"In the 1980s, it was big, then soccer took off," Alex Liddi said. "The last few years have been bad, though it's coming back now to a good level."
Liddi should know. The 20-year-old third base prospect in the Seattle Mariners system has the chance to be the first Italian-born impact player to reach the Major Leagues. Born in Sam Remo, a city on the Mediterranean coast in northwestern Italy, Liddi is one of a small number of Italian-born Minor Leaguers playing in the United States currently. He and Cubs reliever Alex Maestri have the best chance to be the first Italians to reach the big leagues in well over 40 years.
"If we can get to the Majors, it will be a big step for Italian baseball," Liddi said. "We want to get there and help make some changes. It's coming back now to a good level, maybe around Double-A. Next year, it should be really professional. They've been working on it."
A big step will be Liddi's appearance in St. Louis on Sunday. He'll be on the World team in the 11th annual XM All-Star Futures Game, pitting the best Minor League prospects from the United States against the best from the rest of the World. The nine-inning exhibition will be held at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on All-Star Sunday, July 12, at 1 p.m. CT. MLB.com will provide complete coverage before, during and after the game, which can be seen live on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD and followed live on Gameday.
Liddi is one of three third basemen on the World roster, so he understands that his playing time might be limited. Still, for a young player who's never played in front of more than 25,000 fans -- he did so in an event in Taiwan -- it was a thrill to be even considered.
"I was surprised. I never expected that. I thought it was for big prospects," Liddi said. "We may play just a couple of innings, so you might try to do too much and show what you can do. You have to just play like you're used to playing."
The way he's been playing has been as someone who certainly deserves to be in St. Louis on Sunday, Liddi's modesty aside. Playing for High Desert in the California League, he's hit .356 with 20 homers and 72 RBIs over 79 games. He leads his league, or is tied for the lead, in all three Triple Crown categories, while also topping the circuit in slugging percentage and OPS.
The Mariners have been active internationally -- and not just in the typical markets -- for a long time. Liddi, who signed in 2005, has been another intriguing addition to the United Nations feel of the organization. It's taken a little while for things to click -- he spent two years in the Midwest League -- but now he's starting to take off.
"Our development people have raved about him for a while," Mariners farm director Pedro Grifol said. He's got a great work ethic and he's developed himself into a real prospect.
"[Vice president of international operations] Bob Engle and his staff are really amazing. They cover the world. They don't hesitate to think outside of the box. They find tools in big strong players and they get them signed. Liddi is a legitimate Major League prospect."
Since Liddi has been brought stateside, he's done everything he can to educate fans and teammates about life in Italy. The first order of business is convinciing those he meets that he's not pulling their leg when he tells them where he's from. It's helped that he knew some English right from the get-go and is now extremely comfortable with the language. He also speaks fluent Spanish.
"Everybody is suprised at first, even the players," said Liddi, who went 3-for-8 in the World Baseball Classic this past spring. "They ask me where I'm from and sometimes they don't believe it. They think I'm joking."
Once he can sell them on his country of origin, he works on their palates. Minor League players may not be the most adventurous eaters in the world and some Americans consider the Olive Garden to be the best Italian food available. Liddi, along with some maternal support, tries to right that horrible wrong.
"They think places like that have real Italian food," Liddi says with a laugh. "The first thing they ask about is meatballs and pizza. Some of my friends know what real Italian food is because my mom comes every year and cooks for them."
Finally, Liddi is out to prove he's more than a curiosity. The numbers he's put up this year at such a young age certainly help, but when he's in Busch Stadium, on national TV, on Sunday with an Italian flag on his World jersey, he knows it's the perfect opportunity to single-handedly advance the game in his home nation.
"I'm proud, for sure," Liddi said. "My friends and family will be watching the game on TV in Italy. I'm just going to show that in Italy, we know how to play baseball."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.