Many times my interviews have given light to people and institutions born in America who work to help Italy, improve the bridge between our two countries, and represent in an excellent way an aspect - territorial, thematic, professional or cultural - of being part of the Italian American community.
The friend who is today the protagonist of this interview is exactly such a person, and so is the institution that he presides. Joe Quagliano is a great Italian American who heads the Italian American Baseball Foundation. We welcome him to We the Italians and thank him and his friends at IABF for what they do.
Joe, please tell us about the Italian American Baseball Foundation: how was it born, and what are its mission and activities?
In 2015 at a golf outing in Long Island, I was talking with former MLB player and hitting coach for the Italian Nation team Frank Catalanotto. We agreed that some of the greatest players to ever play in the Major Leagues were Italian American: names like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Mike Piazza and Anthony Rizzo. We asked ourselves why isn’t there any Italian born players on this list. We didn’t have an answer; therefore we decided to do something about it. So along with our friend Carmine Gangone we started a 501c3 foundation to help develop youth baseball in Italy. One of our goals is to hopefully find the next Alex Liddi or Matteo Bocchi.
To start this mission, we decided to bring former Major League Baseball players John Franco and Mike Pagliarulo along with Villanova standout Mark Cardillo and University of Maine head coach Nick Derba to Italy where we conducted coaches and baseball clinics in 2017 and 2018. We have travelled to Rome, Nettuno, Paterno, Catania, Messina, Grosseto, Viterbo and Florence and have had over 1,000 boys and girls attend our clinics. We also donated equipment to various Salerno youth teams.
Our thought is to start from the bottom up, to evaluate the level of youth talent and help teach the fundamentals of the game with clinics conducted by professional and college level players.
We knew we needed funds to pay for travel and expenses associated with this mission so we held our first fundraising dinner in December of 2016. Our Guest of Honor was Hall of Famer, Mike Piazza. Our fundraising dinners have been a financial success and help us raise the funds necessary for our equipment donations and our clinics in Italy as well as the US.
This year the gala will be on Wednesday December 4, and it will be held in Brooklyn. It's a fundraising: how can our readers who want to participate be of help? And what will happen during the event?
Yes, this year our Guest of Honor will be former Yankee catcher and manager Joe Girardi. Also, Frank Catalanotto will receive our Achievement Award, and Natalie M. Spedaliere from the MLB Network will receive our Baseball Executive of the Year award.
The dinner is December 4th at Giando on the Water in Brooklyn. Tickets and sponsorship opportunities are available on our website www.iabf.foundation.
Besides the annual Gala dinner, people can become sponsors and members of the IABF directly from our website. We are always open to new members. Our foundation exist because of the generosity of our sponsors who believe in our foundation and mission.
Is there a positive feedback to the birth of IABF from Italian American former players and still active professional players?
Our feedback from former and current Italian - American Major League baseball players has been phenomenal. All of them appreciate what we do and want to be a part our foundation. People like John Franco, Bobby Valentine, Mike Pagliarulo, Francisco Cervelli, Drew Butera, Joe Maddon (Maddonini), Lee Mazzilli, and Brandon Nimmo have supported us from day one. Their acknowledgement of the IABF shows us that they strongly believe in our mission and foundation.
Why has baseball played such an important role in the evolution and integration of the Italian Americans in the 20th century?
My belief is that when Italians migrated to the US, they were hard working - lower class citizens trying to blend into American society. They were looking for and needed someone to be a role model to their children and to themselves, someone that they could say, “He’s one of us”. For millions of Italian immigrants that role came from a baseball player named Joe DiMaggio. He was the son of Italian immigrants who became an American idol to Italian adults and children from New York to San Francisco. He gave many of them the hope and the realization that they too can become a success and the best at whatever they do.
I also believe that this role was continued for the 2nd and 3rd generation of Italian Americans by baseball legends Rico Petrocelli, Sal Bando, Dave Righetti and many others who wore their Italian pride on their sleeve.
Which are the most famous Italian American players in the history of baseball? And what's your favorite?
I would say DiMaggio, Berra, Roy Campanella, Tommy Lasorda and Piazza were the most famous. I know I’m leaving a few out however.
When I was young Joe Pepitone and Joe Torre were a couple of my favourite Italian - American Players. Needless to say Pepitone made for interesting conversation around the dinner table. Then in the 1990’s a young man named Mike Piazza took the majors by storm. He was and is very proud of his Italian heritage and made many 2nd and 3rd generation Italians also proud of our heritage just as Joe DiMaggio did for his generation.
Are there players born in Italy in the history of American baseball?
I believe there has been 6 or 7. Currently, I don’t think that there are any baseball players in the Major League who were born in Italy. I believe the last one was Alex Liddi, but he now plays in Mexico. However there are a few Italian born players in the Minor leagues. This is a great sign and hopefully they will make it to the major leagues.
IABF has a wonderful collaboration in place with Federazione Italiana Baseball e Softball (Italian Baseball and Softball Federation), which has brought you several times in Italy to try young Italian players. Is there any talent that has struck you?
Yes FIBS has been instrumental in organizing our clinics in Italy. They have sent us to regions in Italy that are in need of better coaching and training. That is exactly what we are here for. They are our eyes and ears in Italy. It has been a wonderful and growing partnership.
There were two young talents that we saw at our college showcase in Rome earlier this year. We are hoping to have a US College evaluate their talent in the hopes of offering them a scholarship, one was a catcher and the other an infielder.
As far as the youth talent in Italy the best way to describe it is “raw”. The talent level is below that of North and Central American countries in the same age groups but their desire and passion for the game is just as high. The improvement of youth baseball in Italy will come with better coaching. This is where the IABF is helping with coaches clinics like the ones we conducted in Rome and Nettuno. I believe in the saying, “the better the teacher the smarter the student” and you can’t get better than MLB level teachers.
Walk into a sporting goods store in Italy and try to find baseball equipment, it is almost impossible. You can find some in a few scattered ballpark stores but in most regions equipment can only be purchased on the internet. Ballfields are not up to US standards but yet we witnessed team organizers and parents cutting the outfield grass, raking the infield dirt and building dugouts with 2x4’s and plastic tarps not to mention kids playing in 90 + degree heat with hand-me-down bats and gloves. They all have the same passion for the game as we do, it was amazing to see.
Unfortunately many of the local communities lack the funds to upgrade the fields and purchase better equipment. They can only depend on donations and a few local sponsors.
Is there a goal that you really hope to see realized for IABF in the next 5 years?
Soccer is the dominant sport in Italy but wouldn’t it be great to have an Italian born player with the talent of Anthony Rizzo or JT Realmuto make it BIG in the Majors? What would this mean to the kids in Italy? I believe it would open their eyes to this great game and let them know that there are other sports with big pay days besides soccer. Not only would it bring public awareness and media hype but it would put baseball on the map in Italy. This is one of our goals but it has to be cultivated step by step through clinics, academy development and college recruitment.
Another future goals is to have a baseball academy somewhere in Italy that the IABF can call “home”, a place where we can conduct our clinics, showcases and tournaments on a much larger scale.
It’s all a work in progress but I’m confident we will achieve our goals!
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