By Nicholas Diunte
Imagine a great Sunday Italian feast, only this time with 100 members of your extended family and at the helm sits the incomparable Bobby Valentine. For those in attendance last week at Carmine’s in Brooklyn, this epic gathering was a reality, led by the former New York Mets manager in support of the Italian American Baseball Foundation.
Valentine sat elated at the head of the table as the foundation’s guest of honor during their second annual fund-raiser Dec. 7. As he stepped to the stage to accept his award, the recognition humbled the usually boastful Valentine.
“I have goosebumps right now receiving an award that I’m probably not even worthy of,” Valentine said.
The 67-year-old Valentine, who is currently the athletic director at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, dazzled the crowd with the story of how his luck began when his grandparents emigrated from Italy to Ellis Island on the same boat and settled in Stamford, where he built his legendary athletic career.
His standout prowess in three varsity sports at Rippowam High School led the Los Angeles Dodgers to select him with their first-round draft pick in 1968. He described how his fortunate journey continued with the guidance of a prominent Italian-American baseball luminary that developed into a five-decade friendship.
“When I got off the plane after signing as a No. 1 draft choice, the guy who picked me up at the airport was the rookie league manager,” Valentine recalled. “He said to me, ‘Hey, I don’t like you because you’re Italian, I like you because I’m Italian!’ I played for that guy in 1968 in rookie ball at Ogden, Utah. I was just with him at his 90th birthday party at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California. That guy has been a lifelong friend, Tommy Lasorda.”
While Valentine captured the hearts and minds of those in attendance with his tremendous display of pride for his Italian-American heritage, a new wave of Italians in Major League Baseball was making their pitch to carry on the tradition, including current New York Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo.
Nimmo played for Team Italy during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, causing him to dig deep into his roots to verify his eligibility. Suiting up for Team Italy after officials confirmed his maternal great-grandparents’ birth certificates, Nimmo has enjoyed the backing he has received from a new legion of fans.
“It’s been a blast just getting to go back into my mom’s heritage,” Nimmo said. “It opened up a different part of me that people didn’t know about. It brought in a different fan base and a whole new support system, so I’m very thankful for that.”
The fresh-faced outfielder was all smiles throughout the entire evening, receiving a genuine Brooklyn welcome from supporters of the IABF. He stayed until the close of the event, graciously posing for photos with seemingly every member of his newly minted extended family.
“This is why I’m here because these people are amazing; it’s a family atmosphere,” he said. “Just being able to play with Team Italy and support other people getting into baseball and to help get an academy over there in Italy is awesome. Any way that we can grow the game and bring people closer together and bring this family atmosphere anywhere we can, I’m all for it.”
Valentine was eager to welcome the likes of Nimmo, as well as Mets farmhands L.J. Mazzilli and J.J. Franco, who were also at the event, as the next wave of the members of the Italian-American baseball family that will carry on a rich tradition within the sport. He expressed the utmost confidence that both the game and the growth of the IABF are secure in their hands.
“I’m here to tell you that we’re going to have a great dinner and that this dinner will live on for many years,” Valentine said. “Players like Brandon Nimmo, who are just coming into their own, guys like J.J. Franco and L.J. Mazzilli are going to allow this organization not only to prosper, but to be an organic growing, living culture of Italian and American baseball. I believe that in my heart.”