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IABF trip to Italy

The Federation of Italian Baseball and Softball (FIBS) kicked off its 2022 Mission Classic on Tuesday, November 8 in Rome. The purpose of the trip is to bring Team Italy players and coaches from the 2023 World Baseball Classic roster together to bond on Italian soil to inspire them about their roots and heritage in advance of the games, which will take place in March. There are several current major league and minor league players and coaches on the trip.

As a valued partner, the Italian American Baseball Foundation will be along for the ride. IABF board trustee Chris R. Vaccaro, who is joined in the trip by Joe Quagliano, Carmine Gangone and Mark Cardillo, will be filing blog entries throughout the journey.

FINAL TAKE: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

(Photo Credit: Chris Vaccaro)

Mission Classic. Mission accomplished. I say proudly that Mission Classic was one of the most culturally significant moments in Italian baseball history. Writing on behalf of IABF, we are grateful and appreciative of the efforts that FIBS put into making this happen. On a micro level, it was also one of the most impactful and important moments in our lives as ambassadors of the game in the country where our ancestors are from. Poetry in baseball.

To see so many players and coaches affiliated with Major League and Minor League Baseball on one trip, bonding and learning about our shared heritage together was a major eye opener for everyone. How can we do this every year? How can we expose more pro players? How can we play in more Italian cities like Arezzo? The possibilities are endless. To put this trip into perspective, nothing like this has ever happened in Italian history and no other non-profit like IABF has a relationship with a sports governing body like we do with FIBS. 

This was not the final hurdle for growth, expansion and visibility for baseball in Italy. It was, however, a major chapter that will serve to empower kids, Italian national team members and fans who care deeply about the game and want to see success and happiness for their natives both domestically and internationally. 

Thank you, Andrea Marcon, Mike Piazza, Giampiero Curti, Marco Landi, Gianmarco Farone, Martina Corleone, Dan Bonano, and every other FIBS staffer. They had a role in making the journey come to life!

What’s next? Keep the momentum rolling. We’ll watch the Italian team compete in the World Baseball Classic, but we all most continue to strategize and work hard on the little things that will make a big difference. More exposure for young Italian players at American schools will help create an eventual pipeline to the the big leagues and affiliated ball. More scholarships, more showcases of Italian talent. More collective organization. We’re just getting started.

Concurrently, exciting more Italian American pro ballplayers about their heritage and getting them involved with the national team and future WBC cycles will be fruitful for having a five to ten year outlook on player development and cultural expansion. 

IABF will continue to forge a path, create opportunities and work as a trusted and valued partner of FIBS and we’re all looking forward to building something special together. Andiamo! Forza Italia! 

DAY 7: MODENA, FERRARI & MILANO

It’s been one hell of a week and finally coming to an end. We started our last day in Modena, where IABF officials toured a rustic and older town in northern Italy. Just walking a few blocks in the area was enough to see a very authentic part of Italy with the churches, the cafes, the town center and locals walking and biking to and from work. 

The main reason we were in Modena was to tour the Ferrari factory in nearby Maranello. This unique experience was another point of cultural significance to show the MLB contingent a classy industry … luxury sports cars. Before the tour, everyone ate at Ristorante Cavallino, where Enzo Ferrari, the legendary founder of the company. ate lunch every day. The meal was prepared by a three-star Michellin Chef and was exquisite because it tied ingredients in every course to the region. 

Mike Piazza missed the tour because he was doing an interview with MLB Network’s “Hot Stove” morning show. Sitting in the Ferrari museum, he spoke about the purpose of the trip, described attributes from several of the pro players in attendance and referenced the bridge he, FIBS and IABF are building between Italy through baseball. A little icing on the cake was showing a photo of IABF officials with Mike at his house from the prior evening. At the end of the interview, MLB Network international correspondent Jon Morosi, a prior honoree of IABF, asked Mike a question in Italian. He’s the best. He cares about his heritage and has been a friend of IABF for many years. We appreciate his dedication to Italian culture through baseball.

