When Rick Waits arrived in Italy in March 1987 to join the Rimini Pirates baseball club, the team held a press conference to introduce its new American pitcher. With the help of a translator, local journalists asked questions they hoped would make Waits, a former major leaguer, feel welcome. Then a reporter from Bologna, the home of the Pirates' traditional rivals, rose from his seat. "I heard you came over here," the reporter said, "because your arm is bad and you are too old."
The 34-year-old Waits seemed startled by the question. He paused and said. "My arm is not hurt, and as for my age, well. I have heard that drinking the Sangiovese wine keeps you young."
The reporter from Bologna smiled. He was surprised that Waits would know something of the region's wines.
For most Americans, playing baseball in Italy is one year of being a big fish in a little pond. In Italy the pitches don't curve the way they do Stateside, and games don't fill every date on the calendar. In the words of one of the 19 U.S. ballplayers who are on Italian teams this season, "This is like a vacation." Out of the side of his mouth he added, "Don't tell my manager."
Waits needn't worry that his manager will find out how much he likes playing in Italy. He is the manager. He pitched and was an unofficial pitching coach during the '87 season, in which Rimini won the national title. Then midway through his second year in Rimini, he went from being player-coach to being player-manager and led the team to a second national championship. This year, with Waits again at the helm and on the mound, Rimini was in the semifinals of the playoffs as SI went to press.
In his 12 years in the American League, Waits never came close to playing for a championship team. He was signed by the Washington Senators in 1970, played briefly for the Texas Rangers and was a solid starter for the Cleveland Indians for 8½ years. Perhaps his best season was 1978, when he had 13 wins and a 3.20 ERA, sang the national anthem before two games and, in the season finale, beat the New York Yankees 9-2 to force a playoff between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox to decide the American League East title. In 1979 he won a career-high 16 games, but during his stint in Cleveland, the Indians never finished higher than fourth in the AL East.
After being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1983, he injured his shoulder and was sent down to the Brewers' Triple A club in Vancouver. He was shuttled back and forth over the next two seasons, and he spent all of 1986 in Vancouver before being released at age 34. "I've got thousands of innings left in this arm," Waits thought, and he began searching for a place to prove it.
Waits had learned a little about Italian baseball from Rich Olsen, who had also pitched in Vancouver and was playing for Grosseto, another team in the Italian league. He made a few calls, consulted other friends and found a receptive ear in Rimini. In the spring of '87, without knowing a soul, he packed his bags and made the trip. His wife, Annie, and their three children followed in May. "We only intended to come over for one season."
With a 15-5 record and a 1.59 ERA, Waits led the Pirates to the league title, defeating Grosseto in the championship series. He was so delighted to finally be on a championship team that he signed up for another year with Rimini, and in June '88, with half the season gone, the Pirates' manager resigned. The team owner talked Waits into becoming a player-manager.
In his first game, Rimini squandered an eight-run lead and lost 11-10 to Milan. However, he won 14 games and finished with a 1.87 ERA, and Rimini defeated Nettuno in the championship series. Says Waits of his managerial approach, "I started trying to stress the old 'We are family' thing, the way the Pittsburgh Pirates did, but I have always been that way. I never really had that sense of family when I played for Cleveland."
On a summer Sunday, after a series in Milan, Waits strolls along the cobblestone streets of Sant' Arcangelo di Romagna, 12 kilometers from Rimini. With him are Annie and their children; a first-year American player for Rimini, shortstop Thad Reece; and Reece's wife, Karen. They are indulging in a popular Italian custom, a predinner passeggiatta, or "leisurely walk."
On the main street of Sant' Arcangelo, Rick and Thad pause and look up at a second-floor balcony in front of a pair of French windows. "Succi!" yells Reece, cupping his hands in front of his mouth and calling out the surname of his teammate Andrea Succi.
Succi is a .300-hitting leftfielder by night and an architect and a movie set designer by day. Most of the Italian players have day jobs. For them, baseball is more of a hobby than a profession. Succi isn't home, so the passeggiatta continues.
Before long the party arrives at a restaurant called Da Lazaroun, where Rick orders in grammatically sound Italian but with a distinctly American accent. He raises a glass of Sangiovese wine. The green bottle has no label, and he explains that the restaurants in that part of northern Italy grow their own grapes and make their own wines. Perhaps the legend of the Sangiovese is true. Rick does look younger than 37. Two nights earlier, in the opener at Milan, he must have felt like a rookie. His pitching counterpart was 46-year-old Carlo Passarotto.
The Milan game was fairly standard for Italian baseball. Fans were slow to arrive at the 2,000-seat stadium at the Centro Sportivo J.F. Kennedy on the outskirts of town. Television cameras were present, and the game would be broadcast nationally the following Monday. When Passarotto threw his first pitch, fewer than 30 fans were in the concrete stands.
