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Hawks pitcher was born in Italy, but the All-American sport is in his blood

Boise Hawks pitcher Alex Maestri will be in Yakima, Wash., on Sunday, preparing for a baseball game. His heart and mind will be half a world away because of a soccer match.

A native of Viserba, Italy, Maestri will be rooting for his countrymen to defeat France for the World Cup title.

"I'm a big fan," Maestri said.

But soccer didn't capture his affection as a boy. Neither did basketball, which is exploding in popularity in the country. Instead, it was baseball — a foreign game in Italy — that Maestri loved. And he excelled.

He began playing for national teams at 12. In March, he played for Italy in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Maestri was one of a handful of true Italians on the roster, which was mostly populated by major-league Americans of Italian heritage like Mike Piazza, David Dellucci and Frank Catalanotto.

Maestri pitched in two of the Italians' three games, going one-third of an inning in each. After a perfect first outing against Venezuela, he surrendered a home run to Moises Alou of the Dominican Republic in his second outing.

When the camera panned to Maestri, he was laughing — a sort of "I can't believe I'm really here" laugh.

Last year, he played in an Italian semi-pro league — basically the equivalent of Class A ball — with and against men who held other jobs to pay the bills. He was in college. And now he was giving up home runs to major league veterans.

"It was unbelievable. It was like a dream. They treated you like you were in the big leagues. And you're a nobody," Maestri said.

The Chicago Cubs didn't think he was a nobody. On the advice of European scout Bill Holmberg, they signed Maestri late last year without having seen him pitch. Maestri is believed to be the first Italian league pitcher ever signed by a Major League Baseball team.

"The backbone of this business is trusting your scouts," Cubs' farm director Oneri Fleita said. "We've been very pleased with the signing."

The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Maestri, whose favorite player is Cubs' veteran Greg Maddux, throws an improving two-seam fastball, a slider and a developing change-up. He has smooth mechanics, induces ground balls and brings it with good velocity.

After spending the first half of the season in extended spring training in Mesa, Ariz., Maestri made his American professional debut with Boise. In 111/3 innings, all in relief, the right-hander is 1-0 with a 2.38 ERA. He pitched 22/3 scoreless innings in Wednesday's victory against Tri-City.

"It's his first time in the country and we want to make sure it's a positive experience," Fleita said. "We'd like him going home (after the season) feeling good with confidence and seeing himself as a major leaguer."

That will take time.

Maestri, 21, still seems stunned by the turn of events. Instead of 10 fans watching him — as was the case in Italy — there are now a few thousand in the stands. Boise feels like the big leagues to a kid who can't help but dream of the real bigs.

"Sometimes I think about it and it sounds ridiculous to me. But I'm here and I've started to believe it," he said in very good English, albeit with a strong accent.

Despite being able to speak fluent English and Spanish — he can carry on conversations in Spanish with the Hawks' Latin players — Maestri is sensitive about his language skills. Darin Downs, his roommate in Mesa and Boise, learned that quickly.

"The first few times we went out to eat, I'd get whatever and he'd be like, 'Same, same.' He wasn't confident about speaking," Downs said. "He's gotten better. He can go out. I'm sure he had it in him."

What he didn't know, he learned. At night, Maestri would often make Downs spell out words that he didn't understand. Then Maestri would repeat the words. A word of the day, Downs called it.

Maestri proved a quick learner. At least quicker than Downs, who struggles to remember the Italian that his new friend has taught him.

"He says, 'You don't pay attention to anything I say.' I tell him I'm trying," said Downs, who has nicknamed his roomie "Maestro."

At least one of Maestri's lessons took hold. Downs, a soccer neophyte when the World Cup began, is now a seasoned observer thanks to Maestri's soccer lessons. They'll both be pulling for the Italians on Sunday.

Maestri missed Italy's frantic finish in its overtime victory against Germany on Tuesday because he was on the field warming up. He hopes to catch all of Sunday's final. But he isn't too worried about not being able to revel in the potential celebration.

"I miss Italy, but I'm having a good time here," he said.