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Italian-style baseball catches some Latin American flair

Francisco Cervelli of Italy bats against Venezuela, the country where he was born, in World Baseball Classic action in Group D. Miguel Tovar / Getty Images

GUADALAJARA – Francisco Cervelli’s mother, Damelis, had only one rule when her son went out to play baseball as a child in Venezuela.

“She would tell me I was forbidden from bringing a clean uniform home,” the Pittsburgh Pirates catcher recalled.

That fervor inspired Cervelli from an early age, driving him to make baseball his career. He was still a teenager when the New York Yankees signed him as an international free agent in 2003. Soon after, he began the winding road to the major leagues.

After Cervelli spent six years in the minors, a string of injuries forced the Yankees to call him up from Double-A Trenton despite a slump that affected his performance on offense and defense. They were confident enough he’d adjust, since he’d faced big league opposition at the recently concluded World Baseball Classic in 2009. Cervelli agreed. That experience, he says, helped him grow into a big league player as much as years toiling in the minors did.

Y si supieran las tantas veces que este pelotero, al que ustedes, VENEZOLANOS paisanos, se encargan de enviarle mensajes con insultos y denigrantes, siempre dice "Me encantaría criar a mis hijos en Venezuela......". Nuestro país si es bello, pero la gente, nosotros... tenemos que arreglarnos. Yo entiendo esos conceptos de Xenofobia y otros más, pero no de gratis ya tantos países no se alegran del todo al saber que tiene a un venezolano de vecino.... SEÑORES, NO SOMOS LO MEJOR DEL MUNDO, somos un país con grandes grietas y con mucha gente dispuesta a aportar en su construcción. El carácter y comportamiento de cada uno de nosotros en el exterior es lo que define nuestra cultura, y es feo cuando alguien de Brasil, por ejemplo, piensa que los venezolanos somos CREÍDOS y con CERO de humildad. Tenemos talento, profesionales, buenos seres humanos, personas dadivosas..... pero por USTEDES, los populares "Somos la pepa del queso", el resto de los paises nos etiquetan y señalan. Todavía tengo fe que quedamos gente buena, respetuosa y que vive en el presente. Me disculpan el discurso a quienes no les gusta leer testamentos, pero yo viví INFINITAS HUMILLACIONES de los venezolanos a través de las redes sociales y en este punto de mi vida, en donde se involucra un ser al que amo y con quien comparto mi vida, les digo QUE YA NO ME LA CALO MÁS! #BuenasNoches

A post shared by Migbelis Castellanos (@milynette) on

“It’s a special feeling,” Cervelli said. “I came here in 2009 and I’m back here again. I don’t know how long I’ll get to be a ballplayer, so I’m going to exploit this God-given gift as much as I can. I’m going to defend this jersey as long as I can.”

Through his father, Emanuele, who was born in Italy but has made his home in Venezuela since he was a child, the Italian Baseball Softball Federation contacted Cervelli about representing the European nation, a chance he jumped at.

“I’m a professional, and at … this moment I’m wearing the Italy jersey. And I’m going to give everything I have for this jersey,” said Cervelli, who was a member of the 2009 World Series champion Yankees.

Cervelli, in his second World Baseball Classic with Italy, is joined on the Italian team by three other Venezuelan-born ballplayers -- pitchers Luis Lugo, Orlando Oberto and Jose Escalona.

“We have a spark,” Cervelli said of the Venezuelans on the team. “We live for baseball, it’s in our blood. Look at how [the other Latin American countries] play. The passion in [those countries] is amazing -- that’s our brand of baseball.”

Estimates place the number of Venezuelans with Italian blood at just over 1.5 million, and the nation's total population is just over 30 million. Despite an initial group immigrating in the 19th century, the presence of Italians in Venezuela became much more noticeable after World War II. That diaspora was poised to grow in the South American nation when President Marcos Perez Jimenez issued a decree in 1955 facilitating European immigration to Venezuela.

The unfettered passion that Cervelli referred to can sometimes be a bad thing, as he and his family can attest. When Italy faced Venezuela in Group D play in Mexico -- the first of what turned out to be two games between the teams -- a pregame interview featuring his parents, girlfriend and other family members was displayed on the Estadio Charros de Jalisco big screen, prompting Venezuelan fans to jeer loudly. The incident motivated Migbelis Castellanos, Cervelli’s girlfriend and a celebrity in her country (crowned Miss Venezuela 2013), to write a lengthy post on Instagram denouncing the actions.

“We feel as Venezuelan as anyone else,” said Emanuele Cervelli, Francisco’s father. “The fact he represents Italy doesn’t give some fans the right to do what they did.”

The next day, however, fans eagerly lined up to take selfies with Castellanos, and the incident was left in the past.

Team Italy’s connection with Latin America runs even deeper than the clan of Venezuelans. Star infielder Alex Liddi plies his trade in Mexico and has spent time in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic over the course of his career, learning Spanish along the way. Pitchers Frailyn Florian and Tiago da Silva are also on Italy’s roster, the former born in the Dominican Republic, the latter born in Brazil.

Da Silva, who discovered baseball as a child when a group of Cubans settled in his native Sao Paulo, left for Italy at the age of 19 to launch his pro career.

“I started playing, and I liked it. When I decided to go pro, it was the Italian league that signed me,” Da Silva said. “I’ve been in Italy for 10 years now. I met my wife there and became a citizen.”

Through winter ball, which he’s played mostly in Venezuela, he’s come to know many of his teammates outside of the World Baseball Classic.

“The European culture and the Latin American culture -- they’re different. I like the Latin American culture a bit more, but Italian food is definitely better,” Da Silva said with a chuckle.

Under manager Marco Mazzieri, Team Italy has stunned more than a few traditional baseball nations.

“I don’t understand why it’s such a surprise when we win,” Mazzieri said after Italy beat Mexico in their home stadium in this year's World Baseball Classic.

All told, Italy has defeated Mexico and Canada twice each in the four World Baseball Classic tournaments (including 2017). In this one, Team Italy lost twice to Venezuela, by one run each time -- the last one a tiebreaker that would have moved Italy into the quarterfinals.

“We don’t feel any less [talented] than anybody here,” Cervelli said. “Our goal is to grow the game, to have it go beyond the countries where everyone knows it’s popular.”

Hours later, by the first-base line, as a small group of fans wearing Team Italy hats and jerseys spoke Spanish, English and even Italian, Cervelli did his best to deliver on his promise to produce a dirty uniform at the end of the game. His mother Damelis, looking on from the stands, wouldn't have it any other way.