After Ferrari the IABF crew headed north to Milano for our final night in Italy. We watched Mike’s interview from The Galleria and reflected on the magnificent week we shared. 

DAY 6: FUTURE STARS AND CASA DI PIAZZA

(Photo Credit: Chris Vaccaro)

More baseball! We were back on the field in Arezzo and everyone was treated to a Future Stars game featuring young talent from the Italian national teams. Players were between 16 and 32 years of age. The older players were mostly pitchers. 

During the first half of the day, the pro players offered tips to players during drills on the field. The scrimmage pinned the white jerseys against azzurri jerseys in a five inning game. Families, fans and people from town were in the stands for this very unique experience. Following the game fans were allowed on the field for a meet-and-greet to get photos and autographs. 

Throughout the day, players from the WBC team were fitted for their uniforms they’ll wear in March at The Classic and they posed for some first look photos, which will be used by FIBS for marketing purposes. 

There are two specific things I’ll remember from that portion of the day: 1) being served espresso in the dugout and 2) the lunch after the game with the fine folks from Arezzo. There is a small concession stand next to the fence in right field. Espresso and other Italian delicacies are served regularly during games, but to have someone bring us an espresso during the game alongside Piazza while watching the Italian future stars with a pristine tree-lined mountain view in the background was incredible. As for the lunch, it was the best food we ate in Italy (and we ate A LOT of fantastic food at many restaurants). The porchetta was outrageous. The fresh ricotta and honey was spectacular. The wine went down smooth. The fine people of Arezzo outdid themselves with the meal and their hospitality. Endless thank you, grazie mille, from IABF to them. We will never forget their generosity and passion. 

That already busy day ended with a major exclamation point as we took a two-hour drive north to Parma and had dinner at Casa di Piazza. Mike, his wife and children invited our crew of 50-plus people to his villa, which was stunning. We had pizza from an oven in his indoor/outdoor terrace area and pasta from the region. A day well traveled.

Day 5: More Baseball and Florence

(Photo Credit: Chris Vaccaro)

Florence is one of the most culturally significant locations in Europe, so it was natural for FIBS to have players and coaches spend some time in the historic location. Saturday started with another light workout on the field at Stadio Comunale in Arezzo. It was similar to Friday’s session, but the players used the time to create some competitive games among each other in the batting cage. There were more than one dozen students in attendance which was special to witness. Between photos, getting some autographs and being on their hometown field with some of the best players in the world must have been a unique experience for the little guys.

This group of players – and IABF leaders! – continues to get closer on and off the field. It’s a genius idea by FIBS to create this baseball-infused mini-vacation for players and hopefully, it serves as a reason for them to get other interested Italian American players to join and represent Italy at the World Baseball Classic in 2023.

After baseball, it was off to Florence where the group toured the city and headed south for dinner and wine at Felsina Vineyards.

Earlier in the day, I did an interview with the CBS affiliate in San Diego about Mission Classic. 

Day 4: Baseball Begins

(Photo Credit: Chris Vaccaro)

Team Italy Players and coaches hit the field in Arezzo, a town in Tuscany. Through light workouts, stretching, and hitting, the team took in the rustic stadium and landscape about two hours north of Rome. It was unique to see one dozen players from Triple A and the big league level wearing their pro team hats and workout gear, but proudly represent their heritage on the field. 

It’s a baseball trip, so naturally, they would hit the field at some point. Getting some fresh air and throwing the ball around broke up the rush of sightseeing and cultural activities. Everyone will be back on the field throughout the weekend for additional workouts.

IABF representatives helped shag fly balls during batting practice, which proved to be a lot of fun considering the location and setting.

During dinner in Arezzo in a building that was constructed around 1,200, Mike Piazza gave a toast which included a note about his appreciation for the United States armed forces.

Day 3: Italian Culture and History

(Photo Credit: Chris Vaccaro)

Today was purely about seeing the sights and experiencing the staples of Rome from the Vatican to the Coliseum and about 15,000 steps in between! One of the key elements of Mission Classic is to expose the Team Italy players to history and culture. After a long day of walking – and eating! – the group attended the Serie A soccer match between Lazio and Manza at Stadio Olimpico.

