USA tugs Iannetta from Italian roots

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TORONTO – This is a baseball tale born at the intersection of an Italian love story and an American dream, one as improbable as the next.

It begins in two villages near Naples, Casa Nova to the south, Scapoli to the north. Maria DiLorenzo was 8 days old when her mother died. She was 5 when her father, Armando, remarried to an American woman he'd met while she was visiting Italy and moved the family from Casa Nova to Providence, Rhode Island. He didn't speak a word of English when he arrived, and took a factory job cutting patterns for baby clothes.

Domenic Iannetta was 8 when his father, Virgilio, moved his family from Scapoli and settled in Providence, no more than five minutes away from where Maria lived. The fathers, Armando and Virgilio, became friends at the neighborhood bocce ball club. Maria went to school with Domenic Iannetta's sister and became best friends. Maria and Domenic knew each other from elementary school, began dating at 17, and eventually married.

Their first-born son, Chris, played Little League in the neighborhood. One day, the catcher on Chris' team broke his wrist. John Marano, the family friend who coached the team, decided that the Iannetta boy looked like a catcher. The boy hated it at first.

"He'd tell John, 'I don't want to do this,' '' Maria Iannetta said Monday. "I'd tell him, 'Chris, your team needs you, and don't worry, you won't have to do this for long.' But then he realized a catcher is involved in every play, and has been doing it ever since.''

Only four major-league catchers in baseball history have come from Rhode Island. The most famous is Gabby Hartnett, the Hall of Famer. The latest is Chris Iannetta, who plays for the Colorado Rockies and now is catching in the World Baseball Classic.

Iannetta doesn't recall all the details of how his mother and father met, but he knew enough of the story to begin planning to play for Italy, the country of his parents' birth. Italian officials contacted his agent. Team USA?

"I figured it would be [Brian] McCann and [Joe] Mauer,'' he said. "I didn't think there would be an opportunity.''

But then Mauer had surgery in December for a blockage in his kidney, and couldn't play. Team USA needed a catcher. They turned to Iannetta. A math major at the University of North Carolina – he wasn't drafted out of high school, but was Colorado's fourth-round pick as a junior with the Tar Heels – Iannetta did not have to agonize over his decision.

"I was kind of set on playing for Italy,'' he said, "but when the chance to play for the USA came up, it was a no-brainer.''

On Sunday, Iannetta made his first start one to remember. He came to bat with the bases loaded in the fifth inning of a tie game against Venezuela and cleared the bases with a gapper. Even though he never stopped running and wound up at third, he was credited only with a double. "I'm not going to quibble over that,'' he said. "Not when we won.''

Iannetta later walked and singled for another RBI in USA's 15-6 win. A kid from the smallest state in the nation, who thought he'd be playing under another nation's flag, had his Star-Spangled moment.

"It's awesome to represent our country,'' Iannetta said. "It's way bigger than one person.''

Unlike many big leaguers who know little about the history of the sport they play, Iannetta was aware that Hartnett was a Rhode Islander, and that Napoleon Lajoie, another Hall of Famer from the turn of the last century, hailed from there too.

"I collect vintage autographs,'' Iannetta said. "Babe Ruth. [Lou] Gehrig. Walter Johnson. Lajoie. Jimmie Foxx, those guys.

"I started in high school. One of the high school coaches collected and got me into it. I really enjoy it. I get them on eBay, auction houses. You start small, save some money, it gets more expensive, but it's a good investment if you know what you're doing.

"But I don't do it for the monetary value. These are some of the best guys who ever played the game, and to think they stopped to sign some kid's ball, that's pretty awesome.''

Armando DiLorenzo, who long ago had grown to understand this American creation known as baseball, had hoped to take his grandson back to Italy, to see the village where his mother was born. They made plans to go back in the off-season of 2005, then again in 2006. Both times, Chris Iannetta had to cancel; the Rockies had ordered him to winter development league.

DiLorenzo died in 2007. Virgilio Iannetta died the following year. Chris Iannetta has yet to visit Italy. But before his grandfathers died, both got to turn on their TV sets and watch Iannetta play in the big leagues.

And Sunday night, first-generation Americans Maria and Domenic Iannetta were watching, too.

"What an honor,'' Maria Iannetta said. "You can't imagine what this means to Chris, and to us.''