Padule Baseball. A story about searching for a little home while in Italy - and accidentally ending up in Bologna.
When it comes to sports, baseball holds a special place in my heart - one that can't be replaced by anything else. It's the first sport I played at the age of 4, and essentially what I did year round through my sophomore year in high school. As naive as it sounds, there was a stretch of time that I just figured that's what I'd be doing with my life. Obviously, that never happened. But it did end up taking me around Italy in search of a hat.
For a while now, I've been a bit curious about the baseball culture in Italy, especially considering the amount of quality Italian American players and managers there have been in the game. Late last year, I was back in Italy for another extended stretch, and at some point I decided that I needed to get myself an Italian baseball hat. When that proved a lot harder than I figured, it quickly became an obsession. In person, I could only find the occasional Los Angeles or New York New Era cap. Online, every search lead to another dead end. Feeling hopeless, I started throwing Hail Mary emails to the Italian Baseball Federation and any teams that were located somewhat near to anywhere I might be. Sometime later, the one reply I received was from the team closest to me at the moment - Padule Baseball, located in Sesto Fiorentino, about 15 minutes by train outside of Florence proper. The deal was, though, that I needed to show up to the stadium in person to purchase a hat. After a couple of more emails and a phone call later, I set up a time to meet to get my hat. I couldn't have been more excited to have finally tracked down my hat.
Flash forward a few days later, my wife and I are waiting for the train at the local station. 4:06PM was the arrival time, which seemed a bit specific, but whatever. A train rolls up at 4:05PM, we hop on, and take a seat. Something didn't feel right, though. I thought things looked a bit too nice for a local train. Before I could think any further, we start pulling out of the station. I look up again and now see that we're on a Venice bound high speed train. My heart suddenly drops into my stomach. How on earth did this just happen, I'm thinking? In between wanting to panic and hit the emergency stop button and just wanting to melt into my seat, the screen displays that the train will make one stop in Bologna - about 45 minutes away. I was able to breathe slightly easier. Once I accepted what was now my reality, I was able to think things through. If we could get an immediate high speed train back to Florence, we could get to Sesto Fiorentino only 30 minutes late - luckily we had left an hour early, so as not to be in a rush. Go figure.
About two hours later, we finally made it to Sesto Fiorentino. I couldn't stop thinking how I've put myself and my wife through all of this. Just for a baseball hat? There was really no point in looking backwards at that point, though. I messaged my contact Leonardo that we were at the stadium, and he couldn't have cared less that we were late. I apologize profusely, explaining what had happened. Totally cool, no big deal. Then it hits him, we really ended up in 105km aways by accident. He bursts into laughter in disbelief, and all we could do is join him. He attempts to feel for us, saying it's happened to him before, but you know - only a couple of local stops on the train, not a completely different region of the country. He then walks us into their office - which is located under the grandstand and sandwiched between the stadium's only restroom and locker room - and introduces us to a few more people, and proceeds to tell them all what happened to us. We all laugh some more. I could hardly make out much of what he told them, but it definitely sounded way more eventful in Italian.
Getting back to business, Leonardo sends for someone to get the hat for me. While waiting, we start talking baseball, and he apologizes to me for the Dodgers' second consecutive World Series loss. He tells me that he's once been to a game at Dodger Stadium, when he took his family on a trip to the States to visit a handful of stadiums. In that moment, I couldn't help but think how cool and weird this all was, I'm sure for the both of us. Two complete strangers in Italy, speaking broken English and Italian, having a moment over baseball. I was starting to think, maybe I came here for more than just a hat?
I shifted the conversation to Padule, wanting to know more about the team's story. He explains that his father, Romano, is who started the team in the late 70's - and still operating it to this day - and that his son is outside as we talk, training with their U-16 team. He mentioned that though they finished mid table in the previous season - the league is structured just like most of world football - that they'll be relegated to a lower division in the next season due to financial reasons. Their main sponsor had recently pulled out, and they could no longer afford to pay into the system to remain in the Serie A. He started explaining that in Italy, baseball is a poor person's sport. Almost non-existent when compared to the multi-billion dollar football industry in Italy. Hearing these words, and looking outside the window, it was such a stark contrast to baseball in the United States. "Baseball Money" took on a completely different meaning in my current geographic location, and honestly, I preferred it over what it meant back home.
Lost in my obsession over a hat, it hadn't occurred to me that this could end up being something worth documenting. Thankfully the day before, my wife told me to bring my camera bag with me just incase. I ended up asking Leonardo if I could photograph some of the kids practicing, and he was more than thrilled for me to do so, only warning us to watch out for the more-than-occasional stray baseball. Watching these kids practice - some not cleated up, and even some not kitted up - into the late weekday night, it brought back so many memories of my childhood. The dim lights, buzzing just enough to see the faded whites of the ball in the night. The crack of the bats coming from the batting cage, and the indistinguishable popping sound of the catcher's mitt from the bullpen. But in some strange way, it all felt so much more pure than anything I had experienced. Everything was so scrappy in all the right places. There was some strange foreigner pointing a camera at them, but all they saw was someone that was genuinely interested in what they were doing. There was one kid in particular - probably the scrappiest of them all - that kept trying to talk to me. He spoke just about zero English, and I attempted to speak some Italian with him, and we were getting absolutely nowhere, but it was all so perfect. Observing the coaches, you could tell with absolutely no doubt, that this was all a labor of love. There was one in particular that stood out to me. His Italian sounded very much like Caribbean Spanish. I wanted to know more about him and how he ended up outside of Florence coaching a youth team? It all just felt so right.
My experience playing baseball eventually became the exact opposite of this. Everything got so serious, so quickly, almost as if I let it become my childhood job. That night in Sesto Fiorentino, I found myself in some weird, strange space - recapturing some the best memories as a kid through my camera. Looking through the photos, I'll be the first to say that technically or atheistically, there's a lot left to be desired. But that's okay with me, if even just to convince myself that that goddamn baseball hat was worth it in the end.