On a personal note, I lectured at the Scuola dello Sport at the Italian Olympic Training Center. The purpose of the speech was to share the differences and similarities between American and Italian sports organizations and educate the audience about the mission of IABF and FIBS. Coaches from across Europe attend this school to gain certifications in order to work professionally in sports and this specific class was the highest level of students (think grad school for coaches).

Day 2: The World Stage

(Photo Credit: Chris Vaccaro)

The IABF/FIBS contingent started day two at Stadio Olimpico in Rome taking a tour of the home of SS Lazio/AS Roma where so many historic soccer matches have been played. 

We walked through the same athletic complex for meetings and a press conference at the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) offices with leaders from FIBS and Giovanni Milago, the President of CONI. This was a very special conference featuring all 13 players and the Italian National Baseball Team coaching staff, leaders from IABF and FIBS and the Italian press. Players like Vito Friscia and David Fletcher spoke about the meaning of playing for Team Italy. Friscia, a fellow Long Island native and Phillies prospect, had a veteran perspective having played in the last WBC, and Fletcher, an Angels infielder whose mother was born and raised in Italy, spoke fluent Italian.

I spoke on behalf of IABF and shared our passion and pride in partnering with FIBS on this historic trip and mentioned that this trip, team and these organizations are built on the fabric of our heritage and culture which continue to grow stronger every day. To be sharing a stage with Mike Piazza, Andrea Marcon (FIBS), Mr. Milago and countless baseball players and coaches was very rewarding for our organization. I know Joe, Carmine and Mark shared in my pride as every word I spoke reflects their vision and feelings. 

Following the press conference we visited the Museo del Calcio on the second floor of the CONI offices, which features historic art work, soccer artifacts and all Italian World Cup and European Championship trophies. You could feel the greatness in that room.

From the soccer museum to the pitch, we traveled outside of the city of Rome to the SS Lazio training center in Formello where our group got an inside look at the largest soccer training facility in Italy.

Finally, IABF hosted a dinner for FIBS and the WBC players/coaches at a restaurant in Rome to celebrate our friendship. I spoke again to the group, this time about making sure these players continue their involvement with IABF long after this WBC cycle. We believe in their ability, their future, and their ambassadorship for the game in Italy. Our group presented commemorative plaques to FIBS leaders for their coordination of this incredible journey. We were also joined by Italian Senator Isabella Tubetti.

Day 1: Welcome to Rome

(Photo Credit: Chris Vaccaro)

Players, coaches, and supporters gathered for a day of introductions at lunch and dinner. During a brief welcome meeting, Team Italy Manager Mike Piazza laid out the purpose of Mission Classic. He spoke passionately about the journey of raising his family in Italy and what his heritage means. He is hoping to impart that same passion to the young players who will do the Azzurri in March. 

During the intro meeting, I spoke on behalf of IABF and thanked FIBS for coordinating the week-long trip and for the leadership of Mike Piazza, Gianmarco Farone, and Marco Landi for executing all the logistics. Joining me on the trip are IABF President Joe Quagliano and his wife Debbie, IABF VP Carmine Gangnone, and IABF Secretary Mark Cardillo. 

We share a very unique partnership and represent one of the only baseball relationships between a 501c3 (IABF) and a government-run organization (FIBS) in the name of the intercultural exchange of ideas and execution on growing the game in both Italy and America. We are grateful and humbled to be part of the Mission Classic. IABF has come a long way since being founded in 2016 and this trip is another example of where we sit in helping grow the game.

Chris Vaccaro

Chris R. Vaccaro is a media executive, author, and professor from Long Island. He is Vice President of Digital at Altice USA News and Professor and Director of Graduate Journalism at Hofstra University. He is also President of the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame, Northeast Coordinator of the Society of Professional Journalists, and a board trustee of the Italian American Baseball Foundation. His work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Daily News, Rolling Stone, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, and much more.
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