FOR ONE DAY, A SLICE OF ITALY AT THE YARD

The green, white and red flag flew proudly beyond the center field fence. The unfamiliar blue-topped uniforms displayed names like Allessandro Maestri, Luca Panerati and Tiago Da Silva. The media lunch was catered, appropriately, by Buca de Beppo.

In case you were wondering, this was not your typical day at Phoenix Muni. Team Italia, preparing for their World Baseball Classic opener against Mexico March 7, paid the A’s a visit for a rare exhibition game today. The team’s Manager Marco Mazzieri, who once starred as an outfielder for his hometown team of Grosseto, Tuscany, fielded a roster of mostly Italian natives or American minor leaguers, with the few exceptions being the Dodgers’ Nick Punto, the Padres’ Chris Denorfia, the Pirates’ Jason Grilli and the Mariners’ Alex Liddi. Actually, Liddi is an Italian native. In fact, the Seattle third baseman represents the World Baseball Classic ideal: He’s the first player born and raised in Italy to play in the Major Leagues.

Yet, as Liddi and his teammates stood in front of the visitor’s dugout as Il Cano degli Italiani, the Italian national anthem, blared through pre-game ceremonies, it was clear who was the biggest star on their team. It was the hitting coach, of course. Guy named Mike Piazza. The former Dodger, Met, Padre and Athletic owns a .308 lifetime batting average with 427 home runs as perhaps the greatest hitting catcher of his generation. Now, he gives back to the game in paying tribute to his heritage.

In truth, Team Italia fared better than expected against the defending AL West champs, who ran out much of their “A” lineup this afternoon. Opening Night starter Brett Anderson breezed through three innings of one-hit ball, and Coco Crisp, Jed Lowrie, Yoenis Cespedes and Eric Sogard led an 11-hit parade in a 4-3 win. Considering the experience and talent disparity, how much Bob Melvin could assess his club’s performance is debatable.

But what is not debatable is whether baseball has become a global game. We see it every day in our clubhouse, where nations such as Australia, Cuba, Japan, Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic are presented. And watching MLB Network’s World Baseball Classic coverage of China closer Jiangang Lu leaping off his feet, his arms raised in exultation, after his team rallied for a 5-2 victory over Brazil in Fukuoka, Japan, it’s pretty clear that this rising international competition is truly meaningful to countries that compete. That includes the country where Abner Doubleday invented the sport. Team USA is managed by future Hall of Famer Joe Torre, and boasts a roster that includes such big league All-Stars as Joe Mauer, David Wright, Mark Teixeira, Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton and Gio Gonzalez.

While Italy has benefitted from various Major League clinics staged by Tommy Lasorda, Torre and Piazza, among others, they still have a ways to go to make a dent in their soccer-crazy country. But the mere fact that they can play on the same field as a Major League team speaks volumes on how far the game is advancing overseas. While you may have missed today’s game, I encourage you to tune in to this month’s WBC tournament on MLB Network. If you do, you’ll get a glimpse of the future of Major League Baseball. And if you doubt that last statement, just ask Hiro Nakajima and Yoenis Cespedes. They played for their respective countries in the last World Baseball Classic.

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