Rubbing Shoulders with Baseball Royalty

Herts Raptors first baseman Glen Downer (right) with New York Mets and LA Dodgers legend Mike Piazza

Boarding the plane at Stansted Airport early on Friday 2nd March, Herts Raptors first baseman Glen Downer could hardly contain his excitement for what awaited him at the other end in Pisa, Italy. After winning a competition through ESPN America and MLB Europe to attend a baseball camp with ex MLB stars and MLB coaches, Glen reports on what was the trip of a lifetime for him…. 

After a short flight I arrived at Pisa airport to be greeted by the guys from ESPN America and MLB Europe, and off we went to my temporary home for the weekend, the MLB European Academy at the Italian Olympic Training Centre in Tirrenia just outside of Pisa. Upon arrival we were shown to our rooms before we met for a tour of the facility. The anticipation grew as we approached the baseball field, where we were met with a view of a beautiful looking well groomed diamond, with an outfield that stretched out all the way to the 410ft centre field fence! No chance of hitting the ball over that one then! We stood and watched the Belgian and Italian national teams train for a while, then everyone decided they could wait no longer to get stuck to some ball, so Dan, one of the MLB European Academy coaches, arranged for us to play a bit of casual softball on the adjacent field, which ended up turning into a full blown softball game! So much for taking it easy before the next day’s mammoth baseball training session! 

We were then summoned to the dining hall to meet the rest of our hosts, and the two people we were most looking forward to meeting, the stars themselves! First up was the Italian player Alessandro Maestri, a one time Minor League AA ball player from the Cubs organisation, he played in a couple of appearences for the Cubs and is currently playing in Japan in the hope of returning to America soon to continue in his career. Second to be introduced needed no introduction, Dodgers and Mets legend Mike Piazza!! A career .308 hitter, with 427 career HR, a 12 time All Star, and the second longest RBI game streak in the history of the game, this wasn’t just an ex player who’d spent some time in the show, it was nothing less than a baseball God!! This most definitely set the standard for the whole weekend. 

The next day we woke up to perfect baseball weather, a warm 17 degrees and sunny skies. After a short introduction we got going with a full on Major League style dynamic warm up, run by Alex Maestri. Well all I can say is it made the Herts Raptors warm ups look like a mere trot up the baseline to the fence and back! It certainly highlighted quite how fit these top players are, and why they need to go through such a warm up to keep themselves in shape and avoid injuries. After that was the normal game of catch progressing into long ball toss, where Mike Piazza, Alex Maestri and the MLB coaches educated us in the best way to throw a baseball; this was the first thing in the day that I realised I hadn’t been doing properly, and was most certainly not the last! After that were the infield drills, which were much the same as the drills we run at the club, fielding ground balls and tossing back; however there were still plenty of things to be learnt about body position, resulting in a much easier throw to base, and techniques that led to better glove control. 

After lunch we all reconvened for the part that I was looking forward to the most, the opportunity to face a pitcher throwing at big league speeds!! Alex Maestri was on the mound and was told not to take anything off, and he didn’t! Throwing fastballs reaching 87-88mph on estimation from the coaches, which is easily as fast as some pitchers in the Majors, you barely have time to think about swinging the bat, let alone spotting the location and trying to get some wood on the ball! After taking a few pitches to gauge the speed, and a few wafts at thin air, I finally heard the sound I was hoping for, that of baseball on wood bat; ok I only just managed to foul it off over the first base line, but that was good enough for me and I left the batting cage smiling, I’d managed to foul off a Major League speed pitch!! Ok, you might be thinking this is no incredible achievement, but bearing in mind we’re lucky to face pitching at above 50mph in A ball in the UK, facing something nearly twice as fast was really quite daunting! 

We then moved on to normal BP, with pitches at 60-65mph from the pitching machine. This was a little more familiar now, and Mike Piazza spent some time giving us hitting coaching (you don’t get many better batting coaches than that), I did Herts Baseball Club proud by managing to collect the most fair ball hits for the whole group, with Mr Piazza telling me that I had a good swing with plenty of power, so be proud of yourselves Herts Baseball coaches you’re clearly doing something right, compliments from Mike Piazza don’t come lightly! Then came the moment we’d pretty much all been waiting for, Mike Piazza stepped up into the batting cage to hit a few pitches. The quality of this man’s swing was immediately apparent, even though he’d not participated in any proper batting practice since leaving the bigs almost 5 years ago, it was pretty obvious this hadn’t really affected it! After a couple of spotting pitches he crushed a huge fly to right clearing the fence, to raptuous applause and cheers from the entire congregation! His lazy but incredibly powerful swing produced a few more huge hits that we were all scrabbling to try and catch, and it was over. After catching a few fly balls from the coaches to finish the day we all retired back to our rooms to get ready for an evening of celebration following such an amazing day. 

After one last game of softball the next morning to put a huge cherry on top of what had been an unbelievable weekend, with Mike Piazza as umpire, we all had our photo taken with him and made our way back to collect our things for departure. Enjoying a few beers in the airport waiting for the flight home I reflected on what I had just experienced. Not only had I made friends with a great bunch of people from all over europe, I’d been part of a once in a lifetime experience, being treated to coaching from baseball greats and some of the best coaches in the game. The whole weekend will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I can only hope that it has made me an even better player. I can’t wait to get going on the new season! PLAY BALL!!!

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