Ustica, gli anni del diamante (The Island of Baseball)

This movie has been possible thanks to numerous spontaneous donations collected through the Web. Without all of you, “Ustica – The Diamond Years”
would not exist. I can’t remember when I started playing baseball. I was very little. Back then in Ustica, everyone was playing baseball. See, that’s me with the blue cap. I’m learning the slide into base. Those are our Cuban coaches: Ismael from Havana and Pedro from Santa Clara. The one in the white T-shirt is our coach
from Ustica, Pino Caminita. In 1997, a tiny island with 1,000
inhabitants in Southern Italy had both a baseball and a softball team
in the Italian top league, Series A. Two of the female softball players from Ustica
played in the national team and a mysterious fever for this sport
had spread among the local population. Ustica was commonly known as the Island of Baseball. I bet you are wondering:
“How the hell is that possible?” Well, with this story you will find out that, sometimes, the strangest things happen right
in the most unthinkable places. In the 70s, Ustica is a small Sicilian island that lives off agriculture, fishing and,
during summer time, tourism. Our story begins by chance: the chance of the famous sport journalist
Bruno Beneck’s holiday in Ustica. During his stay on the island, Beneck meets the hotel manager Vito Ailara. Beneck came to Ustica in June 1971, when I was busy with the organization
of the local stage of the Youth Games. Those were the first Youth Games ever and the youth were very excited to compete
in official games for the first time. At that time, Bruno Beneck is also
the president of the Italian Baseball Federation and he notices with interest some young islanders who were playing, on the beach and around the village, games that were somehow familiar. We used to pick pebbles and throw them, sometimes we would aim at a target and then shoot. We used to play a game, “Four Corners”,
based on the idea of stealing a base. So we had four corners and shot to a target: we were playing baseball already. Being the good manager he was, Beneck saw
that I got along with the youth and he proposed me to play baseball. CHAPTER I – THE WINDMILL I knew nothing about baseball, other than the basic things you saw on TV, Joe DiMaggio… Anyhow, I accepted the offer. Honestly, I did it only as a courtesy to a guest who had been introduced to me by a dear friend. Less than a month after Beneck leaves the island, Vito Ailara receives a surprise. I received a big package with strange objects. There were baseball bats, balls and gloves. In the meantime, Beneck contacts
his colleague Vito Maggio from Palermo, the memorable regional president of the Federation, with the aim of involving him in the project at the island. He called me from Rome saying: “Vito get busy” – he used to say that – “We found some new players in Ustica” “In Ustica? Are you crazy?” “No no – he said – I have a good feeling about this”. So a coach, Gianni Sbarra, is sent to Ustica to teach the basics of this sport
to Vito Ailara and the young islanders. Meanwhile, Vito Ailara, together
with his friend Massimo Caserta, struggle to enroll the first young athletes. We had to form a team within a small community, 1,000 inhabitants, with few young people. Within a few weeks, a small group of Usticese kids becomes passionate about the new sport
and takes on gloves, bats and balls. At the end of the summer, around October
or November, I got a call from Bruno Beneck: “I’m happy with the work you’ve been doing and I’d like to invite your team
to the next Youth Games in Agrigento that will take place next February”. I was hoping that the invitation would be withdrawn, what a fool… I am one of those kids from Ustica that started playing baseball in the summer of 1971. We used to train on a field
that was a small ball court back then. In the early days, it felt like a pure miracle. As long as we only had to throw and catch the ball, this was familiar to us as we were used to the pebbles, but hitting the ball with the bat was incredibly satisfying in the beginning. We saw those kids training. Our first impression was:
“What are they doing? Are they crazy?” As soon as Vito Ailara saw us: “Come, come”, and I was immediately playing catcher,
without any helmet or gear. This is my first memory,
the first impact of this new world on me. Once a small baseball team was formed, Vito Ailara informs the boys of the possibility of travelling to Agrigento to play their first away game. That is when the true adventure started,
when we heard about the Youth Games. Established in 1969, the Youth Games
are Italian mini-Olympics, where students from 11 to 15 years of age
compete in the main sport disciplines. Before we went for the first rounds
of the Youth Games, in 1972, we set off for our debut. Everything was ready to receive us in Agrigento
and we were in deep trouble. We didn´t even have enough players to form a team. Anyhow, we had made it there and we had to keep going. Finally, we were off! The day of the departure a new kid joined us, he was so tiny they called him “Pino the runt”. And “Pino the runt” became the symbol of our departure. Upon their arrival in Palermo, Vito and the other
staff members start looking for the team uniform. At the Lattarini market, they buy white tracksuits
with embroidered shoulders and sew the numbers onto the jerseys manually. We islanders never had a lot of chances to travel, so that occasion got us immensely excited. Even today I am moved when I talk about it. You could not get out of Ustica in those days,
nobody took long trips, so travelling to Agrigento was an extraordinary journey for us. We arrived in Agrigento and got involved
in an extraordinary event. The “Blooming Almond Tree” is an event that still takes place nowadays every spring in Agrigento. In its 1972 edition, there are artists, journalists, TV… and of course the president
of the Baseball Federation, Bruno Beneck. We departed with this idea: “Let´s go guys
and whatever happens, happens”. I had learnt the rules for the batting order from Gianni Sbarra: First the smallest player, then a left-handed one, afterwards one who can control the ball and then the best batter in the team plays fourth. The game started: First to bat was “Pino the runt”. Four balls, base on balls. Second was left-handed Attilio.
