Welcome to Italy

Quick facts

Location: Southern Europe, a peninsula extending into the central Mediterranean Sea, northeast of Tunisia
Size: 116,305 square miles, or slightly larger than Arizona
Population: 58 million
People: Italian (includes small clusters of German-, French-, and Slovene-Italians in the north and Albanian-Italians and Greek-Italians in the south)
Language: Italian (official), German (parts of Trentino-Alto Adige region are predominantly German speaking), French (small French-speaking minority in Valle d'Aosta region), Slovene (Slovene-speaking minority in the Trieste-Gorizia area)
Government: Republic
Capitol: Rome (population: 2 million)

Baseball (and other interesting) notes
Most known for: Home of MLB's "European Academy"; disappointing and sloppy play in the 2004 Olympics; great food, architecture and beautiful women.
Quotable: "Here, the mental side is not emphasized," Claudio Liverziani, Italy's team captain.
Italy's baseball debut: World War II by U.S. servicemen.
Italy's baseball hotbeds: Nettuno, an hour south of Rome along the Tyrrhenian Sea is the birthplace and hotbed of baseball in Italy. There's even a sign entering town letting fans know they've entered baseball central, and it was here that a retired Joe DiMaggio paid a visit and and crushed a ball out of the ballpark and onto the highway beyond. Not far from Nettuno is where the historic Battle of Anzio took place, and it was in this area that U.S. servicemen taught Italians the game. Baseball is also popular in other towns such as Grosseto and Bologna. A picture of Joe D. don the "trophy room" in Grosseto.
First Italian-born player to play Major League Baseball: Julio Bonetti: Genoa, Italy (St. Louis Browns, 1937)
Notable current MLB exports: None
Ones to watch in the future: None at this time
Greats from the past: None
Italy's baseball weather: Predominantly Mediterranean; Alpine in far north; hot, dry in south. In summer: (Texas) hot in the daytime; (California) cool in the nighttime.
Biggest sports competitors: Soccer, basketball, auto racing, volleyball, boxing, tennis, golf
Best baseball museum: Italy doesn't have a formal baseball museum, but some clubs have informal museums full of trophies and great, old photos. The best one is in Nettuno.
Only in Italy: Can you be on a baseball diamond and hear church bells from a nearby cathedral ringing to all their glory every 15 minutes …Can you buy a lollipop at the concession stands … Do pitchers get just three warm-up tosses on the mound between innings. Yes, just three.

Amateur and international competition
Approximate number of Italians playing organized baseball: 20,000-30,000
Amateur highlights: Numerous European titles
Biggest international rival: Netherlands
Other important notes: MLB's European Academy is in Italy.
Contact information: Italian Baseball and Softball Federation
Viale Tiziano 74 - 00196 Roma
Tel: (+39-06) 3685 8297
Fax: (+39-06) 3685 8201
E-mail: info@baseball-softball.it
Web: www.baseball-softball.it

Italian Major League
Overview: Italy's National Federation organizes, structures and manages the program, and the championship has been played non-stop since 1948. A total of 10 teams play an approximate total of 54 games during the regular season from April to mid-September in what is known as "A1," or Amateur No. 1 League (e.g., the best league with the most talented players). The top four teams make the playoffs, which features best-of-seven semifinals followed by a best-of-seven Italian Championship known as "Lo Scudetto." The two teams with the worst record in A1 are demoted to A2 for the following season to be replaced by the two best A2 teams.

There are 24 A2 teams throughout Italy, with most concentrated north of Florence, while a few are scattered around Grosseto, Nettuno and on the island of Sicily. There is also a third level, known as "B" level, which has 40 teams around the country and is also heavily concentrated in the north. Italy also boasts an eight-team Winter League. Info: http://www.baseballitalia.com.

The (usual) 10 "A1" Clubs (and the cities that host them): Nettuno Indians; Bologna's Fortitudo; Grosseto; Modena; Parma; Rimini; Paterno; Anzio; Rho; and San Marino, which is a small republic bordering Italy.

