BOISE -- The World Baseball Classic was such a terrific experience for Alessandro Maestri that when the event returns in 2009, he wants another opportunity to pitch against some of the best hitters in the universe.
But for the time being, competing against players closer to his age and experience in the Class A Northwest League must suffice.
A little more than six months have passed since the 21-year-old Boise Hawks reliever stood on the pitching mound at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Fla., his nerves a little too jumpy for his own good.
"I wasn't sure I belonged in that kind of competition," he said in retrospect. "It was too big for me, but it was a lot of fun -- and my confidence is a lot higher now because of that experience."
Six months isn't quite long enough to erase some of the rough times Maestri had during the Classic, like the first-pitch home run he surrendered to Moises Alou, the first batter he faced in Italy's swan-song game against the Dominican Republic, or the wild pitch that scored a run in a game against Venezuela.
As for the ball Alou airmailed into the Florida breeze, Maestri (known as "Maestro" to his Hawks teammates), "It was a sinker that was supposed to be low and inside. It wasn't low or inside enough."
Maestri shakes his head in apparent disgust, but a smile returns when he discusses the ground ball that Adrian Beltre hit to the Italy shortstop, who made a good play on the ball and recorded the second out of the inning -- Maestri's final out in the Classic.
Maestri bid adieu to most of his World Baseball Classic teammates after that game, received cell phone numbers from some of them -- including catcher Mike Piazza -- and reported to the Chicago Cubs Minor League complex in Mesa, Ariz., to pursue his career five months after signing his first pro contract.
How far he eventually gets no one knows, but Maestri said his Classic memories will last forever and hopes to add a lot more along the way.
"I got to pitch in two of the three games we played, and it was the best 10 days I have spent in baseball," he said. "There was a new experience every day, and it was something I'll never forget."
When asked to name the ultimate highlight, Maestri quickly pointed to a team "meeting" orchestrated by former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda -- the World Baseball Classic goodwill ambassador -- prior to Italy's game against Venezuela.
"It was something right out of the movies," Maestri said. "Everyone knew we weren't going to win. But he came in and told us that no one thought the [USA] team that he took to the Olympics [in Sydney, Australia] had a chance of beating Cuba.
"He told us that team played as a team and won the gold medal. He said the same thing could happen to us if we played as a team."
They did, but didn't.
Italy lost a 6-0 decision to Venezuela and was eliminated from the Classic the following day, dropping an 8-3 decision to the Dominican Republic. Italy did, however, beat Australia, 10-0.
The next Olympic Games, scheduled for 2008 in Beijing, China, ranks high on Maestri's want-to-do list, along with the next World Baseball Classic. But most of all, he wants to pitch in the Major Leagues.
The distance from Boise to any big-league park is a long way, but Hawks pitching coach David Rosario said Maestri already has built a solid foundation for becoming a Major League reliever.
"He throws strikes, has a quality breaking ball [slider], and his fastball is pretty good, in the 88-92 range, with movement," Rosario said. "So he already has two good pitches that he can use to get ground balls, and now it's a matter of him getting to the point where he can correct himself mechanically from pitch-to-pitch when he's on the mound.
"All good pitchers have the ability to have total concentration and adjust. A lot of kids at this level lose their concentration and I've been impressed with the way he stays focused. He has shown us a lot of determination and is a quick learner."
After his first 11 appearances for the Hawks, Maestri had a 3-2 record and 2.63 ERA in 24 innings. His 21 strikeouts and eight walks indicate the fondness he has for the strike zone, although a strike he threw to Salem-Keizer's Adam Witter in the ninth inning last Friday night got way too much of the strike zone, resulting in a game-deciding two-run home run, only the second home run off Maestri this season.
"There was a runner on base with nobody out in a tie game, and I thought he would be bunting, so I threw him a fastball in the strike zone. He crushed it," Maestri said. "He hit it a long way, kind of into those trees you see behind the fence out there in right-center."
He regrouped and retired the next three batters.
So what is a kid from soccer-crazed Italy doing playing baseball?
"I played soccer until I was about 6," he recalled. "My older brother, Francesco, played baseball and I always did what he did, so I became a baseball player."
Alessandro initially was a second baseman, began pitching at age 16 and became good enough to represent his country in European tournaments, tossing a no-hitter against Holland in one event.
Scouts began watching him and, when he was 18, Maestri said he started thinking that he might be good enough to have a baseball career. His dream became even more realistic when the Cubs signed him in November 2005 and several months later when he earned a spot on Italy's World Baseball Classic team.
"Most of our national team went to a tryout camp in Lakeland [Fla.] and much to my surprise, I made the team."
His older brother is now a lifeguard near their Viserba, Italy. "I have a better job, but he sees more girls," Maestri said, smiling.
Besides that, Alessandro received a phone call the other day -- from Mike Piazza.
"That was cool," Maestri said. "He asked how I was doing and told me he was probably going to go to Italy on vacation after the season."
As much as baseball pretty much consumes his life now, Maestri hasn't totally forgotten about soccer.
He was in Yakima with the Hawks when Italy won the World Cup on July 9.
"He was pretty excited," Rosario said. "He was jumping up and down on his hotel bed."
Well, at least he didn't head-butt anyone.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com.