Teaser Tuesday ~ Julian Bell ~ A Diamond in Venice
About the Author
Thomas Bell who writes under the pen name, Julian Bell, is a resident of southwestern Ohio and a recently retired business executive. He sits on the board of two corporations and has several clients with whom he consults. He is the former President and CEO of Skyline Chili and was Executive Vice President of Baker Concrete, the largest concrete construction company in the United States.
Before obtaining and M.B.A. from Miami University of Ohio, Mr. Bell served in the United States Air Force and was based at Aviano Air Base in Northern Italy. A Diamond in Venice is his first novel.
In June 1966, 20 year old Johnny Jones joins the Air Force and is shipped to a base in Northern Italy. Little did he know he’d have a torrid love affair, play professional baseball in the Italian League and be offered the opportunity to become an officer and fly fighter jets.
‘A Diamond In Venice’ is the story of a young man from the Midwest who at the end of his sophomore year of college has no clue as to what he wants to do or what he wants to be, so he decides to join the armed forces. When he arrives at Aviano Air Base located in Northern Italy, he meets Maria, a gorgeous Italian girl from a wealthy family who is working on the base to perfect her English. They fall deeply in love and Johnny realizes that he now knows what he wants to do – marry Maria and become an officer. He discovers, however, that there are a few obstacles, including Maria’s father who is opposed to their relationship. Johnny must somehow find a way to win him over.
Along the way he is given the opportunity to play professional baseball in the Italian baseball league where he becomes a star playing shortstop for Venice. Never in his wildest dreams did he ever think he’d be signing autographs before a ball game.
After the game I showered and shaved, while Maria and Gabriella hung out with Gina at a café near the square. Jack and Gina decided to go to Gina’s parents’ house to discuss the wedding, which was only two weeks away, so I took the girls out to eat.
The girls looked great in their sundresses, which were short and low cut, Maria’s more than Gabriella’s. We decided to go to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant place near their villa in Sacile. They both said it wasn’t anything special, but the pizza and pasta were good.
The girls decided to share a pizza and I ordered my favorite, spaghetti with meat sauce—I figured I could steal a piece of pizza as well. As we enjoyed some red wine, I told the girls I was going to try out for Venice’s Baseball team. I thought Gabriella would explode with excitement.
“Is it really true, Johnny? You aren’t making a joke? You’ll play for Venezia?”
Maria was smiling at Gabriella and then me. I could tell by the look on her face, though, she was excited too.
“I didn’t say I’d be playing. I first have to make the team. They’re sending me and another guy down to try out. He’s a catcher who plays fast pitch for Headquarters. He’s a big guy and seems like a really good player. I’m not sure of how good a hitter he is, because when a player hits against Holt it’s hard to look good.”
“When do you try out, Johnny? And can I go?”
“Gabriella! You should not be so presumptuous.” She smiled. “Johnny is my boyfriend.”
“I know Maria, I’m just so happy for him and I love watching baseball.”
“Gabriella your enthusiasm is even starting to get me excited, but when I go down to try out I need to be totally calm and focused. If I make the team, then you and Maria can come and watch me play.”
“Johnny, you will make the team. I know you will. You are so good a player. Maria and I will come and watch you play.”
After dinner, I drove them home. Maria invited me in. Gabriella went to her room and we went into the music room.
“Are your parents home?”
“No, they are visiting friends in Pordenone and won’t be home for a couple of hours.”
“Maria, I want to talk to your father about us and I want to tell him how I feel about you.” She looked away. “I know you lied to him about us, but if he got to know me, I know he’d like me—I’m a pretty nice guy.”
She smiled. “Johnny, I know he would like you, but we must wait. Please.”
She played piano for me again. This time she played several songs from Broadway, ‘I Could Have Danced All Night,’ ‘Some Enchanted Evening,’ and, ironically, ‘Maria.’ When she finished, she came over to me, and like last time knelt in front of me and pulled me to her and kissed me with deep emotion. I gently pulled her up on the couch and she laid her head on my shoulder.
Suddenly, Gabriella was shaking us. We had fallen asleep.
“Maria, Mama and Papa will soon be home.”
“Grazie, Gabriella. Johnny, I’m sorry, but you must go.” As I drove back to the base I couldn’t help but wonder why Maria seemed so opposed to me talking with her father.
On Wednesday after work, Maria and I drove up to Our Lady of the Mountain. Neither of us had actually been in the church so we decided to go in. Maria was always very solemn in church. She knelt down and prayed and I knelt down beside her. After a few minutes the priest (we learned his name was Father Giuseppe) who confronted us a couple of months earlier came in and entered the confessional. I noticed he glanced our way as he was walking toward the confessional. A few people began lining up to go to confession, including Maria. When she came out I followed her to the front of the church. We each lit a candle.
Maria kneeled down and prayed her penance. When she finished, we walked out of the church. It was dark and the lights below in the valley were sparkling. We walked to the railing and took in the view.