The teams play three games a week against the same opponent. The first game is played Friday at 9 p.m., and then two games are played Saturday, one at 4 p.m. and the other at 9 p.m. At least three umpires call the game (usually four); seven during the playoffs. Tickets cost about 7 Euro. Dogs get in for free. Pitchers are allowed only three warm-up tosses on the mound between innings. Grosseto has some nostalgic uniforms, similar to the old Cincinnati Reds.

Each team is allowed two to three non-Italian born players, with one often a starting pitcher. Non-Italian born pitchers can only pitch in Friday night games. In the first Saturday game, the starting pitchers must be Italian or Italian-American, and each team must play three players under 23 at all times. The Saturday night game is limited to only Italian pitchers, but there are no age restrictions. The designated hitter is employed and each team carries a total of 23 players (20 Italian, or Italian-Americans, and three foreigners). Almost all the team uniforms are laced with their main sponsors' logo, and as many as 30 to 40 volunteers for each club make it happen, as most team operate within a roughly $500,000 Euro budget.
Most successful franchises: Emilia-Romagna is the strongest baseball region, and includes Parma, land of the cheese, which has won 13 European Cups. Other outstanding teams are Fortitudo (Bologna); Grosseto; and the self-proclaimed "Baseball Capitol of Italy," Nettuno, which has won the most Italian championships (17) and is the most historic organization.
Biggest rivalries: Nettuno-Grosseto is the biggest; also Parma-Bologna, Bologna-Nettuno, Rimini-San Marino.
Some famous alums: RHP Jaime Navarro (MLB, 1989-1999; Grosseto); LHP Jesus Pena (MLB, 1999-2000; Nettuno); Lenny Randle (Major League Baseball 1971-1982; Nettuno); Stephen Larkin (Parma), brother of retired Major League Baseball shortstop, Barry Larkin.
MLB talent-level comparison: Single-A (on a good day); Bad News Bears (on a bad day).
Show me the money: Italian-born players receive a small stipend and hold full-time jobs. Foreign-born players are paid about $40,000 and receive free housing, transportation and dining.
Best ballparks: The 7,000-seat Steno Borghese Stadium in Nettuno, rebuilt in 1991, is the best and most historic ballpark in Italy. The rest can't compare historically or symbolically to Nettuno, but some of the best action in Italy also takes place at Gianni Falchi in Bologna and Janella in Grosseto. It's no better than a high school field in the U.S. with no lights, but Warriors Field in Paterno, on the island of Sicily, offers a backdrop of Mount Etna, an active volcano, visible beyond the left-field fence. Primo Nebiolo Stadium in Messina, on Sicily's northeast coast, is an actual, and much nicer, ballpark. All playing fields have essentially the same dimensions: about 320 feet down the lines and approximately 400 feet to straight-away center.
Ballpark food and drink: You would think in a land famous for its food you'd be able to indulge in its signature pasta, sausage, cheese and wine. Think again. By and large all that's offered is standard American fare like hot dogs and hamburgers, peanuts and Coca-Cola with the occasional Italian sandwich here and there. But one specialty not to miss on a hot summer afternoon at the ballpark in Italy: gelato. Fans can also smoke cigarettes in their seats.
Ballpark atmosphere: The average turnout at each regular-season game varies between 500 people to 2,000. Fans hoot, holler and yell anytime and every time they get a semblance of an excuse to harass the umpires. Grosseto, Rimini, Nettuno and Bologna draw the best crowds. The playoffs draw a full house. And no Pavarotti, sorry. The Italians apparently are trying to emulate the U.S. any way they can because American influences dominate the between innings musical entertainment, everything from The Boss to Britney to Bon Jovi to James Brown's "Sex Machine" and Phil Collins "You Can't Hurry Love" to Queen's "We Will Rock You" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect." When a pitching change occurs, "Na Na Na Goodbye" plays. In Bologna, after a double play is completed, the former intro bumper to ESPN SportsCenter is played. The sound quality is like it has been recorded off the television and into a boom box.
Italian baseball speak: With all the futbol, futbol and more futbol dominating the sports pages of nearly every newspaper, Italians consequently think in "points" and "matches," instead of innings and games. So if Fortitudo beats Nettuno, 2-1, for example, they scored one more "point" to win the "match."

Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com. He has a Web site at www.modernerabaseball.com.