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Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Ahh, baseball in the springtime: the crack of the bat, the slap of ball in glove, the rich flavour of espresso, the mouth-watering taste of brioche and biscotti, the delicate foam on a cappuccino. . .
Espresso? Brioche? Cappuccino? What about hot dogs, peanuts, and beer? No, this isn’t the Beverly Hills Baseball League, this is Italoball—baseball as played in Nettuno, a seaside town of thirty thousand an hour south of Rome.
Baseball in Italy? Isn’t Italy obsessed with soccer? Looking for baseball in Italy is like searching for hockey in the desert—which just happens to be the subject of Dave Bidini’s last book, Tropic of Hockey (2000), in which he described his adventures looking for hockey in unlikely places.
When Dave Bidini went to Italy in search of baseball in 2002, he found a rich tradition dating back to World War Two when American troops taught the basics of the game to locals. Nettuno was the staging point for the Allies’ main offensive into Italy in 1944, so U.S. soldiers were there for the rest of the war and some time following it. The sport caught on quickly. “As early as the mid-1950s,” Bidini claims, “youngsters were given baseball gloves and bats upon taking their first communion, a tradition that continues even today.”
Nettuno is considered the birthplace of baseball in Italy, though the sport is played throughout the boot, with little leagues feeding into junior squads that compete at the international level, and three levels of semi-professional teams that offer ample opportunities for home-grown players. There is also a Nettunese legend—backed up with a photo re-printed in Baseballissimo—that Joe DiMaggio visited the town one day in 1957. He proceeded to hit the best local pitcher’s fastballs not only out of the ballpark, but over “the neighbouring farmer’s field, the seacliffs, and the beach” until they splashed into the ocean itself. He only stopped because they were running out of baseballs.
Bidini, who is also a guitarist for the Rheostatics, uses his study of a summer of Italian baseball as a catalyst to examine his own Italian identity, which he shunned while growing up in waspy Toronto, and his lifelong love affair with the sport. He and his wife, Janet, with their two young children in tow, lived in an apartment in Nettuno for six months, embracing the local culture and food, and day-tripping to Rome at least once a week.
Bidini befriended the Nettuno Peones, a team in Serie B, the second lowest Italian baseball league behind Serie A and A2. Though the town also boasted a Serie A team, it was almost entirely stocked with foreign players. Bidini wanted to focus on a team of locals, which is exactly what he found in the Peones, many of whom had been promising players once, but who, for reasons of injury or fractionally less talent, had been passed over by teams in the higher leagues.
Chapters alternate between studies of the personalities on the Peones squad, breakdowns of their more exciting games, baseball-related reminiscences from Bidini’s life, and anecdotes from his family’s time in Italy. It is a well-balanced mix—just when the reader might begin to tire of trying to keep all the different Marios and Fabios on the team straight, Bidini offers a respite in the form of a memory of watching the Blue Jays play at Exhibition Stadium, or, as in what might be the book’s best chapter, a day he spent in Rome with his two-year old daughter, Cecilia.
Read Baseballissimo. It is perfect for any baseball fan, especially those who still look for the artistry and poetry of the game in spite of the bloated contracts and steroid scandals. It is funny and honest, often incisive and deep, and always highly readable. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself with an insatiable appetite for cornetti and cappuccino as you turn the pages.
Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed
his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.
Copyright © Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.