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Pirates Prospect Profile: Alessandro Ercolani Finds Home Away From Home in Baseball

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Pirates' prospect Alessandro Ercolani pitches for the Bradenton Marauders: photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates’ pitching prospect Alessandro Ercolani rose through the ranks of baseball on the Italian Peninsula at a meteoric pace, outclassing competition a decade or more his elder even at the age of 16. With a goal of reaching Major League Baseball someday, Ercolani knew he needed more.

“When I was younger I was just using fastballs, the median velocity for fastballs was really low in Italy. Whenever you throw a fastball at 88 or 90 miles per hour when you’re just 15 or 16, it’s really hard for the hitters,” Ercolani said. “I knew that staying in Italy beyond the age of 16 would be bad for me, because I didn’t have the chance to improve my other pitches.”

The now 20-year-old right-hander, who has posted a 3.12 ERA in 26 innings for the High-A Greensboro Grasshoppers this season, hails from the enclave of San Marino, an independent nation located entirely within the borders of Italy. Ercolani said he picked up America’s pastime when he was six years old after seeing a family friend take part in the sport.

He learned about baseball using YouTube, and said that the size of big league stadiums caught his eye more than any team or player: the population of San Marino stood at 33,660 as of 2022, small enough to fit inside Cleveland’s Progressive Field, the smallest MLB stadium, with more than 1,000 seats to spare. Ercolani wanted to become part of that atmosphere.

“I was just watching videos about stadiums, I didn’t know the names of players. I was fascinated by all the people, the big stadiums, always thinking ‘this would be my dream,’” Ercolani said. “With the passage of time, I saw that baseball could be more for me than just a hobby, just a sport.”

Joining the Pros

At 16, Alessandro Ercolani pitched to a 1.35 ERA in six relief appearances for ASD San Marino in the top flight of Italian baseball. He also competed for Italy on the international stage, catching the eye of Major League scouts in the process.

Ercolani said that Tom Gillespie, the Pirates’ international scout who ended up signing him to a professional contract, continued to visit him in San Marino, meeting with his parents. While they were excited for his opportunity, Ercolani’s friends and family didn’t know what to expect: only two Italian-developed pitchers have ever reached Double-A baseball, much less the big leagues. Should he make MLB, he’ll become the first Sammarinese to do so.

“The first time they were all excited for me, for this new experience. At the same time, it was something hard to do at the age of 16: leave your country, leave your family, your friends, and live another life alone,” Ercolani said. “Now I have this opportunity and it’s hard—it’s really hard—to be away from family, friends, everything at home, but it’s something I want… It’s something I have to put aside and fight every day to stay in a good, healthy mental space both outside and on the field.”

Finding Solace

Once in the United States, Alessandro Ercolani spent his first two seasons in the Florida Coast League, learning to diversify his pitch mix and adjusting to the rigors of professional baseball.

“At the beginning it was a completely different version of baseball. In Italy it’s just a hobby, here it’s like a job. There’s technology to help you, [intensive] coaching,” Ercolani said. “I had a really good impression, but it was hard to go from practicing four times a week in Italy to here, practicing every day.”

Despite the strict regimen, Ercolani found solace within the game, something that helped him feel at home nearly 5,000 miles from the place where he grew up.

While other cultural elements can prove hard to adjust to—Ercolani mentioned the difference between authentic Italian food and its American facsimiles, for instance—baseball provides a refuge to fall back on, something he knows and enjoys, motivating him and keeping him focused.

“I had this period where it’s really hard because I’m fighting with so many things, but I know what my goal is and I’m going to do everything to just improve to reach my goal,” Ercolani said.

“Sometimes my friends in Italy who play baseball ask me how it is in America. They ask me if the most difficult part is the game itself. I always say that baseball is the easiest part, because it’s something that you like, something you are good at. The really difficult thing for someone that came from another country, a different culture, is the time you have outside the field: trying to find things to do.”

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