Ball, ball, ball: base on balls. To sum up, we scored a run right away. Pino was the first one to score, then I scored, so we were ahead. That game may have somehow marked
the subsequent development of baseball in Ustica, because we won that game. We had left Ustica with no T-shirts, no equipment, not having played a single game in our lives, to play on an unknown field. Our excitement went sky-high! Our joy when we then phoned Ustica
was like a new world opening up to us. And we made the national news! SICILY: A GOLD MINE FOR OUR BASEBALL The news about a baseball team that was just born on a tiny island lost in the Mediterranean, which wins its first official game, make the local and national headlines. Great victory, great joy.
And that was when our problems started! Back in Ustica, I was not expecting
such a euphoric welcome. The schools were closed, everyone
was on the pier to welcome the champions who had beaten a team from a big city. The world was opening up to us. Parties, flags, tolling bells. We took part in a truly extraordinary collective joy. It was then that this beautiful journey started. The unexpected success unleashes within the boys and the whole Usticese community an enthusiasm that would soon become a true baseball fever. President Beneck, well aware
of the potential of the phenomenon, immediately sends another coach to Ustica, Uccio La Fauci, to prepare the team for the Youth Games. We managed to form two teams
and to start a small championship to increase our familiarity with competition, so that we would be well prepared for the Youth Games. The training sessions take place
on a small football dirt field, next to an old windmill and facing the sea. The ball nearly always ended up
on the neighbour´s land, which we ransacked. Retrieving the ball became an excuse
to collect some beans as well. After this little training and with nearly no idea about baseball, we found ourselves facing the Youth Games. That spring we moved on to serious business:
the Youth Games. Roosevelt baseball field, provincial stage. We played against a team from Palermo and won 16-0, becoming the champions of the province. In the beginning we were good,
but not technically good at all, we had only been training for a month and a half. But we had the inner strength
that is the winning attitude. We did not accept failure. We had to win. We didn´t care about how good we were,
we weren’t any good. But we were winning! THE USTICA BASEBALL AT THE SICILY CUP Beneck´s sole answer is to send
another coach to Ustica, Carmelo Riolo. Carmelo Riolo stayed for a month and prepared us for the regional stage of the Youth Games in Catania. A month later, we travelled to Catania to play against the teams from both Catania and Messina. Again we won both games relatively easily and became the regional champions. Who could hold us back?
We had gone crazy! Back in Ustica, the preparations for
the national stage in Pesaro start immediately. First of all, a uniform is needed, so a collection of donations
from neighbours and friends is announced. Every family had at least one member in the team, all this money was collected and we finally
had decent tracksuits and shoes. They had been to Agrigento, Catania and now Pesaro, the other world. It was the first time on a train for nearly all of them. We arrived in Pesaro, but we paid
for our inexperience in the decisive game. And we saw the other face of sport. We had played 4 official games and
we had always won, up until then. We did not know failure.
But when you face a stronger team, you lose. We only got the bronze medal. We were all wearing the medals around our necks
– managers, coaches and players – even at night. Our first experience with this sport,
only 3 months of training, We made it to the national finals
and ranked 3rd with the bronze medal. CHAPTER II – NO WAY BACK Their arrival to the island brings great joy
to all the population. The return coincides with the beginning
of the International Festival of Underwater Activities, where famous TV presenter Pippo Baudo
does not miss his chance to greet the team of young champions
that have just returned to the island. We were 10 or 11 years old,
we had never been away from Ustica. We were touring Sicily, we took trains, we took buses. Besides, we were going on the field with our caps
and our bats and we were winning. We had become champions! It marked us, it changed us. And every time we went back to Ustica
there was a great joy. This is when the Usticese adventure was born. This determination, this passion for baseball. Their national success attracts the attention of national TV, which films a documentary under
the evoking title “The Turtle Boys”, telling the story of this little island and this group of boys who prove themselves to the whole country
in a barely known sport. Then the TV arrived, along with our feeling of importance. That was such a phenomenon. In the big cities they have the technical staff,
the proper facilities to play. We had nothing there. And everything was born from nothing, because
we longed to stand out, to make our contribution, to show that we existed too. That group of 11 or 12 boys kept playing for some more years at the same initial pace, which was always and only victories. The success of “The Turtle Boys” pushes
other young Usticesi to start playing baseball. Several categories are formed within
the youth sector, according to the boys´ age, and the first team enrols in the C2 championship. Besides, more coaches are needed so two kids are entrusted with the preparation of the youngest team
for the Youth Games. I think it was mostly the fact
that we were given responsibility. For many years, we had followed the teams,
both me and my cousin Pino, so they made the right choice. In the subsequent years, the Usticese team confirms
its passion and talent for this sport, by qualifying for the national stage
of the Youth Games every time. In 1976, the team is accompanied by a coach
from the Federation, Roberto Buganè. Beneck called me into his office
and told me that Sicily, Ustica in particular, had won the regional finals of the Youth Games and had asked the support of a coach from the Federation to prepare at their best for the finals
that would take place in Bologna. I found an immense crowd of young people. I tried them right away and realized that they were missing some of the basics,
I worked on those. In particular, I realized that they had trouble
with catching fly balls. I was wondering why,
