At LLWS, Italy is on top of the world

Emilia Little League manager likens the experience to World Baseball Classic

At LLWS, Italy is on top of the world

Sixteen teams participate in the Little League World Series each summer: half from the United States and half from eight regions around the world. Marco Bortolotti, the manager of the Europe-Africa Region Champions from Italy, sees quite the comparison.

"Williamsport," he said, "is a little World Baseball Classic."

And while soccer certainly reigns supreme in Italy, the Emilia Little Leaguers -- and their professional counterparts in the WBC -- are doing their part to make that reality far less certain.

"All baseball fans in Italy follow World Baseball Classic," Bortolotti said. "It's important for growing the game. [And] it's an honor for us representing Italy."

Emilia Little League from Emilia-Romagna, a region in Northern Italy between Florence and Milan, is participating in the LLWS for the second time in tournament history, and for the second time, they've brought one of the Bortolotti boys with them. Manager Marco is in Williamsport this year, but it was his brother, Luca, who preceded him, as a pitcher and catcher for the Emilia team back in 2008.

At just 23, Marco Bortolotti has barely a decade on some of his 12- and 13-year-old players, but he's nonetheless eager to spread baseball throughout Italy and showcase his team to the world.

"Playing soccer in Italy is the best sport," he acknowledged a day after opening the tournament with a 3-1 loss to Australia. "But in soccer you can't play in a tournament like this. In Italy, our team is very followed now. So I hope it could be motivation for Italian youth to go to a baseball field.

"Yesterday, a lot of people wrote to me, 'Congrats, despite the result.'"

Bortolotti himself played Little League for five years before turning to coaching when he was 16. Baseball has been, clearly, a family affair for the Bortolottis, as it was Marco's dad who followed the sport and encouraged his sons to play. Luca still plays -- in, essentially, the minor leagues of the Italian Baseball League.

The experience in Williamsport has included a bit of a learning curve, Bortolotti admits -- "This is the first time we saw a pitcher like him; he's very fast. We weren't able to hit any heat," he said after facing Australia on Thursday -- but as a student himself, he's embracing every minute of it.

"Being a baseball coach in Italy means you don't have other free time," he said. "But I'm happy. [Here] I can meet a lot of other coaches, and we can share opinions about baseball."

As for the Emilia Little Leaguers, the lessons Bortolotti imparts to them are simple. "When we started the season, I told them it should be a long season. I didn't think we could come here. But I told them we had to be a protagonist in the European championship.

"I told my guys in Poland (at the regional tournament) that we're not Emilia, we are also Italy. [Now] we are representing all of Europe and all of Africa. We are very proud."

Allison Duffy-Davis is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.