BERGEN COUNTY, N.J.- A small business owner, Joe Quagliano is living the American Dream while maintaining his Italian roots via “America’s Game”: baseball. Quagliano, following his passion for the game, founded his own company: Mint Pros (specializing in VIP baseball events- bridging fans with their favorite players). As he told me: “A grandson of Italian immigrants, baseball played a big part in my family. I remember my grandfather telling me that Joe DiMaggio was the greatest and my Uncles arguing with him about Yogi Berra, Scooter Phil Rizzuto, and Mickey Mantle. Even Joe Pepitone worked his way into the debate! As I grew older, I remember watching and rooting for the Italian-American Players just as my Grandfathers did. My favorite players were: Dave Righetti, Steve Balboni, John Franco, Mike Scioscia, and later, Mike Piazza.”
Enter Frank Catalanotto, fellow Italian-American, a 14-year Major League Baseball veteran, actively involved with Team Italy as both a player and a coach in the World Baseball Classic. Quagliano told me: “I was talking to Catalanotto one day and we were discussing how we can get Italian kids more involved and knowledgeable about baseball. We thought about conducting youth clinics in Italy but the expenses for such an undertaking would be more than we were expecting. Thus the idea of starting a foundation and raising the funds needed though donations and sponsorship became a reality.”
Catalanotto is, perhaps, the most important resource. He has been involved in the World Baseball Classic since its inception in 2006: twice as a player, twice as a coach. “What they’re doing here is great because … I’ve seen, over the years, how baseball has grown in Italy. To have events like this and what [the Federazione Italiana Baseball/Softball] does, its so instrumental in raising, not only awareness but also funds to help the baseball academy…in Italy…. I’ve had the pleasure of watching it grow and the quality of baseball has gotten much better. We have more kids playing [baseball and softball]… in Italy, so I’m excited.”
Together, Quagliano, Catalanotto, FIBS (Federazione Italiana Baseball/Softball) executive Marco Landi, and restauranteur Carmine Gagone created the Italian American Baseball Foundation (IABF), a 501(c)(3) charity. Its mission “is to bring awareness of the game to Italian youth through clinics, camps, and education [and] to provide scholarships or financial assistance to student-athletes that qualify academically to play baseball in the United States on the College and/or High School level.” The goal of the organization is to “[develop] a youth baseball academy in Italy.“
Quagliano is joined on the executive board by Fabrizio De Robbio, Michael DeSapio, and Carmine Gangone. Serving as an honorary member is Joe Maddon, Italian-American and World Series champion manager of the Chicago Cubs.
To raise awareness for Squadra Italia and to raise funds for elite training that takes place at a baseball complex in Nettuno, Italy, IABF hosts an annual winter dinner at Carmine and Sons Pizzeria, Restaurant and Sports Bar in Brooklyn, New York. Here, A-List members of the national and international baseball communities are recognized and mingle with fans. At the inaugural event, Pat Venditte, ambidextrous pitcher for Squadra Italia (now with the Los Angeles Dodgers) told me: “It’s an honor to be a part of this tonight. I wasn’t really aware of what to expect. To see this turnout tonight, it’s a special night.” A portion of the sale from each ticket supports the foundation. There is also a massive auction (live and silent) at the event, raising funds for IABF’s charitable initiatives.
THE STATE OF BASEBALL IN ITALY
America’s past-time is beginning to integrate into Italian culture with the help of FIBS and its Italian and Italian-American ambassadors. The most important concept is that the sport of baseball (and softball) is growing in popularity in Italy.
Here is what the Italian-American Major League Baseball players are saying:
Chris Colabello: “I think any time you can build up Italian baseball, it’s a good thing. We are really proud, as Italians, about the way the game has come along in Italy. Especially a lot of the Italian-American guys…. So, anytime we can bring some awareness to Italian baseball, it’s awesome.”
Brandon Nimmo:“[I’m here tonight] to help promote the awareness of baseball in Italy. To try to further the game over in Italy.”
Francisco Cervelli: Invoking a family approach to promoting the game: “Baseball is growing. It’s [bringing] people together. It’s not a secret, Italian families are very close, we try to make good things happen.”
Drew Butera: “This [event] gets the excitement going for the fans, for the players, for the coaching staff. We build that anticipation up [for the World Baseball Classic], and this makes it even bigger. Something like this, it’s always nice to get together, eat some good food and get it going.”