but the mystery was soon solved. The kids were playing on a small square in town every day. The square was really small and full of trees, so it was possible to play ground balls, like the ones you play in the diamond, but it was nearly impossible to play fly balls. But how is it possible that, in barely 5 years, a completely new team managed to succeed nationally in a barely known sport? We were so much into this new sport, so enthusiastic, that everything was easy for us. There weren´t many alternatives back then, so 5, 6, 7 generations were into baseball. The sport was probably easier to access
thanks to our games in the streets. That is, we were playing in the streets so in the end
we did well in any physical activity. We had learnt the sport first at the park,
then on the square, after that on the field. And we had been looking up
to that first generation of pioneers who were running around Sicily and succeeding in a sport that they didn’t know. Probably because it was a minor sport, we stood out because
not so many people were playing. Another reason definitely is that
we trained every day, often twice a day. The Federation invested in us, they sent coaches
and materials from the beginning. And also our great pluck, on the base we were a handful. We were always running away, stealing, risking. We slid feet-first, but very often we also
slid head-first, which was not common. I think what made us grow right away
was the structure of the club. The one that Vito Ailara set up by giving very precise roles
to the president, the helper, the coach. We had a town behind us that was pushing forward. Not only our families were pushing,
but also the whole town. And then definitely a virtuous circle linked to our victories. It is clear that starting off by winning
motivates you for the years to come! CHAPTER III – THE GREAT REJECTION Year after year, the Ustica Baseball Club
builds its exceptional sport history. In 1977, the team qualifies for the national stage of the Youth Games in Naples, with a new addition. We disembarked in Naples with
our new addition, Antonella Licciardi. A very energetic girl who had grown up with baseball. She was playing with the boys because she was good. She played with the boys as the other girls
were not at her level on the field. We made it to the end of the Games
and we won both the provincial and regional stages. We were candidates for the title, we were a strong team. In fact we made it to the finals for the gold medal against Conegliano Veneto. Protests from the opposing team. They pointed out that Ustica had a girl playing. According to the regulations, it was not possible.
Indeed, it was not possible. Never during the provincial or regional stages
had we ever had any problem. But in that moment the organizers upheld the rules and Antonella was disqualified. I can’t tell how much she cried! I remember perfectly that morning
when we were going to the field, the president sat next to me on the bus and told me that unfortunately the rules did not allow mixed teams, so I couldn’t play. Antonella was excluded from the team
while she was already there, because a girl couldn’t play, according to the rules. No words could comfort me, I cried endlessly. Unfortunately, we lost the final once again. During the medal ceremony
Antonella rejected her medal fiercely, arguing that she was not a player. I refused, crying, to take the medal
from president Beneck by blocking his hands. I told him I couldn’t accept that medal as long as girls were not allowed to play baseball. I remember president Beneck’s fatherly hug. The case remained open, Antonella´s case. It was later tackled by
the Italian National Olympic Committee, who set out rules allowing or forbidding
mixed teams for each sport. We didn’t win the gold medal, but we won
something more important, I believe. Soon after that, a TV team travels
to Ustica to cover Antonella´s case, reporting what had happened
and promoting female participation in sports like baseball. The reportage was broadcast
on the 20th of August 1977. Antonella always rejected the idea
of being one of the first feminists, even if, in those years, feminism was starting to grow and the role of women in society was discussed on a daily basis. That was a symbolic turning point and the journalist who reported on the case
understood its importance. She made his little contribution
to the growth of a more civilized culture in Italy at the time. With them in the Sun, there is
14-year-old Antonella Licciardi, perfectly aware of her role as first baseman and first feminist of Ustica. Antonella’s case was so striking that our opposing team who had won that year felt guilty and proposed a collaboration
between the teams as a reparation. The collaboration with Conegliano Veneto
is the first of a series of many exchange opportunities
for the Usticese baseball community to get in touch with the Italian
and international baseball universe. Collaborations represent a powerful tool
for Ustica to open up to the world, the culture, as well as to the sports community. The following year, the teams from Ustica
and Conegliano Veneto are invited to Malta as the Italian representatives, to promote baseball. Meanwhile in Ustica, the number of young
baseball players has increased so much that more space and proper training facilities are needed. In 1981, the new baseball field is inaugurated. With our sporting successes, we convinced the administration to build a new sports field. The field was possible thanks to baseball and to these kids that had conquered it by playing. Until then, the trainings had taken place
on an improvised dirt field. In the beginning, we used to play on the field down there, which wasn’t a proper sports field at all. Those huge round volcanic rocks were our dugout. So we were playing in the dirt, this was the situation. A lot of rocks and bouncing balls everywhere. Our few spectators sat on a short rocky wall. Once this was known – the rarity
of the islanders playing baseball, the beauty of the island´s coastline,
the field that was there, the Americans from Sigonella spontaneously
asked to play a game with us in Ustica. Sigonella, near Catania, hosts a US military base since the late 50s. It was our first contact with American baseball. Every time we could move forward,
it was both a private and a public conquer for us. We played this amazing game. And we saw home runs being scored for the first time. CHAPTER IV – OVERSEAS A boy who started playing baseball in 1971, who started doing what would later
make him become a coach, in those years he dreamt about something that seemed impossible to him. Because every baseball player´s dream, at least back then, and especially my dream, was to go to America. How beautiful it would be to go there! See the real players, the fields. This dream came true. In 1982, thanks to the big community
