La Dolce Baseball
Note: This story contains language that some might find offensive.
For former Maroon shortstop Brent Consiglio, AB’04, that championship season had a pronounced Italian accent.
Brent Consiglio takes the plate on a crisp Sunday morning in Poviglio, Italy, his new hometown. It’s the fourth game of the Italian minor-league baseball championship and Poviglio is down two games to one. If they lose this, it’s all over. The old men by the right-field fence are praying, and the local priest is ringing the church bells as loud as he can to summon God to this baseball field in the northern Italian countryside. The old women in the grandstands tell Consiglio, AB’04, that he’s the pride of Poviglio, that the town’s honor rests with him. He can’t understand a word: he’s just learning Italian. He’s a 21-year-old financial analyst who’s supposed to be crunching numbers in a Detroit cubicle.
Andrea Dalla Nora, the espresso-addled pitcher from Ponte di Piave—a small eastern Italian town that has one of the country’s best minor-league teams—scratches his feet impatiently across the mound. The winner of this series will be promoted to the A league, the Italian equivalent of the majors, and Dalla Nora is ready to teach this interloping American a lesson. He smirks and winds up with a fastball.
Consiglio suddenly feels dizzy with responsibility. To steady himself, he grinds his foot into the dirt and jackknifes his bat. The warm smell of the pine tar on his hands reminds him of the Midwest, where, until three months ago, he had spent his entire life. He inhales and the smell is mixed with something else: the pungent odor of overripe grapes on the vines surrounding the field. His fingers ripple across the grip of his Louisville Slugger. Dalla Nora is about to see the sharp end of a good old American ball crushing.
Ten months earlier, Consiglio was poring over an international-banking text. It was the fall of his senior year and the economics major was trying to determine what role German hyperinflation played in America’s 1929 stock-market crash. Though his pale skin and morose, intelligent eyes suggested bookworm, Consiglio had always thought of himself as a slugger. It surprised the recruiters at the boutique investment banks and trading companies. They were impressed that the bookish young man sitting in front of them was batting over .400 as the starting shortstop for Chicago’s varsity team.
But Consiglio had to be honest with himself. The U of C is better known for Nobel prizes than for distinguished baseball. Maybe he could make it in the independent leagues, but that wasn’t much of a life. The pay would keep him near the poverty line while his friends pulled down six figures in banking and finance. The time had come to put baseball behind him. He went to the job fairs, did a round of interviews, and accepted a position as a financial adviser at Wachovia. In a few months he’d be staring at a computer console in a suburban Detroit office park. His slugging days were over.
Then he received a curious e-mail. It was from someone named Stefano Campanini, the general manager of a baseball team in an Italian town he had never heard of. “I notice your statistics online,” Campanini wrote. “You are very good hitter. You also have Italian last name. Do you have Italian grandparent? If so, maybe you will become Italian citizen so to play baseball in Italy? I pay you and help with all your citizenship process. My town needs your help.”
Stefano Campanini is by far the fattest man in Poviglio. He is so fat, he is known in town simply as Il Ciccione, or “the fat man.” He has never actually played baseball but has been a driving force for Poviglio’s team since 1984, when the players asked him to run the electric scoreboard. Because he was an accountant, they figured he could keep track of the game. He couldn’t, but everyone who knew the rules was on the field playing. They had no choice but to let Campanini continue and, in the early ’90s, made him president of the club.
It’s a tough job because Poviglio’s roughly 6,000 inhabitants are baseball crazy. In most respects, the town is a traditional Italian farming community. But nestled between crumbling farmhouses and a melon field a few blocks from the town square is a pristine, lovingly maintained baseball diamond. The game took root in the early ’70s after the local TV station broadcast a dubbed version of The Pride of the Yankees, a 1942 biopic about Lou Gehrig. Kids put aside their soccer balls and convinced their confused mothers to sew uniforms and stitch gloves. Ever since, Poviglio has risen steadily through the ranks of the Italian Baseball League. Five years ago it reached a milestone: the team was promoted to the A league and began playing—and beating—teams from places like Milan and Parma.
