Baseball is truly a global sport.
Fifty-seven different countries outside of the United States have sent a player to the Major Leagues, making baseball easily the most ethnically diverse of American major sports. Every big league team positions scouts around the world, leaving no stone unturned globally in the search for talented ballplayers. Multiple countries around the world have sent hundreds of players to Major and Minor League rosters.
Italy is not one of those countries. At least, not yet.
Despite the success of numerous players of Italian descent (Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Craig Biggio, Roy Campanella, Mike Piazza to name a notable few Italian-American ballplayers), the game has never found popularity within Italy. Only seven players born in the country have ever played a game in the Major Leagues. Just one of those, Alex Liddi of the Mariners, actually grew up in Italy.
Dunedin Blue Jays catcher Alberto Mineo hopes to change that.
Born and raised in Gorizia, Italy, a town of just over 35,000 in the northeastern corner of the country near the border with Slovenia, Mineo has taken the scenic route to Dunedin Stadium.
"I used to play soccer. I started playing soccer when I was five. But, my dad used to play in the Italian Baseball League. One day, he asked if I wanted to go watch a practice. I went, and the next day I was practicing," Mineo said of his beginnings in the game. "I was lucky because in my hometown, baseball is actually pretty famous. It's a big city for baseball even though it's a small town. We had a field and I was always able to go there and practice."
Despite growing up in a town with a ball diamond, finding other kids his age to play with him was always a challenge.
"I've always been the only guy in my classroom that played baseball," Mineo said. "It's one of the last sports. It's very small."
Because so few kids play the game in Italy, finding stores that carried equipment also posed challenges for Mineo growing up.
"For equipment, you have to go online and get it from the United States and ship it."
Although he was the only student in his class that played the game, he stuck with it. When he was 14, he stopped playing soccer and focused on baseball full-time. Soon after, he was rewarded with the opportunity to try out for the MLB Europe Academy.
"The European Academy is just like a camp that goes the whole month of August. It's where the scouts go. I was 15 when I got invited to play at the Academy and I played there when I was 15 and 16."
Playing alongside players from countries across Europe, Mineo's skills behind the plate caught the attention of the Chicago Cubs area scout Bill Holmberg, who had watched Mineo work with pitchers while serving as the pitching coach for the Italian National Team. He offered Mineo a contract and a plane ticket to Australia to gain experience playing in the Australian Baseball League.
Australia was just one of the many flights Mineo would take early in his career.
"My first two years, I went to Spring Training with the Cubs for 2 weeks and then went back home to finish school. Then I'd come back in June for the season."
He continued this routine, flying to the United States for Spring Training, flying back home to attend high school, and then turning around and returning to America to play more ball until 2013 when he graduated.
"It took me a little bit to get comfortable. It was a little bit difficult," Mineo said of his first summers in the United States. "The food, of course, I wasn't used to it. Baseball-wise, the game was just so much of a higher level."
Developmentally, he was behind his counterparts in the United States and struggled early in his career. In 2012, his debut in America, he hit just .157 in the Arizona League (Rookie). The next year, his average crawled up to .222. He hit .241 in 2014, his third year in the Arizona League, but saw his average fall back down to .200 in 2015 in his A-ball debut.
He made strides in 2016, his first season in full-season ball, hitting .243, but still averaged more than a strikeout per game at the plate. The rigors of a full season of baseball were difficult to adjust to.
"In a season [in Italy], we'd play 40 games. It was hard. But, once you get to know your body better and what your body needs to recover, it gets easier. The good thing, playing a lot, is that you can get in a good rhythm. It's hard for a part, but easier on the other side."
In the off-season, he knew he had to get better offensively. Even though he was well-regarded with his glove, he would have to improve at the plate to reach the majors.
"I worked a lot with the coaches, especially on my hitting. That was the thing I really needed to work on at the time."
His hard work paid off. In 2017, his batting average jumped over 40 points to .278. His on-base percentage climbed even more dramatically, from .291 to a strong .374 as he cut down on strikeouts and took more walks.
"Last year was my first year I really got a lot of at-bats and the chance to play every day. That really helped me, because I was able to make adjustments from day to day."
Seeing his improvement, the Cubs offered him a Minor League contract extension in the off-season. However, the Cubs weren't the only team that was impressed with his play.
"I go back to Italy in the off-season. I was actually hitting in the cage and I see a call from Chicago. I thought, "Wow, that's weird" so I picked it up. It was a guy from the Cubs saying "Hey, the Blue Jays picked you up in the Rule 5 Draft." About five minutes later, Gil Kim [Blue Jays Director of Player Development] called me. My legs were actually shaking for a little bit because it was so crazy."
Thanks to all of the moving around he did early in his career, Mineo was prepared to quickly acclimate to his new home in the Blue Jays organization and his new teammates.
"It was like my first year all over again. I was lucky, because in South Bend, we'd played against Lansing so I knew some of the guys. It was crazy getting to know all the guys all over again. It's been fun and didn't take too long because the guys here are great teammates. That made it easy."
One thing that has helped him adjust and make friends quicker is his ability to speak multiple languages, allowing him to fit in seamlessly both with English-speaking and Spanish-speaking teammates.
"I speak Italian, Spanish, and English. Spanish is similar to Italian. I was listening to the Latin players talking and I could pick up words here and there. So, I started hanging out with them, and that's how I learned it. It helps a lot as a catcher."
Entering the 2018 season, Mineo recognizes the opportunity he has to make history for his home country. Currently, he can count on one hand the number of Italian-born players in affiliated baseball, a number that he hopes will increase as more players have success in the game.
"It makes it even more exciting for me to work harder and harder every day and try to make it and represent my country at the highest level of baseball in the world."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.