“What was the ‘special intention’ you asked the Lord for when you lit the candle, Maria.”
“It was for us. And you?”
“It was that I would soon get to talk with your dad, I mean your father, and that he will like me.”
“Johnny, it is a very fragile thing. If he knows how we really are, he will forbid me to see you.”
“Okay, I get it. I guess I can play the game for a while, but Maria, he’s got to know sooner or later.”
She looked down. “I will arrange for a meeting, but you must not tell him we are in love.” As she spoke she turned and looked me in the eye.
On Tuesday we had a game against Base Ops. It wasn’t much of a contest. Holt threw a two-hitter, striking out 12 and walking 3. We won 10-0. I was three for five with two doubles, but it was the first game I hadn’t hit a long ball, although one of the doubles hit the fence and missed going out by a foot.
After the game Sullivan and I were talking about my upcoming tryout in Venice. Sullivan was a pitcher in high school and he suggested that a little practice wouldn’t hurt me. I agreed, so he and Jack decided to help me get ready. We called Wyman and he came up with a bag of balls and a couple of baseball bats. On Thursday after work we went to the practice field adjacent to the fast pitch field. Mike came along to help shag balls.
Sullivan took a few minutes to warm up. I stepped into the batter’s box batting right-handed and I asked Sullivan to throw only fastballs to start. He was probably throwing in the low 80’s. In high school most of the pitchers threw in the high 70’s and low 80’s and occasionally you’d see a guy who would hit the high 80’s.
It took me a little while to get my timing down. I finally hit a few long fly balls (one or two may have cleared the fence, had there been one) and some line drives, but I also hit a lot of pop ups and ground balls. After about 15 minutes I turned around and hit left-handed. I popped the first one up. After that, I was dialed in. It was one rope after another with a few that would have been sure homeruns.
We stopped at the BX on the way back from the field. I decided to buy a bat because I wasn’t sure if the Venice team would have a bat that would fit my swing. There were only a few bats for sale. Most were little league bats meant for young boys, but there was one 33” Louisville Slugger, Jackie Jenson model. It had a thin handle and was a little light for me. Then I spotted a 34” Adirondack, Stan Musial model. I took a few swings. It was a beauty, so I bought it. I didn’t know it then, but that bat had a few hits in it!
On Friday morning I met with Sergeant Wyman. He introduced me to A1C Alex Perez who was the catcher for Headquarters. Alex was 6’2” and about 210 pounds, much of which was muscle. He was from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Wyman said we both had an excellent chance to make Venice’s team. He had seen them play the prior year and he thought we’d have been the best two players on that team.
Neither Alex or I knew much about the Italian baseball leagues, so Frank explained that there were two leagues in Italy, the A and the B Leagues. Technically they were professional leagues, but the pay was minimal. The A League players probably got 60,000-120,000 lira per game, or the equivalent of $100-$200. The B League players only got 10,000-20,000 lira per game or the equivalent of $16- $32 per game. Wyman said we should realize that the Air Force was willing to supply a few players to the Leagues as a goodwill gesture and to promote relations with the Italian people. Neither Alex nor I cared about the money. We just enjoyed playing the game and were looking forward to seeing more of Italy.
Venice was in the B League along with Padua, Udine, Treviso, Trieste, Vicenza and Verona. The A League was comprised of teams from several larger cities including Rome, Milan, Florence and a few others. Wyman gave us directions on how to get to Venice and where we were to meet.
Alex and I hopped in the Mustang with our equipment and took off. During the ride to Venice I learned a little about him. For one thing he was a very personable guy with a good sense of humor. It seemed as though he was laughing half the time. His father owned and operated a little restaurant in San Juan. His two brothers and his sister all worked in the business.
We parked in a large lot then boarded a ferry. We must’ve looked strange to the other passengers on the boat because we were loaded down with our bats, gloves and warm up bags. We were dressed in sweatpants and jerseys. We arrived at our stop, St. Mark’s Square. I had been there on a cold December day with Maria. But this was a warm sunny day with the temperature around 75 degrees. There were lots of tourists at the sidewalk cafes enjoying food and drink – and the live music.
We followed the directions Wyman gave us and found the address. It turned out to be a restaurant. The owner was also the owner of the ball club. His name was Gelindo Pancera. When we walked in the bar, Gelindo rushed to greet us. He spoke perfect English. He had lived in New York until he was 13. It was like we were long lost family. Most of the players were also there, and Gelindo introduced us to them. It was less than an hour before practice and our tryout, and almost every player was drinking either a Grappa or a Sambuca Bianca! I guessed the training regimen was a little different in Italy. Gelindo offered Alex and me a drink, but we declined. After about 45 minutes we all left Gelindo’s bar and boarded a ferry to the Lido where the ball field was located.
The field was a converted soccer field; there weren’t any lights. There were locker rooms but no dugouts, only benches. And the field was bumpy. Gelindo introduced us to the team’s manager. His name was Ricardo Martino, but he went by Rick.
