In the spring of 2002, Dave Bidini set off for Nettuno, Italy, with his wife, Janet, and their two small children, in search of his favourite summer game, baseball. Nettuno was his destination because this town, south of Rome, has been the baseball capital of Italy since 1944, when the game was introduced by the American GIs who liberated the region. Bidini wanted to spend time in a town where everyone is as nuts about the game as he is, and in Nettuno, they love the game so much that they hand out baseball gloves and bats to children taking their first communion. For six months Bidini followed the fortunes of the Serie B Peones, Nettunese to the core. At the same time he was also learning about his own heritage, having spent his youth vigorously ignoring his Italianness. The result of his summer in Italy is vintage Bidini: a funny, perceptive, and engrossing book that takes readers far beyond the professional sport to the game that people around the world love to play.
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McClelland & Stewart
March 22, 2005
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Excerpt from Baseballissimo by Dave Bidini
During a pre�game workout in Nettuno, Italy, Mirko Rocchetti, an infielder with the Peones, arrived at the park carrying a tray of cornetti, brioche, and biscotti. Simone Cancelli (the Natural) followed twenty minutes later with a large box, which he placed on the ledge of the dugout. He lifted the lid, pulled back a layer of crepe paper, and revealed a small mountain of fresh croissants, their light, flaky shells embossed with vanilla crema. A few minutes later Francesco "Pompo" Pompozzi, the Peones' twenty�one�year�old fireballer, produced two green bottles filled with sugar�soaked espresso, and passed out little white plastic cups. Ricky Viccaro (Solid Gold) -- who looked, as always, as if he were standing in front of a wind machine -- showed up a half�hour into the game, swinging a red Thermos of espresso, which he cracked in the fifth inning and refilled for the beginning of the second game. Someone else placed boxes of sweets on racks above the bench, and they were polished off in no time.
This sugar fiesta was typical for the Peones, Nettuno's Serie B baseball team. They believed -- as did many Italians -- that sugar and coffee were all you needed to get you through any game. Andrea Cancelli (the Emperor) munched on energy pills that tasted like tiny soap cakes. At a game in Sardinia, I saw Fabio Giolitti (Fab Julie) pat his rumbling stomach before fetching a box of wafer cookies from his kit bag, which he passed out, two at a time, to his teammates. Then Mirko asked me, "Davide? Are you hungry?" and promptly handed me two panini spread with grape jelly -- the Italian athlete's equivalent of an energy bar. At the same game, Mario Mazza, the Peones' second baseman, gathered the team excitedly, as if he'd just cracked the opposing team's sequence of signs, only to pass out packets of sugar he'd swiped from a caf�. The players poured them down the hatch. I joined in, even though I wasn't playing, just watching the Peones, the team I'd come to Italy to write about.
I found language as much a cultural divide as the approach to food, though I was able to find my place among the Peones by spouting a combination Italo�Canadian�Baseballese, at the risk of becoming Team Stooge. At times, I wondered whether the boys were asking me questions just to see how I would mangle their mother tongue.
One day, Chencho Navacci, the team's left�handed reliever, heard me comment that a hit had been "il pollo morto."
"Tuo pollo?" he asked.
"No, la palla. La palla � il pollo. Il pollo � morto."
"Okay, okay," he said, smiling.
"You know, dying quail," I said, reverting to English.
"The chicken is dead," I said, making a high, curving motion with my hand. "The ball -- la palla. La palla � il pollo."
I couldn't understand why Chencho was so confused. I'd always assumed that dying quail -- baseball's term for a hit that bloops between the infield and the outfield -- was one of those universal baseball terms.
"Si! Il pollo � morto!" I repeated.
"Il pollo � morto? Okay, is good!" he said, turning away.
Later, I told Janet, my wife, what had happened at the ballpark.
"La qualia," she corrected. "You should have said 'la qualia.'"
"How was I supposed to know they had quail in Italy?"
"What did you think? They have chicken, don't they?"
"Ya, but quail."
"Yes, quail. And I don't think pollo is the right word for chicken. La gallina is how you say chicken. Pollo is what you order in a restaurant.'
"Pollo is restaurant chicken?" I said, mortified.
"I think so."
"So, you mean I was telling Chencho that the ball was like a piece of cooked chicken?"
"Yes, I'm afraid you were."
"Flying cooked chicken?"
For my first few weeks with the team, I probably sounded like a moron. I regularly confused the word for last with first, and used always instead of never, as in "Speaking good Italian is always the first thing I learn." I'd also fallen into the embarrassing habit of pronouncing the word penne (the pasta) as if it were pene, the Italian word for penis. But I was excused for saying things like "I'd like my penis with tomatoes and mushroom," and, to their credit, the team and townsfolk hung with me. After a while, the players must have noticed a pattern in the things I said at practice: dying quail, rabbit ball, hot potato, ducks on the pond, bring the gas, in his kitchen. They probably figured I was just really hungry.