Originally created 11/20/02

Piazza connects with his Italian roots

ROME -- In soccer-crazed Italy, Mike Piazza is a virtual unknown.

Still, more than 200 kids - many wearing New York Mets caps - turned up for an impromptu home run demonstration Tuesday by the star catcher, who is making a first trip to his ancestral homeland.

Piazza also offered batting and fielding tips in a clinic for 30 children, part of his final stop on a tour sponsored by major league baseball to attract new fans in Europe. He led a similar clinic in Berlin last week.

The family of Piazza's father comes from the Sicilian town of Sciacca. Though the catcher doesn't speak Italian, he had no trouble communicating with a series of hand gestures any Italian could understand.

"Being Italian-American in New York, we're very proud of our heritage," he said. "It's something I have great pride in, and I'm a little emotional, knowing how proud my father and grandfather would be if they could see me here."

Clive Russell, a baseball official directing the tour, said the trip aims to help generate an increased international following for the sport.

"We're looking at bringing the game to 9- and 12-year-olds so they develop an appreciation of the game early on," he said.

Piazza added that he hoped the trip would not only create new fans but also new players for the major leagues and Italy's national team.

"For years I've been joking with a bunch of my colleagues - Craig Biggio, John Franco - about getting our families to get Italian passports so we can play for the Italian Olympic team," Piazza said.

Piazza may have gotten as close as he'll ever get to achieving that goal Tuesday, when Italian baseball officials presented him with an honorary jersey from their national team.

After posing for pictures with the jersey, Piazza put on his Mets uniform and headed to the Colosseum for a photo shoot. On Wednesday, he planned to attend the pope's weekly audience for the public before heading home.

"I hope there aren't any New Yorkers here," Piazza's agent Dan Lozano said as they walked toward the Colosseum. "They'd probably say: 'Hey Mike, why aren't you in the gym?"'


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