of Usticesi emigrants in New Orleans, Louisiana, a trip to the United States
is organized for the whole team. It was like conquering the world. Many of the boys had never seen a plane before. To me, this was the first time on a plane. And like me, to many others from my generation. It seemed impossible to end up playing baseball in the US. They organized parties, dinners, lunches and games. Our first night games. TV channels came, they interviewed us
and asked for autographs, the stadiums were full. The games were a disaster though,
we lost hands down every time. Some ex-players were teaching us how to bat. And then there were so many fields. A local TV followed us for our 12 days there, and every day they were broadcasting our experience. I remember that in Jefferson Parish, close to New Orleans, Fabio scored his first home run. This amazed everybody, including himself, because it was his very first home run on a real-sized field. It was the first home run of my career,
scoring it in the US was just exceptional. This experience marked the boys. They even had the possibility
to meet coaches who gave them lessons. That taught them not only professionalism, but also a better technique. It was something really special. The US were unforgettable. We went back to the US two years later and brought an American team back to Ustica with us. This was another extraordinary experience, as many of those boys had local surnames, Palmisano, Caserta, Tranchina, they were the children of Usticese emigrants. In Ustica, in the meantime, a small group
of girls start attending the sports field regularly and look for their place in the diamond. Clelia´s family was as follows: her dad a manager, one of her brothers a pitcher and the other a catcher, her mom constantly washing uniforms, she did not have a choice, she had to follow her brothers. I had two brothers and a dad
who were always playing baseball, I could not but become passionate about it. This same thing that happened in my family
happened to other families. The female team was impatient, they wanted to play. The basic idea is that Clelia´s generation in the 70s was born knowing baseball already. Today people are born into football,
even those who never studied it. In the 70s people were born into baseball, they knew its rules, how to score, etc. To us baseball was not so strange at all, it was just part of the sporting scene. Franco Lauricella, who had moved from Switzerland to Italy, was entrusted with the presidency
of the softball team from Ustica. The Usticese girls started to wonder:
“Why can´t we play too?” “Why don´t we create a female team?” And so in 1985 we founded the Ustica Softball Club. Lauricella, like us, was amazed by the girls´ successes. The Youth Games of 1986 are indeed marked by the great success of the island’s teams. The baseball team obtains the much
sought-after title of Champions of Italy and the softball team ranks 3rd
– bronze medal – at the national level. The return train was full of our medals, and at the station in Palermo
there was the big welcoming jubilation. Baseball was covered so I could help Franco Lauricella with this new initiative that followed in the baseball team’s footsteps. He taught me so much,
both about the game and about life. To think about the team before yourself,
about what you can do for the team. The group was extremely close and solid. And for sure Mimmo´s contribution was the most important. CHAPTER V – THE ISLAND OF BASEBALL The end of the 80s is the moment when
the true fever for this sport is unleashed and Ustica becomes the Island of Baseball. The newborns already knew the game, it was a social sport. We constantly played in the streets, where there were no cars, in those years we played everywhere. The square used to host the most beautiful games. I remember the broken windows
of the old town hall, which faced the home plate. The ball went through the open windows of the town hall during council meetings or general meetings about the problems of the island. The field was improvised. There were some
trees around, but we were able to play. Our games at the small park were a must every afternoon after school, we would go play there at 5 pm, every day. This is a very special moment for sports in Ustica. A little Cuba, a little America. On every corner of the island,
someone was playing baseball. They used to play baseball all day long,
as happens in Brazil with football. This is how such a community was born. Our daily life eventually revolved around this sport. I remember that they had told me about this movement, but as soon as I arrived at Ustica I was struck
by this kind of collective fever that had hit everyone, including families. Baseball became a daily topic. In town, everyone would talk about baseball
and softball, those were our themes. At this point in time, Ustica becomes
the landmark for baseball in the Mediterranean and the club organizes and promotes a number of activities. The most famous activity is the Islands Cup. A crazy idea that only us could have had. Every year, it was so difficult to find other islands
where baseball or softball were played. The Islands Cup always took place on our field in Ustica, it was a festive meeting that coaches, managers
and players attended from Sicily and beyond. There was always a foreign team. Once we had two: Germany and Czechoslovakia. Tunisian teams were regular guests. Everybody was determined to win the Islands Cup, and we hardly ever lost. The Islands Cup is played every year for 15 consecutive years and its award ceremony often coincides
with the popular feast of San Bartolicchio, involving both locals and guests in a big traditional party. It has been an exceptional tool, because it gave many journalists, who came on purpose for that, the possibility to discover
what this phenomenon was really like. And they indeed wrote positively about it. They perceived the island not only as a diving paradise, but also as a capital of sport. It was born as the Islands Cup, but then
it grew and became an international tournament. Everyone cared about the Islands Cup. It was a nice way to make our island known,
it was great being together, but it was also a beautiful competition. Over the years, the Islands Cup becomes a worldwide call with teams from France, Tunisia, Germany, Czechoslovakia. During this event, an aquatic version of baseball is invented, which eventually causes the curiosity
