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It says 'Italia' on the uniforms, but are they really Italian?

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

TEMPE, Ariz. -- In the clubhouse, they speak English. In the dugout, they speak English.

They wear "Italia" across their chests, for the purposes of the World Baseball Classic.

But is Team Italy really Italian?

A few of them are. Cleanup hitter and third baseman Alex Liddi was the first Italian-born player to play in the big leagues. Right fielder Mario Chiarini is from Rimini, Italy, and plays for a team there.

The rest of the lineup that faced the Angels in an exhibition game Wednesday (and will face Team USA on Saturday night at Chase Field) is second- or third-generation Italian-Americans, including guys with names like Brian Sweeney (his maternal grandparents were from Italy).

"People always say, 'You're not Italian,' " said Pirates closer Jason Grilli. "I have Italian blood running through my veins. I grew up with Italian traditions in my family.

"And now that the Pirates gave me some cheese [a two-year, $6.75-million contract], I can go buy some land in Italy, and close the circle."

Grilli's great grandparents came to America years ago, but he cares enough about his heritage that he worked to get dual citizenship. He played for Team Italy in the 2006 and 2009 versions of the WBC.

He's even trying to learn Italian. Liddi said many of his teammates ask him for language tips, and he said Grilli has learned the most.

Still, most of Team Italy will feel much more at home in Phoenix than it would in Rome. Wednesday's lineup included Nick Punto (from Mission Viejo, Calif.), Chris Denorfia (from Wallingford, Conn.) and Anthony Rizzo (from Parkland, Fla.).

The idea is that having Italy in the WBC will convince more young Italians to play and watch the game. To a certain extent, it does seem to be working, and the Team Italy coaches say that the Italian-born players on this year's team are more talented than those who played in the first two WBC tournaments.

"That's why we're here, to help the game get bigger back home," Liddi said.

For him, back home really does mean back in Italy.

At least for him, the answer is yes. Team Italy is Italian.

 
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