Baseball in the Boot
It might seem like the set-up to a bad joke than a high-concept book pitch: What do you get when you take an English-speaking Canadian musician fascinated with America’s favorite pastime, and have him follow around a minor league team over the course of a season? Not just any minor league team, mind you, but one based in southern Italy. As one Italian baseball player says to this book’s author, “You should write about a real team. This team is bush league.”
Thankfully, the author in question is Dave Bidini. While he’s probably best known as the rhythm guitar player for Canada’s quirky The Rheostatics, he has also, of late, started an appealing side-career chronicling mainstream sports played in rather strange lands. This personal obsession began with 2000’s Tropic of Hockey, an account of his travels to the Middle East and China, among other places, to find out where Canada’s game was being played closest in spirit to old-time backyard shimmy.
Baseballissimo is a similar book involving a different sport. Here, Bidini visits Nettuno, Italy, just south of Rome on the Tyrrhenian Sea, in the summer of 2002, to cheer on a team called the Peones in the country’s ‘Serie B’ (or Double A) farm league. He wryly notes in the book he had intended to put a more professional team under the microscope, but found instead that the region’s ‘Serie A’ (Triple A) teams were stacked with power players from America thanks to their owners’ desperate to feed wins to ravished local sports fans. In Nettuno, Bidini sought purity and a sort of spiritual quality: a game played simply out of love.
Nettuno is painted as an almost mythical place, like Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, where the only news of major league North American baseball comes via such quaint outlets as the newspaper and, occasionally, the radio. Bidini notes its residents used to play catch by fashioning gloves out of cardboard pizza boxes to placate their appetite for the game; its main street rolls up its sidewalks every day between 1 and 4 p.m. thanks to the heat. Speaking of pizza, the book’s first paragraph alone mentions the Peones’ mouthwatering sweet tooth for brioche, biscotti, brioche, cornetti, croissants and espresso in almost fetishistic detail, a theme that keeps coming back over and over again in the book. (Really, don’t even think of reading Baseballissimo if you want to shed pounds.)
There’s a reason why Bidini chose Nettuno beyond good eats and nice scenery. Namely, it’s the birthplace of Italian baseball—American soldiers introduced the game during their liberation of the country in 1944. However, Baseballissimo is not a history of Italian post-war baseball, a mere travelogue of the country, nor a diary of a financially and talent impoverished team’s chase for pennant glory (though it’s indeed all these things). The book is mostly a personal memoir of what it’s like to have one’s heritage erased by pop culture’s pervasive influence—in Bidini’s case, he was turned off his Italian-ness in the ‘70s thanks to the cheesy disco pop of Gino (I Just Wanna Stop) Vannelli and John Travolta’s over-the-top machismo in Saturday Night Fever.
Once Bidini arrived in Europe in 2002, though, he naturally proved to be a quick study, picking up the loose threads of the heritage he’d ignored as a kid in Toronto’s “Pasta Ghetto.” Much of the conversational dialogue is in its original Italian, as it was spoken to (and sometimes by) the author, which adds much color and, strangely, clarity to Bidini’s struggle to navigate his way through alien customs and sayings. These include humbling and hilarious lessons in being able to tell the difference between penne (pasta) and pene (penis).
It also eventually became clear to him that baseball can transcend any linguistic roadblock through its very iconography—a thesis that makes up a good chunk of Baseballissimo. Bidini recounts his excitement at rediscovering a personal attachment to all the totems and touchstones of the game that he learned playing the sport in recreation leagues and watching the Toronto Blue Jays go onto their back-to-back World Series wins in the early ‘90s. He writes, “I was thrilled to find that they (the Peones) wore blue and white, the colors of my home team, the Blue Jays, to say nothing of the Brooklyn Dodgers, baseball’s most fabled club.” Similarly, he travels through Rome with his young daughter, gradually understanding more of himself under the weight of the city’s dazzling cultural history, even if he doesn’t understand every word spoken to him along the way.
But as Bidini joins the outfield during practice, he begins to see that the sport’s appeal of might have a lot more to do with something deeper and more profound within the human condition. Former Italian league pitcher Giulio Glorioso even wryly remarks to the author at one point that, “There is something that occurs in man… when you give him a stone or a ball. There is something appealing (about this), for some reason, which is outside, immaterial. All popular games involve balls. Baseball is like language. It just happened.”
Baseballissimo is set up like an elaborate game of catch with a bunch of different tossed balls (read: essays) up in the air at any given time. In fact, when the Peones finally step up to the plate in just about every other alternating chapter to form the backbone story arch, it’s hard to resist the urge to flip ahead to the next digression, since the bulk of the book’s meat happens off the field.
Regardless, Baseballissimo will probably make most sports fans hungry knowing players can still have this much fun throwing a tiny white leather ball around. It’s a well-written, engaging, even literary non-fiction book, a jewel about life on the diamond. Bidini mostly proves he’s quite the double threat, a bona-fide literary writer/musician who has to be admired for taking the road less traveled. While Baseballissimo might take a long time to finally get to its destination, like a drawn-out game of baseball on a lazy warm summer’s day, that’s just part of the charm.