Surprising Italy the talk of WBC

Italy — yes, Italy — is the talk of the World Baseball Classic, after Thursday’s riveting victory over Mexico and a 14-4 shellacking of Canada Friday afternoon.

The Cinderella story demands a practical explanation, and it has been pointed out that the 28-man roster includes many Italian-Americans and only seven Italian-born players.

But that is only part of the narrazione.

Italy has more domestic talent than many observers realize. Two players who spent formative years in the Emilia-Romagna region — right-hander Alex Maestri and first baseman Chris Colabello — flanked manager Marco Mazzieri at Friday’s postgame news conference as the stars of Italy’s mercy-rule victory over Canada.

And the connection between Maestri and Colabello goes far deeper than that.

“I owe my life to Dr. Maestri,” Colabello told me.

Dr. Paolo Maestri is Alex’s father, who watched on television from Italy as his son earned the victory while permitting one run in three innings against a Canadian lineup featuring former MVPs Joey Votto and Justin Morneau. Colabello, meanwhile, looked like a major league hitter — going 4-for-5 with four RBI, three of them scoring on his thunderous home run to left.

But Colabello firmly believes he wouldn’t be alive — much less in Mazzieri’s lineup — if it hadn’t been for Paolo Maestri’s actions at a youth baseball tournament in Italy some 15 years ago.

Colabello, then 14, was playing for Rimini, Maestri for Torre Pedrera. Colabello and his teammates were staying at a dormitory during the tournament and had to walk through a grapevine to reach the ballfields. The players would leave their baseball bags with the team’s coach, who drove the equipment to the field while they walked.

One day, Colabello lounged on the back of his coach’s car — as a 14-year-old boy would. But because of how the car was situated near the grapevine, Colabello’s coach never saw him there. In a terrifying instant, the car took off … down a hill … at 30 mph. In a panic, Colabello jumped. He landed face-first. A gash opened near Colabello’s mouth, and the bleeding was so profuse that he felt as though he couldn’t breathe.

“Dr. Maestri was 50 feet away, and he saves my life,” Colabello said. “I was choking on my own blood. He knew enough to get the blood out of my mouth.”

Alex Maestri wasn’t with his father while he tended to Colabello, but he remembers the concern that spread among those at the tournament. “Chris always reminds me about that episode,” Maestri said. “He was talking about it the other day. He said, ‘You remember when your dad saved my life, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Somebody else was there, so he (told) the story again.”

The day linked Colabello and Maestri together, even as their paths have diverged. Colabello — the son of an Italian-American father and Italian mother — returned to live in the United States full time while attending high school and college in his native Massachusetts. (Colabello’s father, Lou, had moved his family to Italy for several years while working as a baseball and basketball coach there.) Maestri remained in his homeland and attended the Italian Baseball Academy in Tirrenia, becoming the first Italian-developed pitcher to sign a pro contract, with the Chicago Cubs in 2006.

Neither Colabello nor Maestri has played in the majors, but they looked the part Friday and may ultimately get that chance. Colabello spent seven years playing in independent leagues before the Minnesota Twins signed him to play at Double-A in 2012. He hit for power there and should start this season at Triple-A, one phone call away from the majors.

The Cubs released Maestri after a disappointing 2010 season, but he revived his career by pitching for the Kagawa Olive Guyners — an independent franchise located on the small Japanese island of Shikoku. Maestri impressed scouts there and earned a promotion to the Japanese major leagues with the Orix Buffaloes, for whom he went 4-3 with a 2.17 ERA in eight starts.

“I sent him a couple messages on Facebook, like, ‘Dude, you’re a rock star,’” Colabello said. “He’s all over the Japanese news.”

Now Colabello and Maestri are headlining the global baseball news, with the surprising Italians on the verge of their first second-round berth in World Baseball Classic play. They have a good chance to make it to Miami even if they lose to Team USA in Saturday’s showdown at Chase Field. And it’s not as if they expect to lose that game. Many of the players trying to beat the Americans will be American citizens themselves.

Colabello understands the dynamic. His father — who was born in Milford, Mass. — started for Team Italy against the U.S. during the 1984 Summer Olympics at Dodger Stadium.

“It didn’t go very well for him,” Colabello acknowledged. “He was in the bullpen and felt like he was throwing the ball really good. When they announced him at Dodger Stadium, they said, ‘Now pitching for Italy, from Milford, Massachusetts … ’ and the crowd booed him. He said, ‘I never got nervous on the field. But in that moment, I was nervous.’ I think he hit Shane Mack, gave up a base hit and then Will Clark hit a ball that — as (his dad) likes to say — is still going.”

Nearly three decades later, another Colabello will play against Team USA — representing the country of his heritage, against the country of his birth, amid feelings of pride for both. “It’s pretty special to put this uniform on, to know my dad had the opportunity to do the same thing,” Colabello said. “I’ve shared everything in my life with my dad. He’s my best friend, my hero growing up. To go out and play against the same people, with the same uniform on is pretty awesome.”

Lou Colabello and his wife, Silvana, weren’t at Friday’s game, but they’ve made plans to visit their son in Florida next week. They figured they would see Chris at the Twins’ camp in Fort Myers. But if Team Italy keeps this up, he won’t be there. Marlins Park in Miami could be the revised destination. “I guess,” Chris said, smiling, “they’re going to have to change plans.”

Some of the credit for this happy disruption should go to Alex Maestri — and Dr. Paolo Maestri, too.