Alex Liddi reached the majors this week, marking multiple milestones not just for himself, but for the sport. He's the first Italian-born big leaguer since World War II, and the first who grew up in Italy, as opposed to players from early last century who were born in Italy but emigrated here as children. But more important to MLB is the fact that he's the first player signed from the sport's European academy to reach the majors, and as the talent level in Europe continues to improve -- something Leander Schaerlaeckens writes more about on ESPN.com today -- he should be followed by many more from all over the continent.
Europe has had no trouble producing athletic talent in sports that are more popular at the youth level, such as soccer, ice hockey, or even regional sports like handball or cycling, so the potential to find legitimate baseball prospects exists. But even with MLB's growing efforts with its main academy (located in Tirrenia, Italy, a coastal town about 15 kilometers from Pisa) and new regional academies in countries where baseball has at least established a foothold, scouts face significant challenges in identifying and evaluating players.
Just getting young athletes interested in baseball was, for some time, the major obstacle for baseball in Europe; you can't take a raw athlete at 16 or 18, stick a bat in his hands, and expect him to be able to handle even decent college pitching. "Baseball, even though it has been in Europe many many years, wasn't given the priority perhaps by the various countries in terms of athletics," according to Bob Engle, vice president of international operations for the Seattle Mariners. "But the main thing occurring [to change that] is more exposure. Global communications have helped, and it helps to have some players at the major league level from Europe."