September 19, 2007

Maroons pitcher earns extra innings in Italy

It may be known as America’s pastime, but baseball still holds some international appeal. Just ask one former Maroon pitcher, whose devotion to the game sent him on an adventure 5,000 miles away with nothing other than a strong arm and an open mind.

Righty Dan Cozzi (A .B. ’07) closed the book on his college baseball career this past May only to start a pro ball success story across the Atlantic. A Park Ridge native of Neopolitan descent, he landed the summer of a lifetime suiting up for Codogno’s A2 League team in Northern Italy. Cozzi’s seven-week visit to the “old country” offered the opportunity to expand his horizons both on and off the mound.

“It was something that really intrigued me, and I kept it in the back of my mind,” said Cozzi of pursuing the game beyond college. “I always thought of playing professional ball in Europe as a storybook ending to my baseball career.”

Fortunately, Cozzi’s head coach, Brian Baldea, knew the right people to help make that happen, and got in touch with the Codogno club’s Vice President and talent scout, Giuseppe “Beppe” Traversoni. Although pro ball outside the Americas and East Asia generates little attention, the game can spur quite a bit of enthusiasm around Italy. The country’s participation in the March 2006 World Baseball Classic, while spearheaded by a squad that was over 75 percent American-born, demonstrates the active tie between the two countries at the collegiate and professional levels.

“I have maintained relationships with a few Italian teams over the past few years in an effort to give some of our players the opportunity to experience baseball and life in Italy when their undergraduate days at Chicago are over,” said Baldea in an earlier press release.

After several communications between Cozzi and Traversoni, an offer to play for Codogno was extended to the Italian-American hurler. Both Series A1 and A2 leagues in Italy allow foreigners to join their clubs if they can document Italian heritage. Once he secured his spot on the roster, Cozzi had to reconcile playing the familiar game with a foreign land as the backdrop.

“It was definitely strange thinking about playing such an American game in Italy,” Cozzi said. “Baseball is big in a few select cities in the country, but it’s hardly a major national sport at all. The whole time I sort of felt like baseball was a game my country played and introduced to the rest of the world, so I had sort of an attachment in that way.”

Setting foot in Codogno on June 13, Cozzi barely had time to unpack his bags before being penciled into the squad’s plans. He took the ball for the first time three days after arriving, coming in for relief work in the nightcap of a home doubleheader against the neighboring city of Brescia. Fresh from several weeks’ rest, Cozzi blew fastball after fastball past Brescia’s hitters, putting in six innings of one-run ball.

After that stunning debut, Cozzi quickly became a fixture in the squad’s second game of every week. Codogno’s schedule slated it for two games per week, played out over the weekend against fresh foes from all over the country. That kind of traveling led to pitching in some unlikely places.

On June 24, Cozzi found himself in Paterno, Sicily, taking the hill in 110-degree weather with a view of the world’s largest active volcano in the distance. Mount Etna loomed behind the batter’s box in Cozzi’s afternoon contest against Paterno’s Ciatta dei Normanni, with conditions tough even for someone used to pitching in the Windy City.

“Not only was it hot, but there was this reverse wind-chill with the scirocco winds, the hot, strong winds from North Africa, howling across the field,” Cozzi said. “All the guys were describing it like putting a blow-drier right in front of your face.”

On top of the wretched heat, Cozzi and his teammates had to square off against a 35-year-old Dominican hurler with a 27-inning scoreless streak going into the contest. Sicily struck for five runs, three of them earned, in the first frame, but Cozzi managed to hold them off for the next four and a third innings.

In between turns on the hill, Cozzi took time to experience Italy beyond the diamond with trips to cities like Venice and Florence on off days. Then there were also the trips with the Codogno gang after Tuesday and Thursday practices to the Park Club, a local pizzeria, where language barriers couldn’t stop the bonds built between teammates.

“It was a colorful experience, to say the least,” said Cozzi of the biweekly ritual.

On or off the field with the squad, though, Cozzi found himself in the unique position of acting as a sort of ambassador from a country that glorifies baseball as a cultural emblem. The “Yankee,” as he was introduced in a local newspaper article, got to experience first-hand how the game is both played and understood by Italians. While Cozzi found no lack of passion among his teammates, the dugout atmosphere in Codogno was far from what he remembered with the Maroons.

“One thing that separates Italian from American baseball is the very strong sense of team in Italy,” Cozzi said. “Your commitment to your team extends well beyond the field. Most of the guys on the team are native-born Italians who have lived in the area their whole lives and played with the same teammates for many, many years. Although they are very serious about the game, Italians don’t really show it as much on the bench.”

But that’s not to say that the Codogno players lacked a competitive fire just as intense as any big league team in the U.S.A.

“Italians have a flair for the dramatic,” Cozzi explained. “If you ever took a called third strike, it was pretty much expected that you’d point your bat at the umpire and say something extremely degrading and profane.”

As the weeks progressed, Cozzi worked his way into 14 games with Codogno and ended his tenure with the squad in a picture-perfect finale. He went the distance in a lights-out performance, surrendering just one run, unearned, on four hits and fanning 12 in the process.

Closing the books on the summer with a 3-1 record, Cozzi earned an invitation to return to Codogno again next year. Whether he’ll accept is up in the air, as he switches gears to focus on becoming an attorney and starting classes at Washington University Law School.

“I think Dan could pitch in Italian Professional Baseball, not only in Codogno, but throughout the country,” Baldea said. “He certainly has that capability.”