Italians and Villagers find baseball is universal

[/media-credit] Members of The Villagers and the Italian Dream teams recently met for an “intercontinental” game at J.J. Walker Field. Photo by Tim Stewart 

BY TIM LALUMIA  |  On Fri., June 22, under foreboding skies, The Villagers — the Greenwich Village Little League Tournament Team (ages 11 and 12) — hosted the Italian Dream in a historic matchup.

It all started with a blind e-mail about a month ago from an Italian organizer of “Baseball on the Road” — an all-star Little League team from many cities in Northern Italy, who were also playing games in Boston and Philadelphia. G.V.L.L. board members, coaches, parents and other volunteers across the Village community (including from P3 and the Downtown United Soccer Club) sprung into action, delivering if not a “perfect game,” a deeply heart-warming experience.

The historic meeting was spearheaded by Greg Epstein, a longtime G.V.L.L. coach, manager and board member. The effort was also supported by dozens of others who jumped in, to plan not just the game and its touching pregame pomp and circumstance, but a celebration afterward. The nearly 50 Italian players, parents, coaches and organizers also needed help getting into the city, and then finding their way around during their stay.

We can only marvel at the tenacity of this group of travelers who, with very limited English language, carried out their international adventure that touched so many, and by the end, punctuated it all with big hugs for tons of new friends and voluminous “both cheek” kisses.

The Italian squad had to deal with linguistically challenging G.P.S. devices, aggressive, ticket-happy Jersey cops and lost vans. The game saw a deluge of biblical proportions in the bottom of the first inning. Despite it all, this show went on and will not be forgotten any time soon.

The 6 p.m. game time arrived. The field was immaculately groomed, banners were flying amidst American and Italian flags, and there was a pregame ceremony worthy of TV coverage, which the Italian organizers really did set up: This matchup was broadcast live, via the Internet.

One by one, the players were introduced over the P.A., trotting out in their crisp uniforms, lining up along the first and third baselines. The packed crowd exploded in cheers after both country’s national anthems were touchingly performed at home plate on violin and recorder by two of the Italian players.

With black clouds gathering and light fading, the first pitch was thrown in by toddler Silvia Verona, accompanied by her dad Brad Hoylman, former Community Board 2 chairperson and current state Senate candidate.

The “second” first pitch was tossed by G.V.L.L. President John Economou, and the game began.

Sadly, after only three-quarters of an inning, with the home team leading 1-0, lightning, thunder and a torrent from above abruptly ended the game.

Afterward, more than 100 gathered at the local Korean eatery BAK, at 11 W. 12th St., for a beautiful outpouring of newfound friendship, food, beverages and baseball. Players who could barely communicate shared the international language of sliders, tacos and soda, plus a naughty ice cube fight, while together watching the Yanks/Mets game on the giant screen. The coaches and other adults poured beers for each other and “talked” broken English/Italian baseball.

Since nothing can stop that which is meant to be, play resumed Sunday morning with a score of 0-0. G.V.L.L. Vice President Carin Ehrenberg proudly noted, “As a gesture of good sportsmanship, the Villager players decided to erase the previous 1-0 lead, and start over.”

A hard-fought game ensued.

The Italian Dream took an early lead, 2-0, but The Villagers eventually won by a score of 8-4. The victory was highlighted by the big bats of Will Tibbals — who doubled in the fourth, driving in RBIs to take the lead — and a towering, three-run homer by Donavan Brady to secure the win in the fifth inning.

Despite terrific action-packed play by both teams, the climax of the entire effort really came in the fifth inning, when The Villagers’ pitcher, Ethan Ehrenberg, moved in close, and with a giant grin, pitched meatballs to three Italian 7-year-old, siblings. The home team defense were all in on it, and gently tossed the ball around behind the runners, allowing the kids to hit and round the bases for three runs (which weren’t counted.) The international crowd quickly caught on and roared with delight at the display of sportsmanship and camaraderie.

Everyone gathered on the diamond afterward to exchange gifts and specially made T-shirts for the occasion, and to take group photos, capping off a magical experience for all.

Later, an inspired G.V.L.L. President Economou said, “This wonderful international collaboration has created a bond that will hopefully lead to future visits from the Italians, possibly other teams…and who knows.”

With all this good will, it seems likely that sometime in coming years G.V.L.L. will take its bats and gloves across the pond to remind them how our game is played. Stay tuned.

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