 0-2 against Puerto Rico and 5-7 against the Dominican Republic in a 10 inning overtime game. In 1996, at the Atlanta Olympics, Italy defeated South Korea and Australia and were 6th out of 8 teams. There was now reason to hope they had the power to charge onto the world stage. In 1998, as the hosts of the 33rd Baseball World Cup, they defeated Australia in a quarterfinal match. Italy had finally clawed its way into the best 4 in the world.
To the contrary, though, thinking of the conditions that would keep baseball as an Olympic event, in 1997 the International Baseball Federation began allowing professional player to participate in international tournaments. For Italian baseball, which had built a history of strengthening Serie A as its axis, the glory of 1998 began to seem like just a dream when it was wrenched out of the top ranks of world baseball. Serie A began to aggressively invite foreign players and several experienced professionals and amateurs from Japan as well to play there. As they groped toward rebuilding their strength in that way, in 2006 a new international tournament was organized, the World Baseball Classic. The Italian American professional baseball players Mike Piazza (San Diego Padres) and Val Pascucci (Chiba Lotte) became part of the Italian representative team. With this as a beginning, Italy strengthened its cooperation with Major League Baseball (MLB). In 2007, in the 37th IBAF World Cup they defeated the eventual winner, the US, 6-2 in the preliminary rounds and at the 38th IBAF World Cup in 2009 scored a victory against the Japanese team made up of amateurs. In addition, at the 17th IBAF Intercontinental Cup held in Taiwan in 2010, they shutout a Japan team made up of pros 3-0, although they were young, and at the 2013 WBC they defeated Mexico and Canada and were able to proceed to the second round. During 2012 the pitcher Alessandro Maestri joined Orix. He has been a representative in all of the last three WBC's and became the first player in NPB to be born and raised in Italy. Also, since 2007 the Italian representative team has been led by Manager Marco Mazzieri whose firm hand and competence at the helm will surely bring in victories.
With this base for a reemergence, Italy began seriously to strengthen Serie A and in 2010 chose the 8 strongest Serie A teams to start the professional Italian Baseball League (IBL) (Serie A became an organization below that). This year the 6th season opened on March 27th and in this league on weekends there are two three game series in a round robin system where each team plays in 14 of these. The top four teams go on to compete for the championship in the playoffs. The favorite is perhaps T&A San Marino which dominated the European Cup (The championship tournament for European clubs) last year. Since their home is the Republic of San Marino they appear as the San Marino representatives in the European Cup. On the team is the 44 year old Venezuela born slugger Jairo Ramos who has Italian citizenship and whose crushing power is pivotal to the batting lineup. The pitchers also shine as central to the team's steady defense. Fortitudo Bologna won the European Cup in 2013 and participated in the Asian Series. Their home, Stadio Gianni Falchi attracts many spectators. In 2012 G. G. Sato (formerly Chiba Lotte) was affiliated with them. The Parma Baseball Club is based in the Stadio Quadrifoglio, completed in 2009, and they want to show that they have the guts to become IBL champions. Besides those, there is ASD Remini, one of whose players is the Italian representative Mario Chiarini, a sure batter who has gotten good results, Citta Di Nettuno, Nettuno 2, Padua and Godo for a total of 8 teams. Centered on these, Italian baseball aims to develop further.
Last year Italy lost to the Netherlands in the European Baseball Championship making a total of 21 championships for the Netherlands to 10 for Italy. So in terms of representative players their rival, the Netherlands, has a lead on them. However, it's fair to say that in terms of club play they are pulling Europe along as seen by the fact that in last year's European Cup T&A San Marino played ASD Remini. Italy wants to further strengthen the cooperative relationship between the IBL and MLB and, in the 2017 WBC, advance further than before.