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Italian baseball coach brings local flavor

| Saturday, July 9, 2011

Paolo Castagnini, coach of the Italian baseball team spending the week in Freeport, has searched local sporting goods stores for wooden bats during his stay.

He wants to find Louisville Sluggers, in particular, because the older boys in the Verona Dynos organization prefer to use the brand favored by Italy's top players.

But when the coach walked onto the field for warm-ups the past few days, he brought his trusted black MINE fungo bat with him. MINE is a new wood bat company in Italy, and in Castagnini's opinion, it has the chance to grab a share of the international market. For rare Italian baseball enthusiasts such as Castagnini, MINE represents progress and possibility for the sport.

In Italy, a country with a population of more than 61 million, there were only about 30,000 baseball players midway through the last decade, according to Castagnini does not expect participation numbers to skyrocket — not while soccer remains the pick-up sport of choice among Italians.

"If there are six people and a ball, they will play (soccer)," he said.

But baseball, a sport first played in Italy after World War II, has potential for growth, Castagnini believes. Italy already is among the best European countries in baseball.

His decision to bring the Dynos to America for two weeks' worth of baseball will only benefit the country's baseball community. In the Allegheny-Kiski Valley teams the Dynos played this week, Castagnini found a steady supply of competition his boys likely would not have encountered in Italy.

The coach cited a specific example in the online journal he has kept on the Verona Dynos' website. On Tuesday, his team led against Freeport, 16-3, during the fourth inning. But Freeport rallied to tie the score, 17-17, after five innings. Italy prevailed, 23-17.

"A score (like) that would have sunk any Italian team," Castagnini wrote of the early lead. "But here we are, not in Italy, and our competitors are not here to lose."

Many of the Dynos hope to continue playing baseball as they grow older. Verona's organization includes a team that competes in the second tier of the professional Italian Baseball League.

Major League Baseball, which the boys follow, is absent of any Italian-born players. Only six Italy natives have ever reached the big leagues, and the most recent, Reno Bertoia, finished his nine-year career in 1962 with the Detroit Tigers.

But the MLB has made an effort to encourage development in European countries. In 2005, it established its European Academy in Tirrenia, Italy, about 200 miles southwest of Verona.

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