When Rick Waits arrived in Italy in March 1987 to join the Rimini Pirates baseball club, the team held a press conference to introduce its new American pitcher. With the help of a translator, local journalists asked questions they hoped would make Waits, a former major leaguer, feel welcome. Then a reporter from Bologna, the home of the Pirates' traditional rivals, rose from his seat. "I heard you came over here," the reporter said, "because your arm is bad and you are too old."
The 34-year-old Waits seemed startled by the question. He paused and said. "My arm is not hurt, and as for my age, well. I have heard that drinking the Sangiovese wine keeps you young."
The reporter from Bologna smiled. He was surprised that Waits would know something of the region's wines.
For most Americans, playing baseball in Italy is one year of being a big fish in a little pond. In Italy the pitches don't curve the way they do Stateside, and games don't fill every date on the calendar. In the words of one of the 19 U.S. ballplayers who are on Italian teams this season, "This is like a vacation." Out of the side of his mouth he added, "Don't tell my manager."
Waits needn't worry that his manager will find out how much he likes playing in Italy. He is the manager. He pitched and was an unofficial pitching coach during the '87 season, in which Rimini won the national title. Then midway through his second year in Rimini, he went from being player-coach to being player-manager and led the team to a second national championship. This year, with Waits again at the helm and on the mound, Rimini was in the semifinals of the playoffs as SI went to press.
In his 12 years in the American League, Waits never came close to playing for a championship team. He was signed by the Washington Senators in 1970, played briefly for the Texas Rangers and was a solid starter for the Cleveland Indians for 8½ years. Perhaps his best season was 1978, when he had 13 wins and a 3.20 ERA, sang the national anthem before two games and, in the season finale, beat the New York Yankees 9-2 to force a playoff between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox to decide the American League East title. In 1979 he won a career-high 16 games, but during his stint in Cleveland, the Indians never finished higher than fourth in the AL East.
After being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1983, he injured his shoulder and was sent down to the Brewers' Triple A club in Vancouver. He was shuttled back and forth over the next two seasons, and he spent all of 1986 in Vancouver before being released at age 34. "I've got thousands of innings left in this arm," Waits thought, and he began searching for a place to prove it.
Waits had learned a little about Italian baseball from Rich Olsen, who had also pitched in Vancouver and was playing for Grosseto, another team in the Italian league. He made a few calls, consulted other friends and found a receptive ear in Rimini. In the spring of '87, without knowing a soul, he packed his bags and made the trip. His wife, Annie, and their three children followed in May. "We only intended to come over for one season."
With a 15-5 record and a 1.59 ERA, Waits led the Pirates to the league title, defeating Grosseto in the championship series. He was so delighted to finally be on a championship team that he signed up for another year with Rimini, and in June '88, with half the season gone, the Pirates' manager resigned. The team owner talked Waits into becoming a player-manager.
In his first game, Rimini squandered an eight-run lead and lost 11-10 to Milan. However, he won 14 games and finished with a 1.87 ERA, and Rimini defeated Nettuno in the championship series. Says Waits of his managerial approach, "I started trying to stress the old 'We are family' thing, the way the Pittsburgh Pirates did, but I have always been that way. I never really had that sense of family when I played for Cleveland."