Thom Loverro: Nationals' Rizzo celebrates his Italian heritage

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Thom Loverro

Mike Rizzo is a passionate man.

The Washington Nationals general manager was passionate in his defense of rookie Bryce Harper when Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels plunked him.

He is passionate about his reasons for shutting down star pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

It's who he is. Like Rita Moreno proclaimed throughout the film "The Four Seasons" -- "I'm Italian!"

Rizzo is Italian and proud of that heritage. So Sunday's event at Nationals Park -- Italian-American Heritage Day -- has special meaning for him.

"Growing up in Chicago, we were a typical Italian family," Rizzo said. "My mother was half Calabrese, and my father was full Sicilian. My mom always said that's why I was so hard-headed."

He grew up in a neighborhood of bungalow homes in Chicago with his two brothers and sister. They had typical big family meals every Sunday that have kept the family close to this day.

"We're very close knit," he said. "There was a time when three of us used to live on the same cul-de-sac."

During those family meals, a young Mike Rizzo would hear his father, Phil -- a baseball scout himself -- talk passionately about the greatest player he ever saw.

"We would talk about the greats of the game -- Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle -- and my dad would always say the greatest of all time was Joe DiMaggio," Rizzo said. "A lot of that, of course, is because of our Italian heritage.

"We always appreciated it when Italians would do well. You're proud, and you want to pound your chest a little."

The Lido Civic Club of Washington, a service club that was established in 1929, helped organize Italian-American Heritage Day at Nationals Park. Phil Finelli, the club president, had a similar upbringing to Rizzo's -- except here in Washington -- listening to his father tell stories of the great Italian players of his time.

"My father was discharged from the Navy after serving on a PT boat in WWII," Finelli said. "At that time he hated basketball, and even though there were quite a few Italians playing professional football, his 'heroes' were Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Fiorello LaGuardia and John Kennedy of PT-109 fame -- in that order.

"He told me stories about Cookie Lavagetto, Carl Furillo and Al Gionfriddo of the 'Italian' Dodgers beating the 'Italian' Yankees in Game 4 of the 1947 World Series in the game called the 'Cookie Game,'?" Finelli said. "It was more about all the Italians on both teams, not that Bill Bevens of the Yankees had a no-hitter after 82Ú3 innings."

Today, Finelli is a Nationals fan -- particularly a fan of Italian-American players Mark DeRosa and Steve Lombardozzi -- and, of course, the architect of the Nationals. The club honored Rizzo this winter with their "Man of the Year" award.

It's good to be an Italian baseball fan in Washington these days.

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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