Like so many Italian kids before and after him, 10-year-old Marten Gasparini would play in his backyard and dream of one day becoming a professional athlete.
But here’s the curveball to your assumption: Gasparini’s aspiration was to play baseball, not soccer.
Those hopes are often dashed for American kids who grow up with easy access to diamonds, equipment and coaching that is not commonplace in the small city of Ruda in northeast Italy, near the Slovenian border.
Gasparini, who had watched baseball in movies, started playing with a tennis ball and a stick. Six years later at age 16, he received a $1.3 million bonus from the Royals in 2013, the largest ever given to a player from Europe.
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How did a kid from rural Italy land such a deal? The tale begins with the person in the Royals organization who initially found and recruited Gasparini, someone who has never been a scout.
“It is,” said Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo, “really kind of a neat story.”
Nick Leto has dark, short hair, and he is blessed with a friendly, affable personality. On a typically sunny day in Surprise, he is wearing a Royals polo shirt and greeting nearly everyone who passes by their first name.
His title is the Arizona operations manager for the Royals. In a nutshell, that means Leto ensures the facilities in Surprise accommodate whatever the team needs. It’s a year-round job.
After the Royals break spring training this week, the minor-leaguers stay behind until their season begins. Players from the big-league club sometimes stay in extended spring training if they are working through injuries. There is a rookie-ball team there in the summer, and the Royals take part in the Arizona Fall League.
Leto previously worked for the Braves in their facility in Orlando, Fla. He also helped Major League Baseball run its European academies, including one at the Italian Olympic Training Center in Tirrenia.
That’s where he got to know Bill Holmberg of the Italian Baseball Academy. Holmberg tipped off Leto about Gasparini, and the Royals quickly encouraged Leto to check him out.
“For somebody in my position to even have the freedom to do something like that is, in my mind, unheard of,” Leto said, shaking his head. “The operations guy from Arizona is not going to Europe for the club, not scouting anything; I’m not even on that level.”
Leto wasn’t a complete novice. His work for MLB in Europe and with the Braves and Royals gave him an opportunity to watch a lot of young ballplayers.
“I’d never been to a kid’s house,” Leto acknowledged. “My experience is the kids come in and you take care of them once they get to the facility. It’s a whole other ballgame going into a kid’s house, sitting with their parents. I had never done that before.”
Yet Leto traveled to Italy early in 2013 and was the first representative of an MLB team to visit Gasparini’s parents. Fortunately for Leto, language wasn’t an issue. While Gasparini’s father is Italian, his mother is from England and is of Jamaican descent.
The Gasparinis had no concept of the path a kid takes to the major leagues. So Leto had much to talk about, although the conversations often steered away from baseball.
“They’re Italian. They sit at the table and talk,” Leto said. “They have dinner and they talk for three hours.
“The first time, I showed up at the house at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and I left at, like, 4 o’clock in the morning. I never met anybody like this family or anyone like this kid. … I never met anybody this intelligent. They’re just unique.”
At one time, Gasparini’s father traveled the world, selling ropes for sailing boats. He’d bring home gifts for his family. That included a baseball bat and glove set not long after young Marten first tried the game.
“It was something different than soccer and volleyball, which are the most played sports in Italy,” Gasparini said. “I was at the age where you want to try everything, so I gave it a try just for fun in my backyard. On TV, you see the big stadiums and the people chanting. I thought that looked really fantastic, and that’s how I got fascinated with it.”
Gasparini soon joined a youth league near his home at age 10. By age 14, Gasparini moved to the Italian Baseball Academy in Tirrenia, which is a five-hour drive from his home. His life revolved around baseball and school.
At the academy, Holmberg gave away baseball cards as a reward to the players. Gasparini’s first introduction to the Royals came via a David Cone card.
“I believe he won a Cy Young Award with the Royals,” Gasparini said, correctly.
Gasparini also watched VHS tapes of the 1999 and 2001 World Series and fervently studied his favorite player: Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.
Gasparini, who is now 18, is a shortstop as well, and he said that Jeter’s attitude was worth emulating.
“He’s the best example that anyone could take and make his own,” Gasparini said. “The way he went about his business and the way he takes care of himself as a professional, it’s unprecedented.
“Just thinking about what Derek Jeter would do helps me to figure out what I should do, day in and day out coming to the field.”
Gasparini soon was traveling to tournaments in Mexico and South Korea and turning heads.
Early in 2013, Leto arrived in Italy and began pestering Rene Francisco, the Royals’ assistant general manager for international operations, to make a trip to Italy.
“Rene saw the kid, and he right away said this kid is really, really good,” Leto said. “This is somebody that we want to pursue aggressively. This is somebody we want.”
More trips to Italy by Francisco and Leto followed, and eventually Dayton Moore visited. Before long, scouts from other teams were on scene as well, and a bidding war broke out for Gasparini.
Leto recalled a time when 20 scouting directors were at a game watching Gasparini. Heavy hitters like the Dodgers and Yankees were interested, and at that time the Royals were still a team trying to overcome decades of futility.
It was “their brands versus our brand,” Leto said. “We were selling a dream. We were selling Dayton’s vision and to get somebody to believe that in Italy: this is how we do business, we sign and develop players, this is how we’re going to win with homegrown players. This is what we take pride in, trying to explain how we work. To get somebody to believe that wasn’t easy. These people bought in.”
A 16-year-old who dominated in his native country is rewarded with a $1.3 million signing bonus. It would have been easy for Gasparini to come to the United States to start his pro career and expect to dominate. But that wasn’t his mindset.
“I knew because I was playing in Italy that I would be behind the other players when I came here,” Gasparini said. “They grew up playing baseball.”
In his first game for the Burlington (N.C.) Royals in 2014, Gasparini had three hits, and he was batting .500 after his first two games. Trying to impress, Gasparini said that he played at full speed in every aspect: running out routine grounders, trying to reach balls that were destined to fall for hits and the like.
That resulted in a hamstring injury, and he finished with a .191 average in 19 games at Burlington. But Gasparini ended the 2014 season with four games at Rookie-Advanced Idaho Falls, batting .455 (5 for 11).
Last season, he spent the full season at Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League, whose teams primarily stock with players drafted out of college. Gasparini, who turned 18 in May, batted .259 with 26 stolen bases. Over his final 22 games with the Chukars, he hit .357 with 14 walks, 24 strikeouts and six triples.
“Running, throwing, power, athleticism, he’s got all the tools we look for in a player,” Picollo said. “You go into that knowing you’ve got to be patient with him. Abilitywise he could take off in a heartbeat, just because he’s so talented. But the reality is the game playing, and that experience is going to take time.”
There have been growing pains. Gasparini has made 50 errors in 74 career games at shortstop. But Baseball America ranks him as the Royals’ No. 7 overall prospect. MLB.com has him at No. 8.
The Royals’ employee who first set eyes on Gasparini sees a bright future.
“He’s got some charisma, he’s got the intelligence, he’s got discipline,” Leto said. “He’s got all the things a successful person has.”