Mathieu Silva could barely contain his excitement. His father, Christian, had gathered the family together in their hometown of Bollate just outside of Milan to share an announcement. One which detailed an opportunity unlike any young Italian baseball player had ever experienced.
Mathieu — a 13-year-old outfielder who represented Italy in the 2022 U-12 Baseball European Championship — was invited to become the first to participate in a special project spearheaded by the Italian Baseball and Softball Federation (FIBS). He was heading to America, due to spend the next nine months training at a school that has produced nine future MLB Draft selections since 1995. Standing arms raised and yelling at the top of his lungs with the invitation in his hand, Mathieu triumphantly celebrated the first step of a journey that could shape his entire baseball career.
“It’s a real dream,” Christian Silva said of his son’s opportunity via interpreter. “This is something that we take extremely seriously because of what he’s representing — the country, his national team, his local team, his family.”
That sense of importance is required considering how this project is viewed by all those involved. For Mathieu, it’s a chance to make significant strides in a sport for which he has unwavering passion. For those with FIBS, the young outfielder’s experience is being considered a foundational step in an increasing effort to grow the game of baseball in Italy.
While Mathieu serves as living proof that enthusiasm for baseball exists in his home country, the overall popularity of the sport is still a work in progress. Signs of momentum arrived in the form of increased viewership for Team Italy during the 2023 World Baseball Classic and recognition of Italian baseball from the International Olympic Committee, but the wave is not as substantial as members of FIBS would like it to be. Addressing this has required assistance from an Italian-American who boasted a Hall of Fame-caliber résumé.
“Mike Piazza has slowly helped us redefine the culture of baseball in Italy,” said Gianmarco Faraone, director of international special projects at FIBS. “There’s a focus now on youth development, with the goal in mind of having an all Italian born-and-bred team in the WBC.”
As Piazza prepared to manage Team Italy for the 2023 World Baseball Classic, Faraone spoke with his bench coach, Blake Butera, about this youth initiative. Faraone asked Butera, who was drafted by the Rays in 2015 and now serves as their farm director, where he developed as a player in his younger days. It was the moment Faraone first learned about Lake Castle, a private K-8 school in Madisonville, Louisiana, that Blake’s father Barry founded in 1995.
“The Castle,” as it’s sometimes referred, is where Blake and two other 2015 MLB Draft picks first experienced baseball training that, in the eyes of the school’s owner, is second to none.
“We have the best baseball program on the planet,” Barry Butera said. “No kids anywhere on the planet are coached better than they’re coached here. I can say that without reservation.”
Intrigued, Faraone had the elder Butera come to Italy to speak at the Italian Baseball and Softball Convention in Rimini and eventually visit with Piazza in Parma. Piazza laid out FIBS’ current approach with youth development — utilizing regional academies to identify the top 14- and 15-year-old players who could be sent to American high schools for further training. Butera quickly flagged what he viewed as a significant concern.
“I said, ‘Mike, 14, 15, 16 is a little too late,’” Butera said. “I told Piazza, ‘If you want to develop baseball players, you’ve got to get these kids when they’re 10, 11, 12 years old. Start teaching them the right fundamentals, the mechanics and understanding of how to play the game.’”
Butera, upon being asked how FIBS could do this, offered Piazza a solution — “Send a couple kids to my school.”
With Piazza on board, Faraone got to work. Bringing such a plan to fruition required receiving green lights from various school systems, governments and several members of FIBS. Faraone spent months selling the project and getting the buy-in needed to make it come to life.
But one significant factor was ultimately going to determine whether this endeavor would become successful. Faraone had his coach in Barry Butera, someone passionate enough about his heritage to do what was necessary to further the growth of Italian baseball. He just needed the most crucial piece of the puzzle.
“I don’t think there’s anyone that loves the Italian culture more than my dad does,” Blake Butera said. “He was willing and able to do anything he could to see this through. A lot of it was trusting Gianmarco with selecting the perfect kid for this.”
It didn’t take long for Faraone to realize that Mathieu met that qualification. A young standout once flagged as a potential future captain for the Italian national team, Mathieu boasted the leadership, positive attitude and perseverance Faraone felt was required to thrive in this experience, along with the fortitude necessary to handle what would be a significant culture shock on multiple levels.