John Franco: “[I’m] trying to help Team Italy out, get Italian baseball to the next level. We would love to be like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, to really compete at that high level. This year, [Italy] did really well in the WBC. We’re here just to help promote it, raise some funds, and maybe even get some of us to go over to Italy to do some clinics and show them how to play the game the right way”.
These players and coaches understand their mission because of the two highly revered pillars of Italian and Italian-American culture: Family and Loyalty.
For a few players, Team Italy is a labor of love and a family affair. Chris Colabello, talked about the importance in being able to put on the Squadra Italia uniform. “For me, in particular, it means a lot. My dad played over in Italy for a long time. Obviously, [I got] an experience in the [World Baseball] Classic in 2013 for the first time…. From when I was a little kid, I always wanted to wear an Italian jersey at the professional level because I knew my dad did it for such a long time. It’s a really cool thing to be able to share with him”.
Drew Butera, World Series winning catcher in the Kansas City Royals organization, also talked to me about how his father’s heritage and alliance with Squadra Italia inspired him to want to play for the team. “As soon as the WBC came about, in 2009, I didn’t play. I was like: ‘that would be a dream of mine, honestly’. I love the fact that I’m Italian and to be able to play for Team Italy is just a complete honor for me.” Sal Butera, a 1987 World Series Champion (Minnesota Twins), was the catching coach, and Drew’s coach, for Squadra Italia in the 2017 WBC.
John Franco’s approach to getting involved again with the team is multi-faceted: “The olympics are coming up. If we can help the Team Italy players do well, maybe we can go to the next level, win some medals, and win the WBC down the road.” Would Franco be willing to coach the team at any level? “I would love to. I would love to coach Team Italy even with the Olympics coming, maybe get involved with the Olympics. Hopefully down the road, the Italian Federation will give me a call and ask me if I’m interested”.
Francisco Cervelli (whose last name means ‘brains’ in Italian), faced a difficult decision in choosing which team to play for: Team Venezuela or Team Italy. He is of both nationalities. After ultimately choosing to play for Squadra Italia again in 2017, Cervelli explained to me his loyalty to the team after having an exceptional experience in 2009: “I played with Italy in 2009. They gave me an opportunity when I was a minor leaguer.” Now a Major League starting catcher, that bodes well for Squadra Italia.
Former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine succinctly expressed his appreciation for all that Quagliano, Catalanotto, and FIBS are doing to cultivate the game of baseball in Italy. He told me: “I’m Italian American. The people in this organization are trying so hard to bring their love for their nationality, for America, for baseball together. I’m glad to be a part of it and hopefully I can make a difference.”
When you have a good thing going, everyone is willing to help. Brandon Nimmo, New York Mets outfielder (who played for Squadra Italia in the 2017 WBC), told me: “[Quagliano] is a great guy with amazing ambitions. Anytime you can be around a guy like that, you definitely want to support him in… any endeavor he has”. As far as the annual fundraising dinner, Quagliano told me: “I have had such positive feedback from Joe Maddon, Tommy Lasorda, and Mike Piazza that they want to be a part of the IABF Family. When it comes to baseball, the Italian-American fraternity really sticks together”.
So, what is next for IABF? Quagliano told me: “We are going to Italy. We are planing a two week visit to Italy in June or July to conduct youth clinics from Lago di Como (in the North) to Messina, Sicilia (in the South). We are also going to have free clinics in Brooklyn and in Staten Island. We want to get the word out about our foundation so we have to do as much as we can in the United States as well as in Italy.
We have so many friends helping us with our clinics including Gary Perone and the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Federation of Italian Baseball & Softball.It seems like everyone want to help and we are very grateful. Our long- term goal is to build a Baseball Academy in Italy that will be the model for all European Baseball academies.” Every year, FIBS also has a table set up at the National Italian American Foundation’s conferences in Washington, D.C. If you’re in town in October 2018, stop by the table and say ciao!
How can you get involved? The next fundraising event is a Yankees party suite game featuring appearances by former Yankees. They will sign autographs, pose for photos, and converse with you. This is not an-autograph mill event. Mint Pros does not oversell its events- you will have one-on-one time with the game’s featured guests. Included in your ticket is: non-alcoholic drinks, ballpark-fare food spread, and an indoor/outdoor seating choice. Also, upon purchasing a ticket, you’re donating to IABF’s cause: a win-win!