Alex Liddi makes history for Italy

He may not be the Roberto Baggio or Alberto Tomba of his sport, but now Alex Liddi can claim his own slice of Italian sports history.

The Seattle Mariners promoted Liddi to the major leagues on Monday evening, making him the first player born and raised in Italy to reach the bigs.

Six Italian-born players have appeared in the major leagues, but all of them immigrated to North America during childhood, according to Riccardo Schiroli, communications manager for the Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball. Liddi, by contrast, was born in San Remo, Italy, and played amateur baseball there before signing with the Mariners at age 17 in 2005.

Liddi, now 23, finished with flourish in the Pacific Coast League, homering twice in Monday’s finale to reach 30 for the season at Class AAA Tacoma. He led the PCL in runs scored this year (121 in 137 games), and is only the second player in team history to amass 100 runs and 100 RBIs in the same season.

When asked about the possibility of a call-up last week, Liddi said, “It would be really special. It would be something to be proud of for my family and my country. It would be good for the baseball movement in Italy, to start more kids playing baseball.”

Liddi’s grandparents moved from Italy to Los Angeles to find work around the middle of the last century, and his father played baseball while growing up in the U.S. The family ultimately returned to Italy — and brought its baseball knowledge along. Alex fell in love with the sport, despite the absence of a strong youth program in the country at the time.

“Soccer is still the biggest sport,” Liddi said last week. “But hopefully if we get some Italian players to the big leagues, they will start televising baseball there more. Some of us need to get up there and get publicity for the Italian people, so more kids start trying to play.”

While the sport is growing there, Italy still trails the Netherlands in baseball infrastructure among European countries. But the Mariners, who have a well-developed network of international scouts, saw Liddi play at a number of tournaments in Europe, including a youth competition in Trieste, Italy, when he was 16.

“Italy isn’t like Latin America or the U.S., but it’s getting better,” said Bob Engle, the Mariners’ vice president of international operations. “They have structure. The World Baseball Classic has really increased interest in the sport. There are young players to follow there.”

Schiroli said a number of Italian baseball blogs are monitoring Liddi’s progress every day. He also said the Italian press has been “ready” to cover Liddi’s arrival to the majors.

“It is difficult to say how the average sport fan feels, because in Italy you do not really have the ‘average sport fan,’ ” Schiroli said in an email last week. “They are mostly supporting one team, either in soccer or other sports.

“We can take for granted that a lot of kids will start playing baseball, if their families realize you can be ‘someone’ by playing baseball. … It will move player development to the next level here. Until now, most people believed you could not develop MLB prospects in Italy.”

Perhaps Liddi has already shattered that myth. And while he’s acknowledged as the best Italian-born player in the minor leagues, there are others, such as Class A left-hander Luca Panerati (Reds) and Rookie-level right-hander Andrea Pizziconi (Royals).

It’s probably a stretch to call Liddi the Mariners’ sure-fire third baseman of the future, with 23-year-old Kyle Seager already in Seattle and performing well at the position. The organization would like to see Liddi cut down on his strikeouts; he fanned 170 times at Tacoma this season.

But it’s doubtful that Italian baseball fans – however many there may be – will worry much about the mechanics of Liddi’s swing when they wake up to this news on Tuesday. This is an occasion for a hearty salute from Milano to Sicilia.