The twenty best days of my baseball life filled with extreme highs, lows and countless memories that I will never forget.
The 2013 World Baseball Classic evoked emotions and feelings that I had never before experienced on the mound. To be one of 28 players to represent all of Italy was a thrill that is hard to put into words. I was fortunate to play with a group of guys that played with a chip on their shoulder and a longing to prove to the world that the Paisons can do more than soccer and spaghetti. While the experience was amazing my journey to become a member of the Italian National Team was anything but easy.
Because I enjoy Pizza and have a last name that ends in a vowel I am automatically eligible to play for the Italian squad. To the casual fan that is the perceived view of what it takes to be able to play on our team. In reality, I became an Italian citizen and jumped through hoop after hoop to finally get my ticket to Chase Field for the classic.
Last February I was contacted by representatives of the Italian national team and asked to get as much documentation as I could on my relatives Italian background. After a free ancestry.com trial, trips to the historical society and a lot of help from family I found that our last name had changed three times and that I would be becoming a citizen of Vinchatura Campobasso (the same city my great grandfather was born in 1870). I sent in the proper documents requesting my citizenship. After six months of anticipation I was informed that my request was granted and I was an official Italian citizen.
Now that I was a citizen it was up to me to make the team. On a bus trip last year Francisco Cervelli put me on the phone for a brief conversation with Italia’s manager Marco Matzzeri. Marco told me the 2012 European cup would serve as my tryout for the 2013 WBC. However, a torn right labrum led to a late June surgery that did allow me to participate in the tournament.
Any player who has to deal with rehabing after surgery knows it is an uphill battle everyday. I was fortunate that when I was three years old my father taught me how to pitch with both my right and left arms so while I was disabled right handed I was still able to throw bullpens to prepare for the WBC as strictly a left handed pitcher. Throughout the off-season I had stayed in contact with Marco and he assured me if I was cleared by the Yankees, I would be one of his 13 pitchers for the classic. On the day the preliminary rosters came out I was crushed with an email in the middle of the night that said I was not cleared to play.
This was tough to swallow as I thought I had cleared all the hurdles by becoming a citizen working things out with the Yankees and preparing so hard through those winter months to prepare myself to face some of the best hitters in the world. The reason I was held off the roster was because of insurance issues. The insurer does not cover players that are on the disabled list (understandably so). However, the company did not realize that I was going to compete using my left arm that was in fact 100% healthy.
This lead to an appeal that would be decided through a physical and 4 MRI’s. Both elbows and both shoulders were to be examined to see if I was fit to play. I was in the MRI machine for nearly 3 hours. Every uncomfortable second in that thing was worth it because 2 days later I was told I was cleared to play and had a spot on that Final 28 man roster.
In late February I left Yankees camp to join my Italian teammates in Arizona to prepare for the upcoming classic. This team was filled from top to bottom with top-notch guys who were friendly and hungry to move past the first round where most had us exiting because of our tough draw with Mexico, Canada, and the U.S.A.
Team Italy had a few big time names like Nick Punto, Chris Denorfia, Anthony Rizzo and Jason Grilli. Aside from those big names and a few guys that used to play in the show, our team was full of minor league guys (like me) who have only heard tales of big league life. The big stadiums, beautiful hotel rooms without a roommate, spread that does not feature PB&J as the main course. It’s all just a fantasy world that we grind to reach everyday. So, needless to say the majority of our club was in awe of Chase Field and police escorts we had leading our bus everywhere we went. We were being treated like kings and we knew if we wanted this to last we would have to find a way to advance out of a round that featured rosters stacked with household names, MVP’s and MLB All- Stars.
Our first game was against Mexico. We had and offensive explosion that day. I pitched in the 8th inning working around an HBP. I was filled with pride standing on that mound with Italia across my chest in front of my family as well as my fiance and her family. I didn’t think things could get any better. That was until the bottom half of the inning when we walked off Canada by mercy ruling them 14-4. As we made our way from the dugout to the clubhouse we were greated with speakers blaring “Welcome To Miami” It was unreal feeling. 28 grown men with the biggest smiles you have ever seen knowing that we had just accomplished something that nobody gave us any shot at.
After a night of savoring our success it was on to the Americans. We lost the game but, we knew no matter the out come we were going to be on a chartered plane to south beach the next day. I found myself on the mound of Chase Field again that night facing Joe Mauer, David Wright, and Giancarlo Stanton. To a guy that as spent over 4 years in the minors this was the toughest stretch of hitters that I had ever seen. After a Wright single I was able to retire Mauer and Stanton to end the inning. Although we lost our team left Arizona with the confidence that we could play with any team in the tournament.
I left Phoenix with a feeling that I cannot explain. I was so proud and honored to be a part of this team and ready to take on the next challenge in Miami.
In Miami we played good baseball but came up just short against the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Although our journey was over, there was not a single head hanging in the clubhouse at Marlins Park. We were so proud of the obstacles that we overcame and grateful to represent Italy on such a stage.
The next day I was on a plane back to the Yankees spring training facility to continue my rehab on my right shoulder. It was tough to come back to reality after the excitement of the World Baseball Classic, but I will never forget the experience and the memories that we made over a surreal few weeks.