BY WALTER VILLA
MIAMI—What Team USA and the Dominican Republic are hoping to develop, starting with Thursday’s WBC showdown, Italy and the Netherlands already have – a fierce rivalry based on repeated confrontations in international baseball.
Italy had long been the most dominant team in European baseball, but the Dutch have been coming on of late in larger-scale international events.
Italy has won 10 European Championships, including the two most recent titles, in 2010 and 2012.
The Netherlands won four straight from 1999 to 2007, reached the second round of the 2009 World Baseball Classic, won the 2011 World Cup in Panama and has already made it to the WBC semifinals.
Italy is still alive in the WBC quarterfinals, but the Italians are in serious trouble. They face Puerto Rico tonight at 7 in an elimination game for both teams.
“This has been a long-time rivalry,” Italy manager Marco Mazzieri said of his team’s battles with the Dutch. “I have tremendous respect for their program.
“With that said, I like to beat them just as much as they like to beat us. Luckily, we’ve been able to beat them the past couple of years in the European Championships.”
Still, Italy had never advanced past the first round of the WBC until this year, and Tuesday’s 5-4 loss to the Dominicans was equal part frustrating and encouraging.
Yes, the Italians lost a 4-0 lead and failed to earn what would have been a massive victory for the country’s baseball program. But the Italians can proceed knowing they hung in there with one of the most talented national teams in the world.
Mazzieri’s current WBC roster features seven players born and raised in Italy.
Six of his players competed in the major leagues last season–catcher Drew Butera (Twins); first baseman Anthony Rizzo (Cubs); second baseman Nick Punto (Dodgers); third baseman Alex Liddi (Mariners); center fielder Chris Denorfia (Padres); and pitcher Jason Grilli (Pirates).
Liddi is the first Italian-born player to make the majors. The other five qualified for the team because they had a grandparent or great-grandparent born in Italy.
Mazzieri said former catching great Mike Piazza, who now serves as Italy’s hitting coach, first approached Rizzo—who is from South Florida—about playing for the team.
“We didn’t know if we could get him because he had a chance to make the USA roster,” Mazzieri said of Rizzo. “But after (the U.S.) decided to go with (Mark) Teixeira, (Rizzo) happily decided to play for us. We’re very happy because (Rizzo) is a great kid and a tremendous player.”
The hunt for potential players continues, and Mazzieri admits the Dutch have an advantage.
“It’s easier for them to get players from the Caribbean,” the coach said, referring to Dutch players from the Netherlands Antilles, which are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. “But we don’t look at that. I’m really focused on developing our guys and possibly to add good players as we did in this tournament.
“We would like to get players from all over the U.S. a little bit more, but we can’t. So we just have to make do with what we have.”
One intriguing future possibility could be 2012 College Player of the Year Mike Zunino, the Mariners' first-round draft pick, whose father Greg played in Italy and whose mother is Italian.