Winning made the citizens of Poviglio feel important, even though most didn’t understand how the game was played. No one had ever paid attention to Poviglio before. It wasn’t beautiful like Venice or fashionable like Milan. It didn’t have famous works of art or breathtaking monuments. But now it had a bellisimo baseball team.
And then, in the 2003 season, the team hit a slump, losing 12 in a row. There were injuries, fights, and management shake-ups. They ended last in the division and were summarily demoted back to the B league—the minors. The town was humiliated and demanded that Campanini do something—anything—to redeem Poviglio.
Finding reinforcements wasn’t easy; Campanini already had the best players within a 50-mile radius. Because the league required all players to be Italian, he couldn’t hire foreigners. But then he had an insight: the best players in the world are American, and there are a lot of Italian Americans. Anyone with an Italian grandfather can apply for citizenship. All he had to do was find Italian American ballplayers and convince them to apply for dual citizenship.
Over a series of late nights after work, Campanini combed American college baseball Web sites and turned up a treasure trove of talented, soon-to-graduate college players with Italian-sounding last names. When he found e-mail addresses, he sent letters explaining his offer. It was an appealing proposal. He offered round-trip tickets to Italy, about $1,000 per month, and an apartment near the piazza. He’d also cover the costs of obtaining Italian citizenship. In exchange, the American had to play two games per weekend for Poviglio and attend practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
Consiglio thought it over for about three seconds. Then he in-formed his soon-to-be boss at the bank that he was going to Italy.
Consiglio got out of Campanini’s car in the center of Poviglio and felt like he was stepping onto a movie set—he kept expecting someone to shout, “Cut.” The cobblestoned square blended into the porticos of centuries-old buildings. A church with a soaring tower dominated one side of the square, and three cafés held sway over the other. Vineyards and melon fields surrounded the town on all sides. It was Consiglio’s first time in Italy, but thanks to a great-grandfather he’d never met, the Michigan native was now an Italian citizen. Ciao was the full extent of his Italian.
When he arrived at his one-bedroom apartment off the piazza, he met Greg Palanzo, a recently graduated pitcher from the University of Connecticut. Palanzo had been an Outback Steakhouse waiter when Campanini discovered his Italian ancestry. Now waiter and financial analyst would sleep in side-by-side twin beds. They looked at the exposed wooden beams and the sunlight streaming through the windows and smiled at the thought of the lives they’d left behind.
Campanini was thrilled to have real American baseball players in Poviglio. The season had begun and the team was languishing in fifth place. Their arrival would be good for morale, and, at the least, would improve the hitting and pitching rotations. He gave them a cell phone, resisted the urge to hug them, and left them alone.
The phone rang almost immediately. It was Luto, Poviglio’s right fielder, inviting them to a club that night to meet the team and discuss Saturday’s upcoming game.
Palanzo and Consiglio arrived at the club in the “car” Campanini provided: a battered white van with “Poviglio Baseball Club” stenciled in blue cursive on the sliding door. The nightclub was a converted mansion on a country road outside Poviglio. A Lamborghini and two Ferraris were parked in front.
Luto spotted the van and came out to greet them. A jeweler in his mid-30s, he spent his days casting smoldering looks at the women in his shop, trying to sell his gold chains. He spent his nights playing baseball. He led the guys inside and ordered the whole team shots of Sambuca in honor of the Americans’ arrival. “Blow job!” he toasted. He had learned most of his limited English by watching American pornos.
Jova, the chain-smoking pitcher, didn’t speak much English either but clapped Palanzo heavily on the back. Jova was a big guy, with a crooked scar pulling down the corner of his mouth. The team failed so spectacularly in the 2003 season in part because Jova was the only decent pitcher. He’d gotten injured early, and the team never recovered. He felt personally responsible for the meltdown, and the burden of it translated into four packs of Marlboros a day. Having Palanzo on hand took some of the pressure off, and he was grateful.
Jova’s smoking didn’t help Giovanni, the hulking, bald first baseman, who was trying to stop smoking by rapidly inhaling a cigar every other hour. The Italians spoke of moderation but drank and smoked almost nonstop. They dressed in silk shirts and cashmere sweaters and wore flashy watches and thick chains. There was nothing moderate about them.
