Winthrop baseball has truly become an international affair.
Coaches Joe Hudak and Mike McGuire sat down recently to discuss their newest acquisition -- Italian-born pitcher Matteo D'Angelo, a 19-year-old right-hander who has honed his game pitching against the world's various national teams. D'Angelo got all his paperwork processed and went through all the governmental hurdles just in time, putting him on campus and ready to go this season.
"It's everybody's dream in Italy to come play baseball in the States," D'Angelo said this week, smiling in the confines of The Winthrop Ballpark's players' lounge. "I really wanted to get here."
D'Angelo isn't the first foreign-born player to wear the Eagles' garnet and gold, but he's the first from Italy. Hudak's had several players from Canada during his 17 years at Winthrop and Christian Tomsich, an Austrian native, played from 2000-01.
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The Eagles had already landed Australian infielder Aaron Bonomi for this season but began hearing about D'Angelo, who was pitching at F. Enriques Liceo Scientifico, an Italian baseball academy. The American-born coach of the academy, Bill Holmberg, was feeding information to Winthrop, intriguing Hudak enough that he began researching the possibility of signing him.
"We thought he could pitch, but we're not going to put a scholarship in the kid without seeing him," Hudak said. "Mac talked to the guy over there and found out their schedule and we just decided to pull the trigger and go over there."
McGuire and his wife flew to Italy to watch D'Angelo pitch and found out what the Eagles wanted to know -- his talent and experience were more than enough to be successful in American college baseball. D'Angelo had planned to pitch at Miami Dade (Fla.) College, a junior college program, but it had fallen through, so when the Eagles began discussing the possibility of bringing him in, he was willing to listen.
"Everybody said he's plus-makeup, plus-competitor," McGuire said. "Obviously he's pretty battle-tested."
Hudak and McGuire began working with Winthrop on what D'Angelo needed to do to get to school. The process ruled out coming to Rock Hill in the previous semester, but once D'Angelo took the SAT, cleared admissions and got his visa processed, he was ready.
He reported to campus Jan. 9 and began classes, throwing two bullpen sessions and beginning weightlifting/conditioning drills. He's also been getting used to his new surroundings and the new approach to education.
"Here you get to choose all the classes," D'Angelo said. "The homework, it's real different. We don't type ours and send it in. If you want, you can go to classes in Italy. You don't have to."
Born in Latina, Italy, D'Angelo moved to Texas with his family in 1998. He played two years of Little League before the family moved again, returning to Italy.
He was good enough to earn an invitation to the academy at age 16, so D'Angelo packed his bags and moved 2 1/2 hours from his home in Bologna. Playing there for three years while trying to realize his dream of playing in the U.S., D'Angelo heard about Winthrop after his Miami Dade plans were snuffed.
"Winthrop found me," he said. "The stadium here is beautiful. It's better than the stadium we have in Italy. I like the staff, the locker room, the lounge room, everything."
D'Angelo threw for Italy in the World Cup, helping lead his team over the U.S. 6-2. He threw 3 1-3 innings during the competition, posting a 5.40 ERA.
Hudak's already said D'Angelo will pitch this season, but how much is yet to be determined. Although he's got significant experience, he missed the fall session where the Eagles began the process of replacing much of their pitching staff.
From the two bullpens D'Angelo has thrown, Hudak has spotted good command of a fastball on both sides of the plate and a solid off-speed sinker. D'Angelo is improving his slider and developing a changeup, which can be fine-tuned when team practice begins on Feb. 1.
"I see him contributing right away," Hudak said. "We haven't seen enough of him to know where he's going to fit. But at the same time, you like his experience. He's pitched in Cuba, pitched in the world games. He's not going to be intimidated by anyone we face."
D'Angelo is rooming with Bonomi and two South Carolina natives, Tyler McBride and Rand Baughman -- "A couple of good ol' Southern boys to teach him the ropes," Hudak cracked. He's getting around by bicycle since he doesn't have a South Carolina driver's license yet and has already impressed his teammates and coaching staff with his maturity and likeable nature.
"He's the kind of kid we want on our club, not just the kind of pitcher we want on our club," Hudak said.