There is always some trepidation when a superior calls you into their office because he has something to tell you. It's what went though Mike Costanzo's mind last spring, when Tripp Norton, the Baltimore Orioles' assistant director of minor league operations, called the 2002 Archbishop Carroll High graduate into a private meeting.
This, however, was good news Norton was about to lay on Costanzo: He was asked if he would be interested in trying out for Team Italy for 2009's World Baseball Classic, which begins March 5 involving the best players in Major League Baseball. For Costanzo, who was acquired by the Orioles last year from the Houston Astros for Miguel Tejada, it will present a chance to prove himself against the best competition he's ever faced.
Costanzo was joined by Haverford High grad Mark DeFelice on Team Italy's 45-man provisional roster, along with Phillies' minor league outfielder Mike Spidale. Team Italy's hitting coach will be former All-Star catcher Mike Piazza, an idol of Costanzo's. The final 28-man roster has to be named by Feb. 24.
Team Italy will have its work cut out for it in the four-team bracket with all-star teams from the United States, Venezuela and Canada.
Costanzo is grateful for the opportunity to play against the best. While a number of star players have dropped out, opting to prepare for the upcoming Major League season, this has stirred the competitive juices in the 25-year-old third baseman.
"The second time around, guys are taking it more serious and they realize what is at stake and playing for the people that root for them," said Costanzo, originally a second-round pick by the Phillies in 2005 out of Coastal Carolina who hit .261 with 11 home runs and 63 RBI last season in Triple A with the Orioles' Norfolk affiliate. "My goal is first to win, then to prove that I can play at this level on a consistent basis and be an impact player. Above everything, it's winning. It's the first goal in everything I do, even when I'm playing ping-pong with friends."
Having the chance to play for Team Italy also gives Costanzo, who was involved in the trade to Houston that brought Brad Lidge to the Phillies, a chance to strengthen the bond he has with his Italian-American heritage. The Italian Baseball Federation looked into Costanzo's past, unearthing family ties and links that he wasn't aware of. He had to turn over his birth certificate and release the names of his paternal and maternal grandparents, as proof that he's 100 percent Italian-American.
"My Italian heritage is something that I'm very proud of," said Costanzo, who got engaged in the offseason and is planning a November wedding. "I get to possibly represent something I'm pretty proud of on a world stage. Everyone in the world will be watching and cheering for their country. It's like when Team Italy won the World Cup. I kept track of what Team Italy did, and when they won, a part of me won, too. It was pretty cool watching the country your relatives came from do something great."
The Italian Baseball Federation forwarded the Costanzos a family tree that traced their roots to Cosenza, a city in Calabria, and Costanzo's mother's background to the Abruzzi region. Costanzo's paternal grandfather was the youngest of 10 children from a family that settled in South Philadelphia in the 1920s, and his paternal grandmother was also the youngest of 10 children.
"The Italian officials verified everything, and the main thing is that your ancestors could have never renounced Italy along the way," Mike Costanzo Sr. said. "First and foremost, I'm American, but Italian families are very close and there is a pride among Italian-Americans here representing Italy. Michael is first and foremost American, but our ancestry comes from Italy and they came here for a better opportunity. The bottom line is that they didn't forget where they came from, and I don't think anyone should."
Mike Costanzo Jr. could possibly start at third base for Team Italy, and who knows where that could lead, maybe even getting called back into the office again for more good news, like going north with the Orioles.
A great showing at the World Baseball Classic could mean that much to him.
"The key for me, I think, is more mental, and going out and playing the way I know how to play," Costanzo said. "The pressure will always be with me, but it might sound crazy, I think I have 2,000 pro at-bats now. You just have to keep saying to yourself that it's the same game and whatever happens happens. I'll try and keep myself in the best possible scenario I can and go from there. I don't like making long-range goals, just goals that are in front of me."
Like representing your second home. *
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