On a baseball diamond in a quiet Milanese neighborhood, an old man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth pulled a chain-link fence behind his battered, coughing Vespa—the Italian version of dragging the infield. When he was done, Consiglio stepped up to the plate for his first official at bat as an Italian baseball player. Poviglio was playing Milan’s minor-league team and Consiglio was nervous. Maybe it was the caffeine. The whole team had thrown back shots of espresso before the game.
But the espresso helped. When the pitch came, he wrenched the bat around and smashed the ball. It hit the center-field fence, bounced down for a double, and drove in two runs. His hit ignited the team. Though Consiglio ended up leading in RBIs, the whole team played better than ever before. The ball snapped off the outfielders’ fingertips, and their bats seemed lighter. Palanzo—who pitched a shut-out—sat back in the dugout and forced himself to imagine the smell of steak sauce, so he could have the pleasure of realizing, again, how sweet it was to be here.
“Greg is seeing porno in his head,” Luto told the others, noting the smile on Palanzo’s face.
“I’m seeing us winning the championship,” Palanzo countered, and the Italians crossed themselves and kissed their knuckles.
Week by week, Poviglio moved up the rankings. Palanzo met an Italian girl named Laura, started dating her, and, as the team kept winning, claimed she was good luck. She came to his first home game and he pitched ferociously—nine strikeouts and only two earned runs for an easy 9–2 win. Laura didn’t really care. All she knew was that this American looked great in a uniform and, since he wasn’t running all over the place like a soccer player, it was easy for her to undress him in her mind.
The citizens of Poviglio also felt the possibility of love. When the Americans went for drinks at Bar Monica, the main café, Giuseppe, the barkeep, set up a line of free Sambucas and beer, and old men crowded around to discuss the next game. Of course, the Italians didn’t speak English, so the talk devolved into elaborate cane-waving toasts to the team’s success. When the team qualified for the playoffs, everyone felt like Poviglio had a shot at regaining its former glory.
In 1918 the Austrian and Hungarian armies made a final attempt to break through the Italian front, grinding to a halt at the small town of Ponte di Piave. Over the course of a week, the Italians beat back the invaders, signaling the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Most people have forgotten this World War I battle. The residents of Ponte di Piave have not. They are still proud to have kept the foreigners out of Italy, and they remain wary of out-of-towners.
The Ponte club had spent the season battling teams along the Slovakian border and had now qualified to face Poviglio for the minor-league championship. For Ponte, the visitors from the farmland interior looked like easy prey, and Poviglio quickly proved just that. Ponte dominated, winning two of the first three games. By game four, Poviglio was one loss away from losing it all.
Poviglio was unnerved. In the locker room before the game, the players complained that the Ponte bastards slid with their cleats high. Guys on base watched the catcher’s signals and alerted the batter. “They’re scum,” Consiglio said, “and they’re beating us.”
“No, they are f***s,” Luto shouted and broke into a big smile. “And today we will go and f*** them.” He thrust his pelvis back and forth into one of the lockers until everyone in the room was laughing and feeling better. Sometimes it just takes a little dry humping to turn things around.
That and the sound of Keith Richards playing guitar on a beautiful morning in the Italian countryside. Someone had cued up “Honky Tonk Woman” on the PA system, and the guys jogged out onto the field as Mick started flapping his lips. Laura was already in the stands and clapped when she saw Palanzo. She danced for him and he tried not to smile too much.
When Consiglio took the plate in the first inning with two men on, the Ponte fans jeered. He still didn’t speak Italian so it didn’t bother him. Even if he had understood what they were saying, it wouldn’t have mattered. The validity of his Italian passport wasn’t important anymore—what he cared about was Poviglio. He was fighting for the old men who argued baseball late into the night and for the kids who lined the fences during home games. He was fighting so that Jova could relax a little and stop smoking so many cigarettes. He was fighting for Campanini, who loved baseball as much as he loved his wife.
