When Mario Balotelli headed Italy into a second-half lead over England at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Italians around the globe rejoiced. That included Alessandro “Alex” Maestri, an Italian relief pitcher for the Orix Buffaloes who was watching in Osaka and had a game to suit up for later in the day.
Italy-England began at 7 a.m. Sunday morning in Japan, and Maestri was due at Kyocera Dome a few hours before the scheduled 2 p.m. start of Orix’s game against the Chunichi Dragons. That gave him just enough time to watch the Azzurri’s 2-1 win with two Italian friends that morning, then head to the ballpark and throw a scoreless ninth inning against Chunichi that afternoon.
“Woke up at six that day,” Maestri said Tuesday at Tokyo Dome. “I went to bed early because I knew the game was early. We (Orix) had a day game, so I was going to wake up early anyway. Just a little earlier.”
Maestri is a professional baseball player now, but he grew up watching soccer in Italy. He lists Italian stalwart Andrea Pirlo as his favorite player and still harbors a passion for the ‘Beautiful Game.’
A passion for watching it, that is, not so much playing it.
“I played when I was five years old,” he said. “That was the only year I played. Then I started playing baseball. I play soccer with my friends sometimes. I like it, but baseball is my thing.”
A smile played out across the 28-year-old’s face as he spoke about the win over England, but he remained even-keeled about Italy’s chances at claiming the World Cup.
“You never know,” he said. “Maybe they can go far. I don’t know if they’re going to win it. You never know what happens.”
If the pieces fall the right way, Japan could be one of the teams blocking the Italians’ path.
Maestri smiled at that thought, and joked that his teammates already know he’ll be flying the Italian flag if it comes to that.
“I think Japan is actually a pretty good team too,” Maestri said. “(Alberto) Zaccheroni, an Italian guy, is the manager. I like to watch Japan. Actually, I was watching the game the other day. I was hoping they were gonna win.”
He was referring to Japan’s opening match against Cote d’Ivoire. Keisuke Honda scored early for Samurai Blue, but the Ivorians stormed back with two goals in the second half of a 2-1 win.
“It happens,” Maestri said. “In the first game, it happens. They started well. Then (Didier) Drogba came in and kind of gave some motivation to his team.”
Soccer is called the global game by many, but it’s baseball that’s taken Maestri around the world.
Maestri was born in 1985 in Cesena, Italy. The city has a long history that includes being the birthplace of two popes as well as the home of the Malatestiana Library, thought to be the first public library in Europe. It’s also the base for Italian soccer team A.C. Cesena, the club Japan national team defender Yuto Nagatomo signed with in 2010 while on loan from F.C. Tokyo. Nagatomo now plays for Maestri’s favorite club team, Inter Milan.
Maestri played youth baseball nearby in the Torre Pedrera Baseball Club, and in 2005 he joined San Marino Baseball Club in the Italian Baseball League. Before long, Bill Holmberg, who works with the Chicago Cubs and is the Italian national team pitching coach, took notice. Holmberg helped Maestri sign with the Cubs in 2006, making him the first Italian-born pitcher to sign with a MLB club.
Maestri spent five years in the Cubs organization, making it as high as Double-A. He was released by the Cubs in 2011 and signed with the Lincoln Saltdogs, an independent team in the U.S. based in Nebraska. He also played for the Brisbane Bandits in the Australian Baseball League that winter.
He had a very brief return to Italy with Rimini Baseball Club of the Italian Baseball League in 2012, but by March was with the Kagawa Olive Guyners in the Shikoku Island League. That too was a short stay, as he signed with the Buffaloes in July of that year.
Maestri has also pitched at the international level for Italy, including in all three editions of the World Baseball Classic.
“It’s a great feeling to play for your country,” he said. “There is some pressure, but it’s a great experience. I think people just enjoy it a lot, and they all try to give their best.”
Italy’s next World Cup match will be broadcast in Japan early Saturday morning. The Buffaloes have an early game that day, and Maestri is already going over his options.
“We have a day game,” he said. “They play at one in the morning. I’ll try to maybe sleep during the day or something so I can get some sleep.”