One magical night in 1979, in Europe on honeymoon, my new bride and I waited in a little trattoria for homemade pasta. A tall, handsome Italian stepped up to my plate.
He spoke perfect English, and I remember our conversation, word for word. How could you forget an exchange like this?
Are you an American? he asked. My blue windbreaker and the running shoes must have given it away.
Yes, I’m an American.
Do you play baseball?
Uh… yes. This question came from left field. I hadn’t played baseball in seven years, giving up big-league dreams when I couldn’t hit my weight at 154 pounds.
I didn’t mention that.
The Italian rose to his full height, well over six feet. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
My name, he said, is Tiziano Coppola. I am an umpire in the Italian baseball. We love American players. If you will play on our Italian team, I will find you and your wife jobs… and give you a free place to live for the season.
So, I became the third baseman for the Verona Arsenal.
Verona is a historic northern Italian city between Venice and Milan, a place of 15th-Century palazzos, the rushing Adige River, the best-preserved coliseum in Europe… and Romeo and Juliet. Perfect for honeymooners. We arrived with enough money to stay two weeks. Now baseball and secret jobs meant seven months in Italy, at least… and travel money, too.
We went into the furniture business. I worked in a factory. Trees entered one end, frames of couches and chairs exited the other. My wife worked with Italian women upholstering the frames in leather, textured cotton, even silk.
The baseball? Think of a serious men’s softball league in the U.S., with athletic players who stay in shape and go out on weekends to chase balls over green grass and pop the buttons off shirts swinging at fat pitches. The kind of league where players yell and argue over called strikes and close plays. Verona Arsenal played baseball with… amore.
Two players spoke English. One, our shortstop, Gianni Abatti, befriended me, the American. (Gianni bought me a cold Coca-Cola after every Sunday game.) That guy lived a dream life – a rich family, fashion magazine good looks, a stunning girlfriend. He’d swoop by some nights in a little Italian coupe and take us for bouncing, hysterical rides around mountain hairpins, Verona twinkling below like a fairy-tale world.
In fact, Verona was another world. What did a 25-year-old from Alabama know of walled cities… and cathedral bells tonguing the vespers each twilight… and bridges built by Romans… and cobbled streets centuries older than the United States themselves?
To this day, I remember my band of baseball brothers.
Gianni, the shortstop. Laerte, our grizzled coach, whose passion for baseball matched that of Yogi Berra. Robbie, center field – wild blonde curls escaped the edges of his baseball hat comically, like clown hair. Poalo played left, a youngster who cursed most profanely in Italian, every breath.
The team had two redheads – myself and Paco, our dandy second baseman. Frederico, the mild, bespectacled 18-year-old right-fielder, spoke excellent English, rode a Vespa, and, sadly, followed the Fascist party. Alain, our catcher, ran a ristorante in the hills – the baseball team rode up after games, and we feasted on homemade risotto made with mushrooms harvested that morning.
We drank wine. We drank Coca-Cola... but not with ice.
We traveled to places named San Martino, Padua, Mantua. In Aviano, we battled lean, mean American teenagers from the U.S. Air Force base. In that game, I suffered the humiliation of striking out twice against a 13-year-old version of Sandy Koufax.
We played on jeweled infields. We also played in places where umpires made an outfield fence with a red length of ribbon strung row to row at the start of a vineyard. Hit the ball over the ribbon, you had a home run, a fore campo. Bounce the ball under the ribbon, you got a doppio – a ground-rule double.
Verona Arsenal went 7-2 in the regular season. You wouldn’t know to judge by the crowds. Sunday afternoons, hundreds of people watched soccer at the adjoining field. Our games? Nine girlfriends and two wives.
Once every game, shortstop Gianni took a grounder off his shin and collapsed in agony … real or Italian agony, hard to tell. (Remember – these people invented opera.) When Gianni went down, Luciana, his gorgeous goddess girlfriend, floated down from the stands in diaphanous white and swept across the diamond, sunlight streaming through her sheer silks, to collapse over her poor hurt warrior. She cradled Gianni’s wounded head. She cooed and stroked Gianni’s cheek. Once, she even wept for his hurts.
I got my name in the newspaper, to the hilarity of my teammates, who read the story and convulsed over a mistranslation. Instead of Charles McNair, the reporter had somehow used my jersey number – 2, or due – and then misspelled my last name: Due McNain.
I become, then, Due McNain. When my teammates said it, they slapped one another with gloves and laughed until tears rolled down their cheeks.
Verona Arsenal made it to the local championship game… where I discovered Italian intrigues. The shrewd coach of San Martino’s team demanded my passport – the first time all season such proof was required of my most obvious Americanism. I had 45 minutes to produce it, or I couldn’t play. I made a mad dash on a tiny motorcycle back to 15 Via Duomo – I must have broken even Italian traffic laws. I made it back, passport in hand, with four minutes to spare.
My most memorable moment with the Verona Arsenal says as much about Italy as any story I know.
It came against those American kids from Aviano, this time a home game in Verona. The youngsters had licked us good over at the air base, a humiliation made worse by their cocky attitudes.
The lanky young American whiz kid stood on the mound again, 13 years old with a 300 mph fast ball. This time, he proved human, serving up one fat pitch after another, walking and hitting batters. Verona scored 13 runs in the first inning.
But games last seven innings in Italy.
Inning after inning, run by run, the Americans chipped away at our lead. By the top of the seventh, Aviano had pulled within one skinny run. The Americans then loaded the bases, nobody out. Our pitcher, playboy ski-instructor Raphael, looked completely blown. It appeared Verona would lose to the jeering Americans again.
But then… Italy happened.
All at once, bases loaded, three balls no strikes, tying run at third… the umpire rose from his crouch behind the plate. He whipped off his mask. He pointed to his very expensive Italian wristwatch.
Tempo! he cried. Time! Time’s out. Game’s over.
You see, in Italy, as with soccer, you have only so many minutes to complete a baseball game. Time had run out on this one. The umpire called the game. The Verona Arsenal had won.
There’s an exact Italian word for what happened next – casino. Craziness. Still nothing changes the mind of an Italian umpire when he decides a game is over.
And that umpire? His name… was Tiziano Coppola. He once came up to my table in a trattoria and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
That’s how things go down in Italy.
Charles McNair lives and writes in Bogotá, Colombia. He has published two novels, Land O’ Goshen and Pickett’s Charge. He served from 2005-2015 as books editor at Paste Magazine.
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