He waited for a fastball, and when it came it was easy to hit. He knocked it deep into right field and drove in two runs. At his next at bat, he drove in two more. Maybe it was the lascivious gleam in Luto’s eye or the way Giovanni smoked his cigar so furiously that a mushroom cloud floated up over the Poviglio dugout, but Ponte’s pitchers seemed scared and consistently threw the wrong pitch. By the seventh inning Consiglio had notched five RBIs. Poviglio was ahead 12–2, and the umpires called the game. In Italy if a team leads by ten or more in the seventh, a mercy rule kicks in and the game ends. The series was tied at two games each. Whoever won the next game would win it all.
The Ponte fans weren’t cowed by their team’s performance in game four. They stepped up their taunting in advance of the afternoon’s final game. The fans started chanting Forza Italia, which means “Italian Power”—and is also the name of the anti-immigration ruling political party.
When the game began, Giorgio, a drunk Ponte fan, hung over the right-field fence and yelled to Jova’s Cuban friends who had come to support Poviglio. The Cubans were black, and their skin color offended Giorgio. He called their mothers whores and told them they didn’t belong in Italy. His jibes went on for five innings before a Cuban walked over to the Ponte stands and calmly threatened to kill anyone who insulted his mother again. Giorgio spat at him, smashed a glass bottle, and waved the shattered end drunkenly. The Cuban smashed his own bottle and everybody started yelling.
The Ponte players responded by throwing baseball bats over the fence to their supporters. Then they scaled the chain link that separated them from the bleachers and moved in on the Cuban. Jova pivoted out of the dugout and raced through the grandstands toward his friend, followed by the entire Poviglio team. In 60 seconds the field was empty, and the stands erupted in screams, punches, and Italian curses. Someone hurled grapes into the crowd while the players swung bats at each other. Giorgio was hit multiple times. It was the biggest fight Poviglio had ever seen.
Some would later describe it as a fight for the soul of Italy. Some blamed the violence on the black people and said something had to be done, locally and nationally. Others denounced the culture of hatred and racism that the ruling party was fomenting. But it was hard to see all that while plastic chairs were flying, women were sobbing, and an off-white Pomeranian barked wildly underneath the bleachers. Still, everyone could feel there was more at stake than a baseball game.
And yet somehow, they also knew that the only answers were going to be found in the game. The fighting tapered, and after 30 minutes of chaos, bruises, and bloodletting, the players filed back onto the field. When the cops arrived, both teams were gearing up for the fifth inning as if nothing had happened.
The confused cops watched Palanzo walk to the mound. Most of the fans had returned cautiously to the stands. Laura was among them—her fear outweighed by her desire to know what the future held. She sat on the bottom level, ready to sprint. She had trouble following Palanzo’s pitching. The crowd was almost silent—the game was too serious now for laughter and clapping—and without cues from others who actually understood the game, she was lost.
It wasn’t hard to understand the batting though. Jova went in and hit a double. Consiglio and Luto each hit doubles and drove in runners. Poviglio turned into a scoring machine. In the bottom of the sixth, the team posted six runs. It became a massacre and Ponte didn’t hit back. Palanzo made sure of that, even though pain shot through his arm with every pitch. When Dalla Nora, the Ponte pitcher, took the plate, Palanzo threw curveballs and then unleashed what felt like the fastest fastball he’d ever thrown. It smacked into the catcher’s mitt—Dalla Nora had sliced the air above the ball and struck out on an American fastball. Two batters later, Palanzo threw an elegant curveball to end the game.
The final score: 19–3. Poviglio had won.
The pensioners screamed hoarsely in right field, alternating between crossing themselves and passing a flask of grappa. Laura ran to Palanzo on the field. He caught her in his arms and kissed her. Jova took a deep, satisfied drag on what he said was his last cigarette, and Campanini popped a bottle of locally produced sparkling wine. Luto raced around the outfield trailing an Italian flag, while Campanini guzzled most of the wine himself. Then he gathered Palanzo and Consiglio into his prodigious embrace and, with his voice cracking, invited them back to Poviglio for another season of Italian baseball.
Joshua Davis is a Wired contributing editor and the author of The Underdog: Finding the Meaning of Life in the World’s Most Outlandish Competitions (Random House, 2005).