Team Italy relieved to start working

Roster eligibility obstacles through, club begins practicing

"[Proving eligibility] was a difficult chore, but we got it done," said manager Matt Galante. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

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LAKELAND, Fla. -- After weeks of checking family trees, calling officials overseas, gathering scouting reports, gathering players and figuring out who can actually play in next month's World Baseball Classic, Team Italy finally had a chance to play some baseball on Tuesday.

It was merely a first practice, and it didn't include the dozen or so players currently on Major League rosters. But it was enough for manager Matt Galante to breathe a sigh of relief.

"I can't believe any other team had to make more calls to their home country to find out about guys each day," said Galante, who can add international negotiations to his lengthy resume in this game.

No other country has such a diverse background from which to draw players. The Italian team is also the Italian-American team, which means putting European professional players in the same talent pool as some Major Leaguers who were born and raised in the United States.

When preliminary rosters were announced in December, the team drew some chuckles for the rules by which some Americans were eligible to represent Italy. But as it turned out, eligibility is tougher than first expected, and it's not at all easy to prove.

Essentially, Galante said, anyone who plays for Italy must be eligible to apply for an Italian passport right now. It's more difficult than simply having an Italian roster. Tony Giarratano -- a shortstop in Tigers camp who was not part of the first practice, but is on the roster -- had great-grandparents who came over from Italy, but he said that he had to prove that one of them had a child before becoming a U.S. citizen.

Proof and documentation must then be submitted. For some, it became an avenue for fascinating research into their family's history. Galante himself found a picture of his family on the boat they took from Italy to the United States.

"You had to go back and show that every player here could go to Italy tomorrow and get an Italian passport," Galante said. "Sometimes, your heritage line stops, and in that case, you can't play. And we lost players. We tried to get a lot of guys, and a lot of guys couldn't prove their heritage lines. We got the guys ... who wanted to play and could prove their heritage. It's not that you don't know if a guy's Italian, but you have to prove he's eligible. It was a difficult chore, but we got it done."

Now, Galante has to round out his ballclub. Major Leaguers will comprise less than half of Italy's 30-man roster. The rest will come from the players in camp now, a mix of Triple-A and Double-A players here as well as Italian professionals.

Forty-four players attended Tuesday's initial workout. Some simply made a commute from other places in Florida. Others took all-day flights and didn't arrive in town until late Tuesday evening, all for the sake of representing their country. Galante didn't want to wear out anybody on the first day, so he kept it simple, opting for about two hours of bullpen sessions and batting practice.

Galante already knows the American players. The native Italians are more of a mystery. Most of them at least speak English, so there's not a language barrier. But in many cases, the familiarity stops there.

"We're really trying to discover what these guys can do at this point," Galante said. "We don't really know what we have. I was really impressed today by a lot of things. I thought the staff did a great job of hurriedly putting a first day together. I saw a lot of things that surprised me. I saw some ability that I wasn't sure was going to be there."

Once the discovery process is over, Galante will start working on the fundamentals. He has the time to work on it. The Italians will work out every afternoon starting around 1 p.m. ET, after the Detroit Tigers have wrapped up their morning workouts on the practice fields at the Tigertown complex.

The Major League players will join Team Italy on March 3, followed by a March 4 exhibition against a Tigers split squad at Joker Marchant Stadium. That'll be their lone warmup match before first-round play in the World Baseball Classic begins on March 7 against Australia.

First-round pool play doesn't get easier, with Venezuela and the Dominican Republic rounding out the group. But Galante thinks his team will hold its own.

"I can't make predictions. I know the competition," he said. "I've watched these guys the last 20 years. All I know is we're going to give a great effort. These kids are proud. They're proud to be part of this thing."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.