Liddi finding fans on two continents

Last week, Alex Liddi was a reserve infielder for the Seattle Mariners and the answer to a trivia question, as the first player born and raised in Italy to play in the major leagues.

Now, he’s much more than that.

He’s establishing himself as an everyday player. He’s stirring interest in the game among his countrymen. And he’s becoming the new face of European baseball, at a time when the sport is trying to mimic the NBA’s successful outreach there.

Liddi, only 23, is one of the most intriguing players on a Seattle roster that has little in the way of bolted-down furniture. Mariners officials are fond of saying they need to learn more about their in-house talent. That is baseball code for, "Great-paying jobs available. Can you hit?"

To that end, Liddi’s recent play has been a revelation. After debuting in the majors last September, he has played eight games this year and collected hits in seven of them. He has the highest slugging percentage (.607) of any Mariner with at least 20 at-bats. He homered in consecutive games during Seattle’s surprising three-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers this week.

Look at it this way: Liddi has started five of the Mariners’ past six games. He is hitting .400 over that span. The only time Liddi didn’t play, Philip Humber pitched a perfect game against his team.

Italians are taking notice. Filippo Fantasia, editor-in-chief of the online newspaper, said his website sees its peak traffic whenever videos and news articles about Liddi are posted. “Many Italians send emails celebrating his successful (moments),” Fantasia told me (in an email, naturally).

Rai Sport 1 — the national, state-owned sports television channel — made mention of Liddi’s primo fuoricampo (first home run) in Tuesday night’s game and has followed his daily progress. La Gazzetta dello Sport, which has an intense focus on soccer, published a story about Liddi this week. Short mentions of Liddi have appeared in mainstream newspapers.

As of Friday morning, more than 2,300 Facebook users “like” the Alex Liddi fan page.

“It’s quite unusual,” said Mario Salvini, who writes a baseball blog for La Gazzetta. “Alex is (putting) baseball on the pages. People (are) beginning to know him. Something has started. I hope.”

Thanks to the live streaming of baseball games, any Italian with an Internet connection and account can watch the country’s newest sports hero — as long as they are awake. A weeknight Mariners home game starts at 4:10 a.m. in Sanremo, the popular vacation destination on the Mediterranean where Liddi grew up. His parents, Agostino and Flavia, don’t mind. Both retired, they are happy to stay up late or rise before dawn. “In my family, everybody watches,” Liddi said this week. Sometimes Liddi returns to his locker following games to find emails from his parents or brother, Thomas.

Within the small but ardent Italian baseball community, Liddi is a phenomenon. He trained for part of last offseason at the Major League Baseball European Academy in Tirrenia, Italy, near Pisa. “All the kids there can’t wait to check the MLB scoreboard every morning, (to) see if he played and how he did,” said Marco Mazzieri, manager of the Italian national team.

Mazzieri, who also works for the Mariners as an area scout in Italy, recalled how Liddi’s work ethic was lauded at a January convention of Italian baseball coaches in Verona. Liddi was in attendance and received a standing ovation from the hundreds of coaches there. Liddi grew emotional as he thanked the coaches for their support, saying he felt as if he had an entire country behind him.

Liddi also was a big draw at the Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball banquet last December. Organizers had expected a crowd of between 350 and 500 fans. “Then we announced Liddi was going to be there, and 900 people showed up,” said Riccardo Schiroli, the FIBS communications manager. “We had to go to another theater in a hurry.”

Liddi was rare among Italian boys, in that both of his parents had ties to baseball. Agostino’s parents left Italy after World War II and worked as tailors in the U.S.; Agostino played baseball at Beverly Hills High School before returning to Italy as an adult. Flavia played softball and coached her son’s baseball teams. Local legend holds that Flavia played first base for three months while she was pregnant with Alex. “So,” Salvini said, “you can say Alex was on the field before he was born.”

If anything, Liddi’s story reinforces a fundamental truth of global sports: When presented with the proper environment to develop, professional talent can emerge from just about anywhere.

Baseball won’t eclipse soccer in popularity among Europeans. But it doesn’t need to. Basketball is a much more reasonable reference point. Baseball is roughly one generation behind basketball on the continent, but perhaps we will see comparables of Andrea Bargnani and Danilo Gallinari on major league diamonds in another 15 or 20 years.

Liddi, in fact, is the first graduate of the MLB European Academy to reach the majors.

“Until Alex made the major leagues, every kid picking up a baseball could wonder whether starting the game in Europe meant their path had a major roadblock,” said Clive Russell of MLB International. “They can now see through hard work, dedication and seizing the opportunities provided by the developing Academy structure, there is a chance to be recognized and signed. The opportunity to play professional baseball is there for every talented European.”

Liddi seems more at ease than an ordinary rookie, perhaps because his baseball career has been one continuous road trip. He’s already gone through customs more often than most major leaguers will in a lifetime. He joined the Italian national team at age 12. He’s played tournaments in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Cuba. He took four trips to the US while in his teens, bringing back souvenirs like beef jerky and a Carmelo Anthony jersey. He’s trilingual, after learning English and Spanish.

His favorite tournament destination? “I’ve got to say Taiwan,” he said. “I’ve been there three times. Every time I go, I have fun.”

Liddi plans to continue representing his country. He’s already looking forward to next year’s World Baseball Classic. He may be joined on Team Italy by Italian-Americans who are able to prove they are eligible for Italian citizenship. “We’re going to have a pretty good team, hopefully,” he said. “I heard (Mike) Napoli wants to play.”

Now, ironically, Liddi’s competitive world has narrowed. His universe consists of 30 ballparks. He’s trying to earn a fixed spot on the ever-evolving lineup card of manager Eric Wedge. He hasn’t been a big leaguer long enough to sample the ravioli in New York’s Little Italy. But it sure looks like he’ll get the chance. “He’s a big, strong guy,” Detroit catcher Alex Avila observed this week. “He’s got a lot of pop. For the most part, he’s (getting) into good hitters’ counts. He’s looked very impressive.”

It wasn’t long ago that Liddi took his first trip to the United States, to play in the 2000 Cal Ripken World Series in Mattoon, Ill. He still remembers the houses he saw, how they looked just like American homes in the movies. Now, he hopes to make enough money to have a place of his own in the US, so his parents could join him more often during the season. “I would love for them to do that,” he told me. For the record, he is good enough to make that happen.

Last year was about making history, and he checked that box. But what’s happening now is more important: Alex Liddi is showing that he belongs.