Have bat, will travel - to Italy

Between trips to a beach resort on the Adriatic Sea, train rides overflowing with Italians on visits to neighboring towns and daily plates of pasta, Taber Lee played baseball.

Welcome to the wonderful life of Lee, a sightseer with a baseball glove.

First, baseball took Lee, as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ third-round draft pick in 2002, across the United States as he played six years in the Pirates’ minor league system. This year, Lee scooped grounders and knocked doubles in Italy, playing infield for Palfinger Reggio Emilia in the Italian Baseball League.

Lee, who played on state championship teams in football and baseball at Capital High School 10 years ago, spent his summer with his wife, Krissie, in Italy. He had planned to return to Olympia in mid-August but instead is expected home this week after Reggio Emilia missed the playoffs.

“I never would have imagined baseball would have brought me to Italy,” Lee wrote in an e-mail. “It’s amazing how things work out sometimes.”

When the Pirates released Lee in 2007, he returned to Olympia, figuring he was finished with professional baseball.

“I was ready to move on,” said Lee, now 28.

That changed during a phone conversation this spring with his older brother Travis, the 1996 first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins. Travis, now living in San Diego, had talked with someone who played professional baseball in Italy. Taber was interested in the prospect of mixing baseball and sightseeing.

He inquired and received e-mails from teams in Italy. Reggio Emilia, a city with buildings from the 16th century and with a population of 167,013, showed the most interest. In John Grisham fashion, Lee was playing baseball for pizza and sightseeing.

Lee and his wife lived in an apartment in the heart of a city that’s known for its Parmesano-Reggiano cheese. Lee wrote that Reggio Emilia is a wealthy city with little tourism, but he said it’s still a city “worth seeing.”

The team, owned by a contractor in Reggio, gave Lee a car to use during his stay, but he and his wife rode their bikes around town.

“There are more bike traffic jams than car traffic,” Lee wrote.

Rosters are limited to four foreigners each for the eight teams in the league. Other teams are in Bologna, Parma, Nettuno, San Marino, Godo, Rimini and Grosseto.

Lee’s teammates worked during the day, but none of the foreign players worked outside of baseball. One of Lee’s teammates was a doctor, and another was an 18-year-old student.

Playing as many as three games a week, Lee compared the level of play to “average Double-A ball.”

“The baseball here is surprisingly better than I initially thought,” Lee wrote.

Lee wrote that there are a number of Americans who have played in the major leagues and Triple-A. Lee played one year in Triple-A, batting .218 in 43 games with Indianapolis in 2006.

Games in the Italian Baseball League were played on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, usually starting at 9 p.m. Sundays and Mondays were days off, allowing time for the Lees to travel.

On Lee’s Web site, he posted photos of his teammates, along with shots of the cities he visited.

Learning the language took time, but he was right at home with the game.

“It is the same game as in the states, with only minor Italian rules, such as the Friday games are pitched by only the foreigners and the second game starting pitchers are Italian,” Lee wrote.

Only Italians can pitch in the third game.

“The difference in pitching becomes obvious by the third game,” Lee said.

Coaches give their instructions and advice in games and practices in Italian. But every Italian on the team spoke enough English to communicate with Lee.

Teammates sometimes acted as interpreters.

“I have learned quite a bit of Italian, but my English has suffered as I have learned to speak slower with a limited vocabulary,” Lee wrote.

While the sights and food were pleasing, Lee’s team struggled. Reggio finished 8-34, last in the league. But Lee hit .297 and tied for second in the league with 14 doubles. He led Reggio Emilia in batting average, slugging percentage (.446), doubles and hits (44).

Baseball is growing in popularity in Italy. The typical stadium seats 3,000 and draws between 500 and 1,000 fans. The stadium in Nettuno has a 10,000-seat capacity but doesn’t draw that.

“The fields are in outstanding condition and rate as well as many minor league parks in the states,” Lee wrote.

Fans cheer, but Lee said the mood is naturally more like a soccer crowd than a baseball crowd. Fans use foghorns and other instruments to make noise. Players swing wooden bats that are made in the United States.

Lee, with his daily cups of cappuccinos, adjusted to life in Italy.

“Between popular cafes and our gym, we have become locals,” Lee said.

Lee is talking with some other teams about playing baseball in Italy again next year, but he’s undecided. Still, he wrote, “a job is a job.” He did not say what he was making, but it’s estimated he’s earning about $100,000 a year with expenses.

“Depending on what teams would like to sign me for a second season might help me make a decision on if I come back next year,” Lee wrote.

Lee did get an offer to play quarterback for a pro football team in Reggio Emilia. The team plays all over Europe. The offer came unexpectedly from a former coach at Bellevue High School now living in Italy.

“He told me that they are looking for a quarterback for the team and that they run the wing-T,” Lee said. “I told him I knew the offense like the back of my hand. He asked if I wanted to play for them, and we talked about it over an Italian lunch.”

But because the baseball and football seasons overlap, Lee turned down the offer.

“I would have played if there were no problems,” Lee said. “Not sure if my body would have agreed, though.”

One thing is certain. Lee found baseball, pizza and sightseeing in Italy enjoyable.

Gail Wood: 360-754-5443