and excitement of the guest teams. Seaball was invented from scratch in Ustica. It was just baseball, but in the sea. We played on a small quay, close to the port. The quay, a small concrete square,
was both the batter’s and catcher’s box, four buoys were the bases and the outfield was infinite. The pitcher would throw the ball,
you had to bat and dive. You had to swim to the bases, it was exhausting. The outfielders played to death,
they had cramps by the end of the game. When foreign teams from the US, Malta and Tunisia came to Ustica and saw the seaball, they must have thought:
“These guys are completely crazy”. “They are all about baseball”. Seaball became very popular
and people talked about it across Italy. We truly tried every possible thing involving baseball. In the little village of Ustica,
photographer Nino Bertucci’s studio becomes the main information channel for baseball. It was like Facebook! Inning after inning, the club manager would call Nino, who kept updating the score on his shop window. He used to write the real-time score on his window
and people would go and ask: “What’s the score?” My mom has never come to watch a baseball game, she stayed informed thanks to him:
“What’s the score, Nino?” Baseball minute by minute, version 1.0. When the club decided to buy
the first “real” baseball uniform, he emptied the shop window
of his ceramics and hung two jerseys up, starting as a result some sort of referendum
on the color of the uniform. You would go in and say “blue” or “green”. In the end, the population decided
that the Usticese uniform had to be blue. We knew that there we would find
the scores and some pictures he had taken. His shop was the unofficial board of the club. The Golden Ustica award is created
and becomes very important. This prize was awarded by a commission
of former managers, journalists, coaches, with a deep knowledge of Italian baseball and softball, to distinguished personalities of this sport,
both at national and international levels. Over the years, the prize has been awarded to the president
of the International Baseball Federation, Aldo Notari; to the captain of the Italian national
softball team, Marina Centrone; to the president of the Baseball Federation of Asia,
Japanese Eiichiro Yamamoto; to the Minister of Sport and president of the Cuban
Olympic Committee, Reynaldo Gonzalez Lopez; to Italian show business personalities
involved with baseball, such as Elio and Faso. The prize was awarded to distinguished people worldwide who had to come to Ustica to receive it. Thanks to this, Ustica was visited by baseball players and coaches from all over the world. Therefore, Ustica becomes
a landmark for international baseball and this phenomenon leads to the development
of a true baseball school. The small island not only keeps producing players, but provides also umpires, coaches and managers. There was a time when we had 10 umpires from Ustica. 5 of them made it to the baseball
and softball top league, Series A. And one became an international umpire, Francesco Vassallo. We all come from Usticese baseball,
both me and Francesco, we have been like the founding fathers of this experience. CHAPTER VI – GREAT SUCCESSES Softball in Ustica has an even greater history. From 1985, when the club was born, it is promoted to Series A in just 7 years. They knew the rules, they knew everything. For them, playing softball was easy. They knew the basics, for them it was easy to catch both fly and ground balls. We started off in the minor league, Series C2.
And we won the championship. We didn’t win the playoffs and we played
another year of C2. Then, promotion to C1. We had two years of C1 and then
we were promoted to Series B. USTICA, SUCCESS O’CLOCK USTICA, BASEBALL PARADISE So the national championships began. Every 15 days we had to take a plane. We were growing constantly and
we thought we would keep improving. It felt like there were no limits! In 5 years they had 4 promotions. In 1991, the team qualifies for the playoffs
for Series A for the first time. In Silvi Marina, after two victories at home,
we only had to win one more game. But we lost all 3 games. A total disaster. We all set off, almost the entire population.
Buses full of people. I had a bad feeling already. And we lost 3 games. And, as a result, we also lost Series A. We had a general blackout. We remained in Series B.
It was a tough blow. But then the team showed its strength. We didn’t give up and the next year
we made it to Series A. In 1992 against Supramonte, in Orgosolo, Sardinia, we played at home and we won both games. When we played away, we just needed one game
and we were in Series A. A very prestigious achievement for the athletes
from the small island near Palermo, led by Franco Lauricella and Mimmo Arnò. Another good reason to feel proud
for the 900 islanders who were emotionally involved
in this exciting success, and the reinforcement of the tradition
that links Ustica to baseball. At the pier of Santa Maria, upon the team’s
return from its victorious trip, hundreds of people were waiting
with the musical band in front. Just try to imagine the happiness and joy of these girls. That’s how the great adventure of Series A started. It was a surprise for everyone. Even the opposing teams were surprised:
“Who are you? How many are you?” “This is who we are!” A WORLD-RECORD ACHIEVEMENT:
USTICA CONQUERS SOFTBALL SERIES A USTICA CELEBRATES ITS GREAT GIRLS USTICA THE SHINING “DIAMOND”, SOFTBALL PRIDE Meanwhile, the first baseball team is fighting for Series B, which arrives at last, after a difficult playoff
in Ascoli Piceno in 1993. I think we lost 3 playoffs for the promotion to Series B. We won the first game here in Ustica,
then we had the return game in Ascoli Piceno. We went to Ascoli confident of an easy victory,
we lost the first game instead. The promotion to Series B that we obtained
in Ascoli is just unforgettable. We really wanted it and we fought very hard for it. It was an overwhelming victory, all the tears, the endless celebrations, a joy that only sport can give. Very strong emotions. Series B, Series B! This was our first glorious goal. We worked so hard that we stayed
in Series B only for 2 years. Then the promotion to Series A
ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP It was a tragedy for the other clubs, because
then the championship became national. So we went to play in Lombardia,
Veneto and even Trieste. Creating problems for the opposing teams. Series A meant very high standards, so we needed non-Usticese players as well. Little by little, the team begins to enrol players from all over Sicily until it becomes a true regional representation. Thanks to the regional and provincial funds, we managed to take 3 or 4 players from Nettuno and Rome. Ivano Licciardi, Giampiero Bravo,
