PEORIA, AZ The story is almost as old as baseball itself. A kid grows up playing baseball but doesnt speak English. He comes to the U.S. knowing the game but not knowing the land where his work has taken him.
The language he knows is based on Latin. The language of America has a Germanic heritage that isnt all that easy to pick up.
So the kids first couple of years are spent as a stranger in a strange land.
What makes this story different is that Alex Liddi wasnt born in Central or South America. He doesnt speak Spanish. Hes from San Remo on the Italian Rivera. Its the kind of place you think of as the setting for a James Bond Film, but it isnt commonly thought of as a hot spot for baseball.
And yet the 6-foot-4, 220-pound third baseman is one of the brightest prospects in the Seattle organization.
His father, Augustin, played baseball and taught his son the game. His mother, Flavia, played softball at a high level, too, and that helped push 5-year-old Alex to baseball.
Only six Italian-born athletes have made it to the Major Leagues. Its been half a century since the last, Reno Bertoia, and he almost doesnt count. Bertoia was born in Italy, true enough, but his family moved to Windsor, Ont., across from Detroit when he was one.
However, Liddi is the real deal. He was signed by Mariners international scout Wayne Norton and Mario Mazzotti, one of the teams European scouts. He did all his playing until the time he was 17 in Italy. Liddi was a member of the Italian team in the World Baseball classic in 2009, hitting .375 in limited playing time.
In many ways he seems to be the immediate future of the Mariners. Seattle has put a lot of time and money into its international program, and for all the concentrating on the draft that the club has professed in the last decade, the draft hasnt produced much.
On the other hand, the organizations international wing has struck gold. Ichiro Suzuki (posted from Japan) and Felix Hernandez (signed out of Venezuela) are the teams two most marketable stars. The last Mariners front-line player from the draft was Adam Jones in 2003. He became an All-Star after being traded to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard deal.
In the 2011 spring training camp, Liddi, starting pitcher Michael Pineda (Dominican Republic) and outfielder Greg Halman (Netherlands) are among those bunched at the top of a group of the organizations top minor league prospects. All came from international signings.
Liddi, who played at Double-A West Tennessee last year (now the Jackson Generals) while hitting .281 with 15 homers and a Southern League-leading 92 RBIs, could be as good as any of them.
His work ethic is not wanting. While most younger members of the organization tend to gravitate to the Peoria area to work out during the winter, Liddi returns to Italy. But he only spends weekends at his familys home in San Remo. During the week hes four hours south and east of home in the shadow of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
“Major League Baseball has an academy outside Pisa, and Im there Monday through Friday, Liddi said. “It would be nice to be closer to home, but its the only place where you can work out and get a very baseball-type workout and be with the trainers and coaches baseball brings over there.
“I know I have a lot to learn before I can be in the Major Leagues, so I want to make sure Im as ready as I can be.
Ten-time All-Star Ichiro is a Japanese pop culture star and defending Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez is celebrated on most street corners in Venezuela. Liddi doesnt have to face the expectations of the masses. Hes still relatively unknown back home.
In the cloistered confines of the Seattle organization, however, Liddi is gaining quite a following. New manager Eric Wedge, who didnt know anything about Liddi until a few months ago, has seen him in workouts for a few days now and raves about him.
“I very much like what Ive seen so far. I like the way he moves on defense and gets the ball across the diamond,” Wedge said. “This is the time for a young player like Liddi to make an impression for down the road, and hes doing that.
Deeper in the organization, hes already made an impression. He seems to have a natural affinity for picking up languages and speaks Spanish in addition to Italian. As he learned English along with the rest of the (mostly Spanish speaking) Seattle minor leaguers, he also took extra classes in English on his own. Along the way, he became a mentor of sorts to his teammates.
“What separates him from other prospects is his makeup, Pedro Griffol, the Mariners director of minor league operations, said. “He spends time working with the Spanish-speaking guys, helping them with their English. Hes a great teammate.
“On top of that, he is a relentless worker on the field; his makeup is off the charts. Hes got a great future.
And in Seattle, its all about the future.
John Hickey is a Senior MLB Writer for AOL FanHouse (www.fanhouse.com)