Mariners' Alex Liddi is latest, greatest Italian import
From soccer-crazed Italy comes infielder Alex Liddi, who wants to become the first player from his country to make the major leagues in half a century.
Seattle Times staff reporter
TEMPE, Ariz. — Something always seemed odd about Alex Liddi and his family as he grew up on the shores of the Mediterranean.
The residents of picturesque San Remo, Italy, once home to Alfred Nobel and scores of poets, writers and tourists of all stripes, know a thing or two about sports. They have a 100-year-old soccer team and serve as the finish line of a highly popular cross-country cycling rally.
But baseball was as foreign as a Mexican breakfast burrito.
Until, that is, some of the town's 57,000 inhabitants ventured over to the Liddi place, where a baseball-crazed father and a former softball-playing mother were raising young Alex to be perhaps the country's biggest export in a game few in the neighborhood understand.
"In parts of Italy, baseball is popular, but not in San Remo," said Liddi, 22, now a Class AA third baseman rising rapidly in the Mariners' system. "Everyone there knows soccer, but me, I loved baseball."
Only seven Italian-born baseball players have made it to the major leagues, and none since Reno Bertoia a half-century ago. But Bertoia's family had moved him to Canada at age 1. Liddi grew up a true Italian son, raised on pasta, prosciutto, focaccia bread and a whole lot of baseball courtesy of his dad.
His father, Augustine, had moved to California with his family as a young boy and played baseball at Beverly Hills High School. Eventually, the family moved back to Italy, where Augustine married his wife, Flavia, and wound up raising two baseball fanatics for sons.
Alex became an Atlanta Braves fan and had posters of Chipper Jones and Ken Griffey Jr. on his bedroom walls. He'd practice baseball day and night with his older brother, Thomas.
There were only a handful of baseball players in their entire town, so at age 5, Alex was put on a Little League team of 9- and 10-year-olds with his brother.
"We had to go a long way to play our games, sometimes two or three hours," Liddi said. "The parents would drive us there in cars, or sometimes we'd take the bus to go play."
By the time he was a teenager, everyone could see Liddi was going places.
At age 12, he came to the U.S. for the first time with Team Italy in the Cal Ripken World Series. A few years later, he was on the Italian team at a World Cup event in Taiwan where Mariners scouts Wayne Norton and Mario Mazzotti liked what they saw and signed him.
Liddi moved to the United States at age 17 and his somewhat-slender 6-foot-4 frame eventually filled in to his current 220 pounds. But there was an even bigger cultural adjustment to make, not to mention the need to overcome the self-doubt of being a player from an anonymous baseball country trying to make it in the sport's motherland.
"Playing in the World Baseball Classic in 2009 was really good for my confidence," said Liddi, who went 3 for 8 in the tournament, facing some of the best major-leaguers out there. "It showed me that I was good enough to play against some of the best. After that, I felt like I belonged here."
Liddi went out that season and hit .345 with 23 home runs and 104 runs batted in for Seattle's Class A High Desert (Calif.) team. Last season, he was promoted to Class AA Jackson (Tenn.) and hit .281 with 15 homers and 92 runs batted in, was named team Most Valuable Player and played in the All-Star Futures Game.
The Mariners added him to the 40-man roster late last year and invited him to camp.
There have been adjustments to make, like accepting that even the best Italian restaurants here won't taste the same as what he had back home. Where his entire family used to gather around the table for a home-cooked meal each night, Liddi accepts that life here often involves eating out.
"In Italy, you almost never go out to eat unless it's for something special," he said. "But I'm getting used to everything here. I think everything got easier for me once I really started to understand English and understand the coaches."
Oddly enough, his father wouldn't teach him the language when he was growing up.
"He was lazy about that," Liddi said with a laugh.
But fortunately, his mother taught him enough so he got by.
"When I first came here, I knew a little bit," he said. "I could go out to eat and knew what to order, but I worked hard to learn English better. I would speak it with my teammates and when I made a mistake, I'd tell them to correct me so that I knew. You can't be shy with something like that."
Liddi has shared his experiences with some of his Latin American teammates, stressing the need to pay attention in the team's cultural acclimation classes.
The Mariners hope Liddi can grasp and perfect a few more of the basics of manning the hot corner. If he does well this spring, he could start the season in AAA.
After that, with little organizational depth at the position behind Chone Figgins, it's quite possible that Italy could soon have another of its own wearing a big-league uniform.
"That's always been my dream," Liddi said. "Even growing up in Italy, in a place where nobody really knew baseball, it was all I did — wake up, go to school, play baseball. Now, it's still all I want to do."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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