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VICENZA, Italy — It’s nowhere nearly as popular as soccer. Or even that other American sports export, basketball. But there are Italians who play baseball. And they’re doing so every weekend around northeastern Italy.

Americans linked to the U.S. military community at Caserma Ederle are joining in on every level. There’s a group of 10- to 12-year-old Americans playing in an Italian Little League. Also, a half-dozen Americans play for the Vicenza Steelers, a team in the C2 regional league. And two U.S. citizens are members of the Palladio Baseball Club that participates in the C1 league, the region’s best.

"It’s good community relations and we probably don’t do enough of that," said Chris Beane, assistant principal at Vicenza High School and one of the two American players on the Palladio club.

And it’s generally kind of fun.

"Love of the game," said 45-year-old Peter Huller on why he’s playing for the Steelers. "It’s plain and simple. I’ve been playing baseball since I was 4 years old."

Jack Buffington, who will be a senior at Vicenza High School this fall, is the other American on the Palladio club.

"It’s not that big of a deal," Buffington, an All-Europe first-team selection during the DODDS season, said of playing with Beane. "The only awkward part is when everyone else is calling him Chris and I’m calling him Mr. Beane."

Buffington, 17, has been playing for Palladio clubs on and off for about a decade. Like most other Americans in Italian baseball leagues, he can switch back and forth between languages as easily as switching positions on the field. Some terms, such as "strike" and "bunt" are carried over from English. But others have been translated.

Like most sports in Italy, baseball has two national leagues: Serie A, the top league, and Serie B. There are also several regional leagues, including C1. The C1 champion at the end of the season can choose to play in the Serie B league the next season.

Palladio, which plays in Pomari Stadium in western Vicenza, isn’t close to doing that. An 8-3 victory over Bolzano two weekends ago left them with a record of 5 wins and 4 losses. Beane, playing left field and hitting cleanup, drove in one of those runs in his final at-bat.

The 36-year-old said he’s somewhat surprised to still be playing baseball. He played in college, but an injury sidelined him for 12 years.

"I came over to Vicenza and thought I’d play some softball," he said. "But the guys on base were deployed. So no softball. And someone said, why don’t you play baseball? I still have a little game, I guess."

There weren’t more than a few dozen fans in the stadium to catch the game with Bolzano, even though it’s hard to argue with the entertainment value. Admission is free. The stadium, minus seats, could pass for a minor-league baseball facility. The quality of play is probably somewhere between high school and college.

Luca Moro, a 40-year-old mechanic, didn’t start playing until he was in his mid-20s. He started following baseball in the States. The Mets are his favorite team and former Met Mike Piazza — who has Italian roots — is his favorite player.

"I love the sport," he said.

He also likes playing with Beane and Buffington.

"It’s a nice reality to have some Americans here to play with us," he said. "We have a lot of fun out here."

The C2 regional league is a step down both in terms of playing fields and those playing it. It doesn’t have restrictions on the number of foreigners allowed, so a handful of Americans play on the team, including Huller and his son, Jeremy.

Several were absent during a recent game in Pastrengo and the results showed on the scoreboard. The field is a bit hard to find and is surrounded by cornfields and grapes. And even fewer spectators were there.

Huller, who took the mound with the Steelers trailing by double digits, wasn’t complaining, though.

"They have a different approach to things," Huller said.

"They’re serious about it, but they still lack some of the fundamentals."

Little League, of course, is all about learning fundamentals. And the players, Americans and Italians, aren’t that different in terms of experience.

The Hurricanes, who play their home games on a small, well-maintained field abutting the Pomari Stadium, are essentially the Vicenza base’s traveling team. There are a few other teams on base in the same age bracket, but they generally play only one another.

The Hurricanes take on Italian teams. Manager Gene Catena said they’ve won a few more games than they’ve lost. But some of the competition is pretty good.

Moro said that’s because kids are playing baseball at an earlier age in Italy now. And the sport is gradually becoming more popular.

"It tripped me up when I first came here a few years ago," Catena said. "Italian baseball? But they do play here. And it’s almost like home."

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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