Mauro De Rossi, all of them playing with us. Series A was a different world. Double games, travelling by plane. We went to play in Lombardia and Emilia Romagna. And we participated in the Series A championship, succeeded and competed against the major teams. The only boy who stood out and made it to the national team was Carmelo Maglio, who represents
the highest expression of the Usticese baseball. First as pitcher and then as batter. SERIES A2, USTICA DESTROYS MESSINA THANKS TO MAGLIO CARMELO MAGLIO, USTICESE PLAYER IN SERIES A2 WHAT A BAT, WHAT A MAGLIO! This experience in Series A led us
to beat very strong teams: Fortitudo Bologna, Anzio, Fiorentina. We reached the quarter-finals of the Italian Cup. And we did the playoffs for Series A1 against San Marino. We lost badly, but at least we had reached that point. San Marino is still playing Series A nowadays,
they were too good. It would have been too much. In Series A1, foreign pitchers are needed, 3 games per week. I must confess I was seriously worried. The boys were very excited. I was torn between
the desire of winning that game and the concern of playing Series A1. A very different kind of economic and logistical concern. Luckily… although I have never said we were lucky …we lost. I could have never said it,
the boys would have killed me. It was not even a real feeling, it was just the inner voice of reason
saying: “It’s a step you can’t take”. Meanwhile, the girls had taken off! In the meantime, the softball team welcomes
6 players from CUS Palermo. The CUS Palermo had just closed down. These girls, who were no longer playing,
wondered: “Where do we play now?” And back then, Ustica was at its best! This is how we boosted our team. My choice was: either Ustica or quitting. The importance of baseball and softball
in Ustica was well known across Italy. There I found people who had my same desire and passion for this sport. Softball, perhaps even more than baseball, was incredibly successful. They qualified for Series A,
they fought for the title at the playoffs. They were very close for 4 years. We have always been a very
strong team, among the best ones. Once we were 2nd in Italy. Other times we were 3rd or 4th, but we were playing against the strongest teams in Italy. So it wasn’t easy. USTICA WILL FIGHT FOR THE TITLE WITH THREE MORE TEAMS USTICA BEATS MATTEOTTI AND CONQUERS THE QUARTER-FINALS OF THE ITALIAN CUP ANOTHER VICTORY FOR THE USTICESE GIRLS The other clubs were scared of us. At the economic level, because
they had to travel to Ustica. But in the Italian championship,
Ustica was feared on the field as well. Our field was the only one with a real crowd. An expert, passionate and fair crowd, because they knew about softball and baseball. Usticese supporters don’t go unnoticed indeed. Coming to umpire in Ustica was wonderful, because they had very nice supporters. Whistles, drums. Sundays were amazing. We used to sing from the dugout during the whole game. Even if there were only two players on the bench, they would keep going for the whole game. When we played at home,
we also had the crowd’s support. So their songs joined ours in an incredible clamour. Our poor opponents from Piemonte
or Lombardia were a bit confused by that. Our supporters were extraordinary,
impossible to find in any other city. And the legendary Catiello with his donkey…
He followed us for the whole era of the Usticese baseball. He stood there, behind the cactuses, behind the net,
and he watched all the games. He never missed a single one.
And our games were quite long! And the donkey would follow the spectators’ excitement and celebrate as well. I remember once I was playing first base and a player
from Lazio had just hit the ball and ran to the base. While he reached first base, the donkey brayed and the guy burst into laughter,
saying: “Hey guys, this is a real show!” CHAPTER VII – CUBA Another big contribution
to the history of baseball in Ustica definitely comes from the Cuban coaches. The first of many coaches, Lorenzo Espino, arrives in 1992 and, together with Pino Caminita, prepares
the baseball team for their promotion to Series B. The Cuban coaches taught us so much. With them, we could do anything. Cuban coaches arrived because we wanted an upgrade for the team. For the first time, we truly believed that we could reach Series A. Lorenzo Espino, an expert in coaching pitchers, arrived. He was our man, our pitchers improved dramatically during that time. He prepared a small group of players very well. I think Lorenzo stayed for 4 or 5 years. He took us from Series C1 all the way
to the gates to Series A2. He brought a winning attitude,
Lorenzo was crucial for us to believe in our own strengths. Then others came: Pedro, Ismael. From 1992 to 2000, for 8 years, they contributed to the improvement
of our technical standards. By the end of our careers,
we had become good baseball players. They taught us many things, especially tactics. How to move, the backups… Basically, they provided the technical support. We owe our upgrade mostly to them. Armando was the first, for softball. Then Reynaldo and Ramon. We have had 4 or 5 coaches. Armando, the first coach,
was very good with technique. He trained our movement coordination very patiently. He was very well prepared,
they had all taught in Cuban universities. Another important coach for the team
was Reynaldo, who led us to Series A1. It was not only because of him of course. Both Cuban and Usticese coaches
had worked hard together. Reynaldo was good at game management,
tactics and strategy. This Cuban school deeply shaped us. In 1997, the Ustica Baseball Club
organizes a trip to Cuba, during which the whole team visits the universities and the baseball fields with the coaches. Another unforgettable experience for the players. Cubans are important because
they brought plenty of technical experience, but beside this, the best memory for me
is the human experience. With Lorenzo in particular, we became like brothers. Obviously, in a small place like the island of Ustica, personal relationships are not limited to sports and work. Between the Cuban coaches and the community, deep bonds develop through daily interactions, which go beyond sport, baseball or softball. Maybe it was the mix of their tropical nature
with the Mediterranean one, there was always a lot of joy, complicity and fun. We discovered a world we didn’t even know existed, the humanity and dignity
