Aug. 3, 2011
By JOHN PAINTER
The catch-phrase worked for Father Guido Sarducci of Saturday Night Live fame and these days it's working for Tennessee's Jeff Wood, who departed Knoxville this week for his second trip to Italy in as many years.
Wood, UT's baseball athletic trainer, arrived Tuesday in Tirrenia on the country's northwestern Mediterranean coast, near Pisa, to assist in the seventh annual Major League Baseball European Academy through Aug. 27. Held at the Italian Olympic Training Center, the academy brings together promising European and, in some cases, African baseball players, ages 15-19, for the best in U.S. major league coaching and instruction.
"Most of them can play junior college ball," Wood said of the academy's talent level. "Many of these prospects already are part of their national team programs, and a lot of them come to the states and play on the junior college level or small colleges.
"And some of them get drafted; there have been European players in minor league baseball."
This isn't the first international experience for Wood, who also was part of a three-week MLB camp in China back in 2007. Wood's favorite part of his experiences thus far?
"Interacting with the ex-major leaguers," he said. "We have Art Howe back as our manager, our pitching coach is Bruce Hurst, and Wally Joyner and Lee Smith will be there too. Lee Smith is a hoot; that guy is crazy. The whole staff is terrific."
Wood, a Winfield, W.Va., native, also appreciates the dedication of the young camp attendees who play their favorite sport in relative anonymity on the other side of the Atlantic.
"There's not a lot of media coverage for these guys - baseball isn't a big-time sport there - but we do have major league scouts," Wood said. "Scouts are in the stands charting pitches and timing everybody. That's how they come to be drafted."
And that's a good thing, since there is only one baseball field at the Italian Olympic center.
"They have one baseball field and then a partial field - like a half-field," Wood said. "They have tennis courts, soccer fields, a rugby field. We might see a rugby team practicing, but they have people coming in and training all the time."
After breakfast, training starts about 9 a.m. and is devoted to instruction - batting practice, cutoffs and relays, bunting, pickoffs, rundowns, all those kinds of things. That session goes until about noon, when there is a lunch break.
The afternoon games begin around 1:30 and take place Monday through Thursday. Friday afternoon is free, as are weekends. Wood's job is to help the MLB staff keep an eye on the young attendees and make sure stress levels remain low in the summer heat.
"Art is really good, just super nice," Wood says of his manager. "He's a class, class guy. He's not afraid to give guys the afternoon off if it gets too hot, and it does sometimes. I checked the weather before leaving and it's supposed to be in the upper 80s my first week there, so that will be perfect."
Assisting Wood this year will be an intern from England, flown in at MLB's expense. Wood also has use of an athletic training room at the Olympic facility, and the Italian Baseball Federation has facilities on site as well.
"We have our own chef and we come in for lunch to 10-12 different dishes - same thing for dinner," he said with a smile. "There's a lot of pasta, a lot of meat and vegetables, and they're not afraid to bring out the wine.
"The chef's name last year was Aldo, and he did a great job. I hope Aldo's back, because I did not go hungry one single day. It's not your usual training table fare; I can assure you of that!"
Wood took advantage of his locale and free weekends last year to sample some of the Italian sights. He visited Florence and, of course, Pisa, but hopes to add Siena in the heart of Tuscany to his tourist list this time around.
"And there's a place on the coast called Cinque Terra that's supposed to be beautiful," Wood added. "Everywhere I've been over there so far has been unbelievable."
Wood returns to Knoxville at the end of the month, eagerly anticipating a fresh chapter in his life. Things are good on the home front with his wife, Malinda, and sons Jordan, Lucas and Zachary. But Wood finds himself embarking on a new career phase with the arrival of head coach Dave Serrano to the UT dugout.
"I tell everybody that I'm excited about this staff and excited about Coach Serrano," said Wood, who this fall enters his 12th season with the Big Orange. "I think he's going to be awesome.
"It's going to be tough-sledding the first couple of years; it's going to be hard to right the ship. But he's going to do a great job. Fans are going to love him."
Wood has come to know what that love of baseball means in lands both near and far. On behalf of America's national pastime, Wood is experiencing once again what a little missionary work can do in countries that existed centuries before any wild Abner Doubleday rumor first took wings.
In fact, Wood might offer a simple "a presto (see you soon)" when discussing his next international baseball destination, wherever that may take him. And that's no late-night joke.