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Lasorda's Roots Come to Fore in U.S. Victory

September 23, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

BLACKTOWN, Australia — The U.S. baseball team struggled to beat Italy, 4-2, Friday night in front of a mostly bewildered crowd of fewer than 14,000, many of whom needed the glossary of terms provided by the scoreboard operators between innings.


Davey Johnson could learn something.

Even though it was not quite like being in Yankee Stadium in October with the other kind of bunting hanging from the upper deck, Tom Lasorda said there was no place in the world he would rather have been, managing the U.S. team in the Summer Olympics against Italy on his 73rd birthday.

Of course, Lasorda would have said the same thing if his team had been playing Sri Lanka. But you got the impression that playing against Italy really was special to him because it gave him the chance to talk about his late father, Sabbatino.

He, like many other Italians near the turn of the century, came to America from the Abruzzi region south of Rome, looking for relief from the rough winters and hard terrain. He ended up in Norristown, Pa., driving a truck for a rock quarry.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 27, 2000 Home Edition Special Section Part U Page 4 Sports Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Olympics--In World War II, the Allied forces landed on the Italian beaches of Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944. The date was incorrect in Randy Harvey's column Saturday.

Lasorda would have gone to work for the quarry too, if he hadn't possessed a better-than-average curveball. Sabbatino didn't particularly care for his son making a career of baseball, but, the way he finally saw it, it beat boxing, which was young Tommy's first choice.

Lasorda might not have gotten his love of sports from his father, but there is little question about the source of his optimism.

"My father used to come home from the quarry with his feet frostbitten," Lasorda said. "We, the children, would rub them to warm them up while he was telling us that we were living in the greatest country in the world. I'd say, 'But your feet are frozen.' And he'd say, 'What are frozen feet compared to all the happiness we've got?' "

When Italy's fledgling baseball federation invited Lasorda a few years ago to come give a clinic for their coaches, he didn't hesitate before accepting.

"How much money would you want?" an official asked.

"Not one dime," Lasorda said. "Italy gave me the greatest gift any man could ever have, my father."


Italians, such as Sabbatino, came to America and found a lot of different ways to earn a living for their families. Most were honest. Some were not. Like the members of every other immigrant group.

Italian Americans, though, have not been able to escape the unfortunate stereotype that began with Al Capone and has persisted through "The Godfather"--parts I, II and III--and more recently "The Sopranos."

Except on the sports pages. Lucky Luciano? Who's he? Here, you read about DiMaggio, Lazerri, Rizutto, Gionfriddo and, of course, Lucky Lasorda. Baseball is as Italian American as pasta fagioli.

Eight players on Italy's team here are Italian Americans, including the starting pitcher Friday night, Battista Perri of Santa Clara and Nevada Las Vegas, who yielded only two earned runs in 7 2/3 strong innings.

That is not remarkable. Remarkable is that four of the 16 Italian natives on the team are from Nettuno, which is a relatively small city. But it is the absolute capital of Italian baseball. Not surprisingly, there is an American connection there too.

On Jan. 5, 1994, Allied forces landed at the port of Anzio, not far from Nettuno. They fought the ice and mud and German shelling for five months, but, as winter turned to spring, they had liberated Italy from the fascists, and the American servicemen--those who survived, because 7,862 are buried there--had begun to teach Italian children baseball.


Silvano Ambrosioni, the Italian manager, called Lasorda first thing Friday morning to wish Lasorda happy birthday, and they ended up lunching together.

"I told Tommy he could celebrate because he had an easy game tonight," said Ambrosioni, who has known Lasorda since coming to Vero Beach, Fla., as a spring training observer in 1977.

Ambrosioni, however, told his players when they gathered in the clubhouse before Friday night's game that they had a chance to make history by beating the United States.

They almost did. Not that many people back home in Italy would have cared. Or even known. Italian newspapers are in the last day of a two-day strike.

The score was tied, 2-2, in the bottom of the eighth, when Perri, a waiter when he isn't playing baseball, tired and walked two batters. Ambrosioni called on his best reliever, Jason Simontacchi, a Northern California native who played in the Kansas City Royals' and Pittsburgh Pirates' organizations.

The first batter he faced, Mike Kinkade, grounded to the left of the mound. Simontacchi fielded the ball cleanly but overthrew first base, enabling both runners to score. Former Dodger pitcher Todd Williams shut down the Italians in the ninth.

Asked what the players had given Lasorda for his birthday, right fielder Ernie Young said, "Tums."

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