Former FSU star pitches for Italy as brother prepares to fight in Iraq
Posted: Monday August 16, 2004 12:51AM; Updated: Monday August 16, 2004 12:51AM
Leslie Malerich is as Italian as they come -- at least when they come from Merrillville, an Indiana town not far from the Illinois border.
"It's close to Chicago," she said on Sunday after shutting down China with two and one-third innings of perfect relief in Italy's 7-5 Olympic softball victory, as if mere proximity to the aroma of deep-dish pizza could prove her bona fides for the Azzurri.
Of course, in the realpolitik of modern sport, the ability to throw strikes is a job in considerable demand. Have drop ball, will travel. Forza, Italia!
Actually, Italian blood does trickle, if not exactly course, through the veins of her powerful right arm. Malerich's paternal grandmother emigrated from Sicily, although her command of Italian has corroded with years of living in America.
But after being an Italian athlete for two years, Malerich now comprehends the language a little, although English is the lingua franca of her team.
And a catcher's sign language is universal.
"[Our team] marched in the opening ceremonies," said the former two-time All-America from Florida State, "and it didn't feel strange. It actually made me feel a part of something. It's truly part of who I am. I was marching for Italy, but I was also representing my family and myself."
In a perfect world, Malerich, Indiana's 1997 high school athlete of the year, would be playing for the powerhouse United States, but you can have only so many pitchers on a 15-player Olympic roster.
The 24-year old, despite her 107-40 record with the Seminoles and selection to the NCAA all-tournament team in 2002, concedes that cracking the Lisa Fernandez/Jenny Finch Team USA staff would have been a stretch.
But Italy, a team punctuated with Americans, was happy to reach out. Despite growths on the tendon of her pitching elbow that sidelined her part of the spring and summer, Malerich has resumed a pivotal role for her second-string nation.
But even with pride of place in Italy, Malerich admits to having pangs when she saw the Stars and Stripes paraded into the Olympic Stadium last Friday.
She says she was thrilled because of her abiding love and respect for her homeland, her thoughts quickly turning to her brother, Aaron. He is a member of the National Guard. Aaron Malerich is scheduled to be sent to Iraq after she returns from Athens.
"Aaron came to mind immediately," Malerich said, "because he's going to fight for freedom. Not only for the U.S., but for all the people here."