of these coaches changed everybody, whoever met them. I remember Pedro, he was… extraordinary,
he used to catch fly balls with bare hands. CHAPTER VIII – A SOCIAL PHENOMENON The Usticese phenomenon became
truly extraordinary at this point. It was a wonderful moment when we had
7 teams playing official championships. This social phenomenon involved
the whole community. Despite their two teams in Series A, the youth sector keeps thriving and obtaining great results. We met almost every day. We were always on the field at 3 pm. We had 4 youth teams sorted by age. The youngest Usticese team takes part in the international tournament “Memorial Joe DiMaggio” in Nettuno, homeland of Italian baseball. Nettuno was the big name of Italian baseball. It was a symbol, the top. We won the first game, we won the second game… And we reached the final against Nettuno. I started to be afraid of winning. We won that game against the strongest youth team in Italy. From an enchanting island, the Usticese team. The great and legendary Ustica, winners of the tournament! We are at the peak of the Usticese phenomenon. Within a few years, the Ustica Softball enrols new players from New Zealand, South Africa and China. We would play one game with the foreign pitcher
and the next with the Italian pitcher. All these girls contributed to the Ustica
Softball’s great results. The streets of Ustica were full of people
from New Zealand, Australia, America, Cuba. We had it all! As a response to the needs of the teams,
the construction of a new sports facility begins. Until then, we had played on a shattered field. Quick balls would bounce on the stones
and suddenly changed their trajectory. We had seen the fields in Northern Italy,
the real softball fields. With their smooth red clay and grass. In 1994 I became mayor of Ustica and, as everyone else, I have this background as a sports fan, especially baseball. In 1995, we went back to an old project to build a baseball and softball field in Ustica. With grass, red clay, the pitcher’s mound, bleachers, stands, an electronic scoreboard. A few years later the facility was inaugurated and hosted our baseball and softball games. With the diamond, the red clay, the grass and the sprinklers that sprayed water onto the grass. So beautiful. There are truly impressive pictures of it. When it was finished and we entered
for the first time, it was wonderful. Everything worked: the speakers,
the stands, the scoreboard. It was spectacular! You entered the field and you felt it was yours. We were so happy to attend games where nobody had to sit
on a rocky wall by the field, now we were on top of the stands. We were proud of it, because
having a baseball stadium in such a small island was extraordinary. A nice feeling of belonging to the team
and most of all to the island. CHAPTER IX – BACK TO THE FIGHT In 1998, Series A2 was established. And the Ustica Softball has to fight to become
again one of the best teams in Italy. The next year, it qualifies immediately
for the playoffs for Series A1. I remember precisely the day of the final, 19.9.1999. We played the big final in Ustica
against a team from Lucca. I remember that I had barely slept that night, we were extremely focused. The overwhelming emotion of the possibility
of becoming the biggest champions. I recall when we entered the dugout we were shaking
because of the tension and the difficult moments. Luckily it went well! The moment we won was a liberation, because we had accumulated
a tremendous tension for this promotion, so we had very big celebrations. Everyone was celebrating, because
we were at the top of Italy. USTICA REACHES THE TOP USTICA CONQUERS A HISTORIC PROMOTION I remember it as an extraordinary event. Banners, chants and shouts at the port. An uncontrollable joy. Every time we obtained a historic achievement, Series B, Series A, the Islands Cup
or any other tournament, it was so amazing, you have to experience those feelings. It made people feel good. That was our final aim,
to be happy together. CHAPTER X – BLUE LIKE THE SEA They would soon achieve another great result. Clelia Ailara’s participation in the Sydney 2000 Olympics as the catcher of the Italian national softball team. Clelia’s journey with the junior
national team begins in 1991, side by side, for several years,
with her Usticese teammate Cinzia Agnello. It was unthinkable that two little girls from Ustica,
an island lost in the Mediterranean, could be part of the national team. But both were called up in April 1991 for the Junior World Championship in Australia. We ranked 9th in Australia. The sheer fact of taking part in a world
tournament together with very strong teams like US, New Zealand, China… It was unthinkable to even reach the podium. Participating was already a great thing. In September that year, Italy wins
the European Championship in Prague. Clelia Ailara and Cinzia Agnello had become
key players for the national team. They were, let’s say, the leaders of the team. Especially Clelia, because of her nature, she was the captain on and off the field. In 1994, both girls are called up
to the senior national team and participate in the world championship in Canada. Unfortunately, Cinzia had to quit because of her job and retired from the national team before Clelia. The coach wanted her to stay in the national team, but she decided she couldn’t keep up with that commitment. Cinzia was a bit of a rebel. It was a bit of her fault. Because she could have gone to the Olympics too. I regret it bitterly, because then I missed the Olympics with Clelia. Over time, Clelia secured her position as the regular catcher. Catcher has always been my favourite position. I have played second base, shortstop, but the catcher has a completely different perspective. She turned from reserve into a key regular
player of the national team. The catcher is key to build the game. In the national team, I played with high-level
pitchers, both Italians and foreigners. Bugliarello destroyed my hand a couple of times. In 1995, Italy wins the European
Championship in Turin. In 1996, Italy takes part in
an international tournament in Canada and Clelia makes the cover of the magazine
“Tutto Baseball and Softball”. Next year, Italy wins once again
the European Championship in Prague. In 1998, Italy participates in the world
championship in Japan and ranks 6th, Clelia even wins the European Gold Glove
for the best player in Europe. In 1999, Italy defeats the Netherlands
