WBC should help grow the game overseas

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Italy won't get past the first round of the World Baseball Classic, but the participation of the Azzurra in the inaugural event will help promote baseball in the country.

"Being a part of the World Baseball Classic will definitely help expand baseball all around the Italic peninsula," said Marco Landi, marketing director for the Italian Baseball and Softball Federation.

Baseball and softball aren't very popular sports in Italy, where there are about 25,000 officially registered players. There is a semiprofessional baseball league composed of 10 teams.

Although baseball is more popular in the north, the sport is played even as far south as Sicily.

Sixteen countries were invited to the World Baseball Classic, organized by Major League Baseball and the Players Association, endorsed by the International Baseball Federation and the World Anti-Doping Agency. Holland and Italy are the European teams taking part in the event.

To deal with the great compromise the WBC represents, the Italian federation assembled a team that includes several Italian-American players in the major leagues. Catcher Mike Piazza is the most noted member on the team.

"We are trying to inspire Italian kids so they can see baseball as an alternative option, but we know this is going to be a slow process," Piazza said. "Venezuela and the Dominican Republic didn't reach their current status in one year. It was a long process."

"Even though these athletes were born and grew up in the States, they qualify to play for our country because they symbolize the bond between the Italian and the American community through baseball," Italian Baseball Federation president Ricardo Fraccari said.

In a country where soccer rules, baseball is trying to earn its place through the WBC.

Some of the biggest Italian newspapers, such as La Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport, have correspondents at the event.

Sportitalia TV transmits the games to the whole country.

"Due to the time difference, we are showing the games with a one-day delay. Transmissions start at 3.45 p.m.," Landi said.

But with soccer's World Cup around the corner, have Italians noticed their national baseball team at the WBC?

"If we can get two or three people to watch us, then I will feel satisfied," Piazza said.

"People have supported us," Landi added. "We haven't drawn as many fans as the U.S., Mexico or the Dominican Republic, but we have verified a growth in the sport's popularity."

Enrique Rojas is a reporter and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.