“What poseetion do you guysa play?”
I answered, “Alex is a catcher and I play center field.”
“Ah, si catcher is good, but we no needa the center fielder. Hava a good center fielder already – best in league. Also hava very good left anda right fielders.”
I thought I was done before the tryout.
“We needa shortstop. Can you do?”
I actually started out as a shortstop, both in Little League and Babe Ruth League. In high school I was moved to center because of my speed, but I certainly remembered how to play the position.
“Si, I can do. I mean, yes, I can play shortstop. I’ve played quite a few games at shortstop.”
“Okay, we now see how you guysa play.”
We warmed up by playing toss for about 10 minutes then we took the field, Alex at catcher and me at short. We began with Alex throwing down to second. I took the throw. Wow, he had a gun. We threw it around the infield, then back to me and then home. The ball popped when it hit Alex’s mitt—I think he may have thought, wow, he has a gun!
Using a fungo bat, Rick orchestrated infield practice. I fielded every chance hit my way and also handled the double plays, just fine. I even gave our second baseman (his name was Antonio but he went by Tony) some hints on how to turn the double play more efficiently. I think Rick was impressed with my arm because every time I threw across the diamond, he’d say, “Gooda throw.” I later learned that the shortstop from last year’s team had numerous throwing errors. As for Alex, he was the real deal. No question, he could play college ball.
What stuck out like a sore thumb were cutoff plays on throws from the outfield—Rick hadn’t instructed the players correctly. On several occasions when outfielders were firing the ball to the infield their throws went to the wrong place given the situation. I noticed Alex had his hands on his hips and just shook his head. But we both were smart enough to hold our tongues. As we completed fielding practice, it was clear the team had some good defensive players. The outfielders were all gifted athletes. The first baseman was first class, and I rated Alex and myself above average. The third baseman and second baseman were fair fielders, but both had good arms.
Batting practice was next. Alex and I were to hit last. Each hitter got about twenty swings. The club’s first baseman and center fielder were excellent hitters. The first baseman, Gino, was a power hitter, while the center fielder, Carlo, was a line drive hitter. He hit the ball all over the field. The rest of the players ranged from fair to good.
After a little over an hour, Alex and I were called in to hit. Gelindo and Rick moved to a spot near the third base coaching box, presumably to get a better view. Alex, a right-handed batter, hit first. The pitcher had a decent pitching motion, but wasn’t throwing particularly hard—maybe in the mid 70’s. He wasn’t throwing near as hard as Sullivan was the day before. Alex took a couple of pitches then put on a hitting clinic. He was truly a hard hitting catcher. He was strictly a pull hitter, so all of his shots were left of center field. He hit several in the gap, one of which was off the wall. And on his last swing he knocked one well over the left field fence.
Now it was my turn. I stepped in right-handed. The pitcher threw five straight balls, none were close to the strike zone. Out of frustration I swung and missed the next pitch, which was high and away. I then proceeded to foul a couple off, hit a couple of grounders and then popped one up. I glanced at Gelindo and Rick who were looking at me and whispering to each other. I thought, if I don’t do something soon, I won’t be coming back. I heard Alex yell, “Come on Johnny. Show’em what you can do.”
I switched to the left side. I took the first pitch then lined one to right center that rolled to the fence. The pitcher, thank God, then threw me four pitches in a row that were all up and over the plate. I hit each further than its predecessor. All four cleared the fence in straight away right field with the last two clearing the bleachers and landing in the canal. Each of the last two traveled over 400 feet. Rick called time and yelled, “Johnny, that’s enough. We don’t wanta lose more balls.”
After practice Gelindo and Rick called Alex and me over. Rick did the talking.
“Alicks anda Shjohnny, weeda be honored to hava you to join our team; will you play for Venezia?”
Alex answered for both of us, “Si, Si, Signore Rick, we’ll play for you. Grazie.” I just smiled and nodded.
Gelindo explained our first game was in two weeks on May 13th and that we wouldn’t practice again until the week of the game. That week we’d practice on Monday through Thursday from two in the afternoon until five. On Friday we’d practice from three until six and then the team would eat together at Gelindo’s place. The game would be at one o’clock on Saturday.
There were six other teams in the league. We would play each twice—once at home and once away. We would play six Saturdays in a row and then have Saturday, June 24th off. We would then play six more Saturdays in a row until the season was complete on August 5th. After the first game we’d only practice on Fridays from three until six and then on Friday night (home games only) we’d dine at Gelindo’s. Gelindo indicated the practice schedule had been preapproved by Sergeant Wyman and our Squadron Commanders.
Alex and I were ecstatic that we made the team! We complimented and congratulated each other half a dozen times during our drive back to Aviano. Gelindo told us that we would be paid 25,000 lira (about $42) each game plus a transportation allowance for petrol. Our hotel bill (we would share a room), the Friday night meal and breakfast on Saturday would be picked up by Gelindo. We never knew what the Italian players were paid, if anything.