ROME – Oddsmakers say that tomorrow, Italy’s run in the World Baseball Classic likely will come to an end. In a quarterfinal showdown, the plucky Italian squad comes up against mighty Japan, which dominated its qualifying pool with four straight victories, and, featuring the world’s best player in Shohei Ohtani, is favored to win the whole thing.

To stack the deck even more, it’s actually a home game for Japan since it’s being played in Tokyo. The game airs at 6:00 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday.

Italian first base coach Michele Gerali sipping an espresso during the World Baseball Classic. (Credit: Screen capture.)

For rabid Japanese fans, Italy seems more a curiosity than a serious threat. In the Japanese media, none of Italy’s players have drawn much interest, but images of first base coach Michele Gerali went viral after he was seen sipping a classically Italian espresso in the dugout during a game. One Japanese TV outlet carried an interview with a local representative of Nespresso, estimating how much the Gerali phenomenon had boosted coffee sales in Japan.

If the Italian team does indeed fall tomorrow, it likely will happen without much fanfare, either in Italy or in the U.S.

Truthfully, most Italians probably don’t even know baseball’s equivalent of the World Cup is being played right now; on Tuesday, news of the Italian team was buried on page 45 of Corriere dello Sport, the country’s most widely read sports publication, with the first 38 pages devoted to the real national passion of soccer.

(There are, however, exceptions. Famed Italian singer Antonello Venditti, who wrote the celebrated song that passionate fans of the Roma soccer club sing before every home match, took to his Facebook page after Italy defeated Holland on Sunday to qualify for the quarterfinals to proclaim, “I’m in seventh heaven … it’s like a win for Roma!”)

Yet one can make an argument that beyond the Catholic Church – and, possibly, Italian cuisine – no force has united Italy and America more deeply than baseball.

In the early and middle 20th century, when baseball was at its peak in terms of popularity, Italian-Americans dominated the sport. In fact, you could assemble an impressive all-star team composed exclusively of Sons of Italy:

  • 1B: Dolph Camilli
  • 2B: Tony Lazzeri
  • SS: Phil Rizzuto
  • 3B:  Ron Santo
  • OF: Joe DiMaggio
  • OF: Carl Furillo
  • OF: Dom DiMaggio
  • SP: Vic Raschi
  • C:   Roy Campanella
  • DH: Yogi Berra

For the offspring of Italian immigrants, baseball was an escape route out of poverty and a ticket to acceptance in their adopted country. Nothing probably contributed more to overcoming anti-Italian sentiment in America than the success of Italian players on the diamond; after all, it was a New York Jew, Paul Simon, who immortalized the Italian Joe DiMaggio by writing that a whole nation “turns its lonely eyes to you.”

Today, the manager of the American team is another Italian-American baseball legend, Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, who was born in Pennsylvania to a father who was the son of Italian immigrants from Sicily. Piazza now lives just outside Parma in northern Italy with his wife, Alicia, and their three children, holding dual Italian and American citizenship.

(Leading Italy to baseball’s knockout stage is something of a redemption for Piazza, since his last act in Italian sports was to buy a soccer team, A.C. Reggiana, in 2016, only to run it into the ground and leave it bankrupt and defunct two years later.)

Baseball was introduced in Italy by a former American soldier, Horace McGarity, who’d married an Italian wife after World War II and settled down as the caretaker of the American cemetery in Nettuno. He founded a baseball league in Italy and also coached the first Italian national team, leading it to the gold medal in the 1954 European championships.

Venditti, the singer, is another good example. He fell in love with baseball as a child during the 1960s, playing it at the Roman parish of Santa Francesca Cabrini, where the sport had been introduced by a Marist priest who’d just got back from a stint in the States and who’d swelled with pride seeing the success of Italian-American players.

On Thursday, Italy will also be playing for the memory of Chris Cooper, yet another Italian-American who was born in Pittsburgh. He pitched in the minor leagues for several seasons, in the Cleveland organization, without cracking a big-league club, and then played for the Grosseto club in Italy for several years and also for the Italian national team. Cooper died unexpectedly last Sunday from a heart attack at the age of 44.

World Baseball Classic rules state that a player is eligible to compete for a national team if he has either citizenship or residency in that country, or if he would be eligible for citizenship or residency under that country’s laws. Italy offers dual citizenship to anyone who’s descended from someone who was alive in Italy after March 17, 1871, so its lineup is dominated by Italian-Americans who can trace their roots back to the old country.

(For the record, March 17, 1871, was when the newly unified Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed after the collapse of the Papal States in 1870.)

Italy’s official roster for the world championship is composed of 38 players, of whom just four were actually born in Italy (one more, though, was born in San Marino, the tiny republic in northeastern Italy near Rimini.) In many cases, players sporting Italy’s blue jersey in the tournament had never even set foot in the country, until Piazza invited the entire team to join him in Parma for a getting-to-know-you shindig last year.

All this is a reminder of an indisputable cultural truth.

Historically speaking, there have been three routine acts in American life which, to some degree, have bound a wide swath of ordinary Americans to Italy, regardless of their actual ethnic background:

  • Going to Sunday Mass, which, on a weekly basis, briefly turns the thoughts and prayers of millions of American Catholics to Rome.
  • Watching a baseball game, for the millions of Americans who go to a ballpark each season or who tune in on TV, and for whom memories of the Italian giants of the game are still fresh.
  • Eating at an Italian restaurant, which, in 2022, was a $75 billion industry in America, and which, for a couple of hours at least, makes every American feel a little bit Italian.

I won’t rehearse here my list of nine reasons why baseball and Catholicism are kindred spirits, such as the fact that one can dip in and out of the practice of the faith, but for real devotees the liturgy is a daily affair. Suffice it to say that I don’t believe it’s any accident that Catholic cultures, both historically and today, have loomed so large in the game.

On Thursday, my plan is go to Mass in the morning, watch the Italy/Japan game at 11:00 a.m. local time and then eat a satisfying Italian lunch afterwards. I’ll thereby “hit for the cycle,” to invoke a baseball expression, as an American living in Italy – one who simply can’t imagine life without the church, the sport, the food, and the adopted country I love, all with a passion that surpasses understanding.