In the top of the first the Pirates, who are also called Ronson-Lenoir after their sponsors, who make cigarette lighters and stereos, respectively, took a 3-0 lead. Reece, the "nuovo Americano," as the public-address announcer called him, scored the first run. Reece, who's short, scrappy and towheaded, looks younger than his 30 years. He has played professionally since he was 19, never rising above Triple A.
Reece is typical of the U.S. players in Italy. Though the money doesn't approach that paid to American basketball players in Italy, for the minor league baseball player the lire can be attractive. "A kid who's playing Double A ball in the States is only making $1,500 to $2,000 a month," says Waits. "He would come over for the money because he's got a chance to make between $2,000 and $3,500 a month, plus expenses. They give you a car. They pay for your apartment and the trip for your family both ways."
Waits, on the other hand, is not the average U.S. player. He won't say how much he makes, but the maximum an American can earn is around $50,000. For Waits, who signed a three-year guaranteed $1.2 million contract with Cleveland in 1982, the salary is not the primary reason he's in Italy. This year the total cost of educating his two elder children at a private American school in Rimini comes to $14,000. From time to time Waits has to dip into his savings in the States.
The schedule, however, is less grueling than in the U.S. minor leagues. Italian teams play only on weekends, usually a night game on Friday and a double-header on Saturday. "When they told me I only had to pitch once a week," says Waits, "that was my dream." Still, the light schedule has its drawbacks. "It takes somebody who's patient and who has an interest in culture," he says. "If you're just going to come here to play ball, you'll go nuts. There's not enough baseball."
In the bottom of the first against Milan, Waits allowed a couple of hits and a run, but he looked strong, blowing a good fastball by batters and throwing one curve that broke so drastically that the hitter flailed at it and lost his bat. In the fourth inning, Waits gave up a single. Cries of support from the crowd—"Bello, bello!" ("Beautiful, beautiful!") and "Forza, Milano!" ("Strength, Milan!")—faded as the next hitter popped up in front of the plate. Waits skipped off the mound and caught the ball for the out. The next batter hit into a routine double play.
After pitching to one hitter in the bottom of the fifth, Waits took himself out of the game. In 4⅓ innings he gave up five hits and one run. He was saving himself for the European Cup, which would be held in Barcelona the next week (and which Italy would win by beating Holland in the final). He handed the ball over to 27-year-old Paolo Ceccaroli.
Going into the ninth, Rimini led 6-3. Almost unnoticed, Milan had crept back into the game, with Passarotto allowing only one hit since the third inning. But Passarotto's junk-ball magic didn't last. Rimini's first three batters all got hits and knocked him out of the box. Passarotto received a round of applause, and Rimini added one more run. Milan came up for the last time.
With one out Raoul Pasotto hit a bloop single to rightfield that the P.A. announcer described as "una battuta di Texas League." Another hit and a walk loaded the bases. Ceccaroli bore down and struck out a pinch hitter for the second out. Next up was Marco Fraschetti, a catcher who was hitting .321 and was second on his team in RBIs. With two strikes on Fraschetti, Ceccaroli delivered a pitch that looked like it would be so far inside that Fraschetti leaned back to avoid it, lost his balance and dropped to his knees with the bat on his shoulder. However, the pitch broke over the plate, and the umpire called Fraschetti out. "A good curveball isn't something they see," Waits had said before the game. Waits didn't throw this one, but he taught it.
The teams met in the infield and shook hands before heading to their locker rooms. The Americans from both sides lingered to talk long after the Italian players had left the field. "That's the only time we get to see the players," says Waits. "I want to make sure they're O.K. and check if there's any way I can help. Being a manager gives you a little more pull than the average player."
He may have more pull, but Waits's life-style in Italy is by no means opulent, despite reports in the U.S. that he lives in a seaside villa complete with a wine cellar. Truth is, the five Waitses occupy a three-bedroom flat on the second floor of a modest building in Rivabella di Rimini, just outside Rimini proper. In the summer Rimini is Italy's busiest resort on the Adriatic, with sun worshipers lying shoulder to shoulder along its beaches and peddlers stepping carefully between them to hawk sunglasses, coconuts and trinkets. The Waitses' apartment is perhaps 50 meters from the beach, but their view of the ocean is blocked by a building across the street. The wine cellar consists of a basement in which Rick stores about 10 to 12 cases.
The family will likely return to the U.S. for good at the end of this season. Waits hopes to stay in the game. The Waitses have recently moved from Tucson to Liberty, Mo., outside of Kansas City, and Waits might look into coaching opportunities with the K.C. Royals. He also admires the Brewers but says, "My dream organization is the Red Sox." One thing that might bring Waits back to Italy would be a chance to help coach the Italian Olympic team for the 1992 Games. Another would be receiving an offer to manage exclusively.
But on a Monday morning in summer, Waits isn't thinking much beyond the cup of coffee in his hand and the Neapolitan songs that Pavarotti is singing on the stereo. "Una ripresa alla volta" ("One inning at a time") is what Waits tells his players. He's following his own counsel.
Jay Jennings is a former reporter for "Sports Illustrated."