in Parma and qualifies for Sydney 2000. “Let’s go to Sydney” “The Italian softball team conquers the Olympics” “It’s time for celebrations on the field!” For any player, for any athlete, I think it is
the highest goal you can aspire to. Even more so for a non-professional player, because there is not much money in this sport, the only thing that keeps you going is passion. Once there, I found myself in a new reality. Everywhere you look you see champions. Athletics, fencing. I felt, I’d say… confused. The night of the opening ceremony, the best athletes of the world were in that stadium. The best of the world. It’s very difficult to describe those feelings. The national team ranks 5th
against the strongest teams in the world and 28-year-old Clelia comes back to her small volcanic rock in the middle of the Mediterranean. Clelia took Ustica where it never thought it could go. To the Olympics. She accomplished what every athlete
would like to accomplish. For sports, it’s the top. Taking a player from your city to the Olympics means that you really found talent
and were able to train it, these two things don’t always go together. Such a great player makes her 1,000 people proud, as well as her father and family,
who supported her in this activity. It’s the top, the peak. It means a lot for Clelia, but
it means even more for Ustica. Back home after the Olympics,
I retired from the national team, even if they called me several times afterwards. But I didn’t change my mind. Before the Olympics I had decided already:
“No matter how it goes, I’ll retire from the national team”. Clelia’s decision somehow marks the whole
development of the Usticese phenomenon, in fact, the year 2000 represents not only the peak,
but also the beginning of the decline of this activity. CHAPTER XI – THE END OF AN ERA How did all this end? It finished because baseball is played with others. Travelling to and from Ustica to play was not well regarded. The difficulties of other teams and our difficulties with the long journeys became too heavy at some stage. It is very difficult for non-Sicilians to understand
how hard it was for Sicilian clubs to keep up with high level sports. Coming to Ustica was not very profitable for the big clubs. There were constant complaints about these economic and logistical problems. When lighting the field is made
compulsory for a team to play Series A, all the teams from Ustica are put through great trouble. We didn’t have any lights on our field, so then they forced us to play our home games in Rome, and we played our away games in Lombardia. So basically we played the whole championship away. This was an unsustainable situation. Under these circumstances, the Ustica Baseball can’t keep up with the pace of Series A anymore. Over the years, the regional funds
for sport progressively decreased. It is clear that finding sponsors is difficult for a club like the Ustica Baseball, because there are none in the area. The away games require a huge economic effort due to geographical reasons. The costs became increasingly big and burdensome. Until we had to close down. In 2000, the great sadness. And in 2000 baseball disappears from Ustica. We had to give up, I believe with honor, because we hadn’t been kicked out
but we decided to leave ourselves, after a careful analysis of the situation. In 2000, the Ustica Baseball Club
doesn’t enrol in the A2 championship. The Ustica Softball resists 4 more years, but eventually it has to give up as well. In 2004 we shut down. Back then, we took that drastic and final decision and said: “That’s all, we’re done!” We played our last game and I remember that for us it was a deeply moving moment. We played our last game. THE USTICA BASEBALL DISAPPEARS, LAURICELLA GIVES UP It felt as if I was the protagonist of a piece of history, because what happened in those years wasn’t something that could happen every day. This means that an extraordinary
movement had been created. Besides the sporting aspect, this phenomenon had a strong social impact. It was something extremely atypical and valuable. It needed the attention of newspapers. It was fair that newspapers paid a lot of attention to that situation in those years. And this is how our Usticese experience
with baseball and softball ended, unfortunately. Unfortunately, good things don’t last long,
this one thing we can at least say lasted for 30 years and it hasn’t been easy. I feel like we just put a cover on it, and when you uncover it, you are left
with memories, emotions and laughter. That’s it! Those were the best years of my life, I must say. A unique and most beautiful experience, by all means. Thanks are doubtlessly due to Bruno Beneck,
who gifted us these 30 years of social experiences. We had crazy good times. A beautiful childhood thanks to baseball. To me, its value was to bring people together. It succeeded in engaging girls in sport, and in providing an alternative cultural model. This phenomenon created such a big exchange and movement of people. I think that the most important thing baseball has left us
is this feeling of connection with the world. Baseball has contributed to our growth. I can see this today. I see that everything the kids learnt in the heat of the game has now emerged. Today, 10,11 and 12-year-old kids have
never played baseball at the same level, so they are missing this experience of those who today are 30,40 or 50 years old, like me, who were so lucky to play during
that unforgettable season. Unforgettable because of the value of sport
and because it was rewarded with successes beyond any expectation we could have had. Do your friends know that people used
to play baseball in Ustica? Yes, everyone knows. How do they know? Because their fathers told them. I think my grandfather used to play baseball too, but I’m not sure. My mom played softball and she was the best batter. My father was a baseball player. Do you know what position he played? No, I think batter. So you don’t know the baseball positions? Don’t you know how many players there are? No, I dont’ know how many… And you? No, I never knew much about baseball. Dad used to play it, I play football. So you have never watched a baseball game? Yes and no, I’ve watched some in TV. I watched them by chance…
I was looking for football. Have you ever seen a baseball
or softball game here in Ustica? Unfortunately not. Do you know what baseball and softball are? No. If we went back to playing, even as amateurs, I’d play gladly. Sometimes I tell Clelia, dammit, don’t you ever want to grab a bat, a glove, and go back there on the field
and start all over, maybe with the kids? But now it’s too late.

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