On a summer Sunday, after a series in Milan, Waits strolls along the cobblestone streets of Sant' Arcangelo di Romagna, 12 kilometers from Rimini. With him are Annie and their children; a first-year American player for Rimini, shortstop Thad Reece; and Reece's wife, Karen. They are indulging in a popular Italian custom, a predinner passeggiatta, or "leisurely walk."
On the main street of Sant' Arcangelo, Rick and Thad pause and look up at a second-floor balcony in front of a pair of French windows. "Succi!" yells Reece, cupping his hands in front of his mouth and calling out the surname of his teammate Andrea Succi.
Succi is a .300-hitting leftfielder by night and an architect and a movie set designer by day. Most of the Italian players have day jobs. For them, baseball is more of a hobby than a profession. Succi isn't home, so the passeggiatta continues.
Before long the party arrives at a restaurant called Da Lazaroun, where Rick orders in grammatically sound Italian but with a distinctly American accent. He raises a glass of Sangiovese wine. The green bottle has no label, and he explains that the restaurants in that part of northern Italy grow their own grapes and make their own wines. Perhaps the legend of the Sangiovese is true. Rick does look younger than 37. Two nights earlier, in the opener at Milan, he must have felt like a rookie. His pitching counterpart was 46-year-old Carlo Passarotto.
The Milan game was fairly standard for Italian baseball. Fans were slow to arrive at the 2,000-seat stadium at the Centro Sportivo J.F. Kennedy on the outskirts of town. Television cameras were present, and the game would be broadcast nationally the following Monday. When Passarotto threw his first pitch, fewer than 30 fans were in the concrete stands.
In the top of the first the Pirates, who are also called Ronson-Lenoir after their sponsors, who make cigarette lighters and stereos, respectively, took a 3-0 lead. Reece, the "nuovo Americano," as the public-address announcer called him, scored the first run. Reece, who's short, scrappy and towheaded, looks younger than his 30 years. He has played professionally since he was 19, never rising above Triple A.
Reece is typical of the U.S. players in Italy. Though the money doesn't approach that paid to American basketball players in Italy, for the minor league baseball player the lire can be attractive. "A kid who's playing Double A ball in the States is only making $1,500 to $2,000 a month," says Waits. "He would come over for the money because he's got a chance to make between $2,000 and $3,500 a month, plus expenses. They give you a car. They pay for your apartment and the trip for your family both ways."
Waits, on the other hand, is not the average U.S. player. He won't say how much he makes, but the maximum an American can earn is around $50,000. For Waits, who signed a three-year guaranteed $1.2 million contract with Cleveland in 1982, the salary is not the primary reason he's in Italy. This year the total cost of educating his two elder children at a private American school in Rimini comes to $14,000. From time to time Waits has to dip into his savings in the States.
The schedule, however, is less grueling than in the U.S. minor leagues. Italian teams play only on weekends, usually a night game on Friday and a double-header on Saturday. "When they told me I only had to pitch once a week," says Waits, "that was my dream." Still, the light schedule has its drawbacks. "It takes somebody who's patient and who has an interest in culture," he says. "If you're just going to come here to play ball, you'll go nuts. There's not enough baseball."
In the bottom of the first against Milan, Waits allowed a couple of hits and a run, but he looked strong, blowing a good fastball by batters and throwing one curve that broke so drastically that the hitter flailed at it and lost his bat. In the fourth inning, Waits gave up a single. Cries of support from the crowd—"Bello, bello!" ("Beautiful, beautiful!") and "Forza, Milano!" ("Strength, Milan!")—faded as the next hitter popped up in front of the plate. Waits skipped off the mound and caught the ball for the out. The next batter hit into a routine double play.