“We knew that it had to be a player with that character, that mental toughness,” Faraone said. “[Mathieu] is a special player. He does things the right way. His ability to make adjustments in multiple countries that I saw firsthand was part of the reason that everyone helped select him as the first Italian middle school player to go over to the US.”
The project officially launched in August, when Mathieu and Christian made the overseas flight to Madisonville. While the journey itself lasted over 14 hours, it took far less time for Mathieu to realize just how intense his baseball training was about to become.
Practices at Lake Castle occur five days per week, lasting up to two hours each. The seventh and eighth graders practice on regulation fields with 90-foot base paths in front of Butera and three other coaches who monitor every movement of each player. The fundamentals and fielding instructed mimics that of big league play.
Mathieu quickly discovered he was a long way from home in more ways than one.
“The first couple of days he was out at practice, he was sitting there with his jaw hanging open,” Barry Butera said. “He could not believe what he was seeing. A kid from Italy at 13 years old has never been around a baseball program like that before. I’m talking about practices where, if you pick your nose wrong, it’s corrected.”
The talent gap, along with his father’s eventual return to Italy, made the initial transition trying for Mathieu. While his fielding had earned him national recognition in his home country, he soon realized how much room he had to grow in comparison to his teammates at Lake Castle.
“There have been ups and downs with the process,” Faraone said. “There’s been a lot of calls back home late at night. But knowing that Mathieu is in great hands under Barry Butera’s supervision, there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that this is something that is going to pay off for him long term.”
Adding to that reassurance was how Mathieu reacted to the intensity of his surroundings on the field. He understood the ground he needed to make up, and didn’t shy away from the work required to do so.
The length and frequency of practices did little to deter Mathieu’s desire to improve. Days on the field were followed by nights working out with his host, Lake Castle infield coach Manny Estrada. Even Mathieu’s return to Italy for Christmas wasn’t viewed as a chance for a breather.
“We worked out every single day since he came back from Christmas until the very day that he left,” Christian said. “I didn’t want him to stop the routines that he’s created and continue the ability for him to get better and be able to not miss stride at all when he returned to The Castle.”
Mathieu’s push to boost the physicality he lacked at the start of the program was also fueled by some less-than-subtle direction from his coach before the holiday.
“The kid could only do three push-ups,” Barry Butera said. “When he went back home for Christmas break, I said, ‘If you can’t do 20 push-ups in a row by the time you come back in January, I’m going to ship your rear end right back on the plane you came in on.’ Well, he can do 25 push-ups now without stopping.”
Strength exercise isn’t Mathieu’s only area of improvement. After just three months of work with Lake Castle coaches, as well as teammates who embraced him from the moment he arrived, Mathieu’s overall progress has been undeniable to those around him. From his fielding footwork to the quality of contact he is producing at the plate, there’s no shortage of proof when it comes to how far Mathieu has come since his arrival.
“He’s not even recognizable today compared to what he was in August,” Barry Butera said. “He’s a million times better than when he got here. By the time he goes back at the end of March, I have no doubt he’s going to be even significantly better than what he is right now.”
Mathieu meeting that expectation would be considered a crucial victory for FIBS. Advancing the growth of baseball in Italy remains a top priority for the organization. Despite having academies in place throughout the country, a lack of continuity among them has hindered their effectiveness.
As a result, Faraone has begun working with Piazza and fellow former Mets All-Star Matt Harvey in an attempt to build a sports complex in Rome. The facility would serve as a European hub for baseball and softball, a place that could offer consistent and dedicated training while expanding baseball’s reach across the entire continent.
For Faraone, Mathieu’s experience serves as an opportunity to get young Italian players the development they need before that complex is in place.
“We really hope that this is now a pipeline that we’re building from Italy to the U.S. for middle school kids,” Faraone said. “A way to get more and more of our players to the U.S., to the coaching, to the exposure to the daily activity and the ability to get better day in and day out until we could do that ourselves in Italy.”
In that regard, Mathieu’s journey is about far more than just a dramatic shift in practice habits. While he represents FIBS’ mission to advance baseball talent at a younger age, he’ll also be leaned upon as the organization pursues its dream project of a European baseball hub. The hope for all involved is that Mathieu will come home not only as an improved player, but also as someone willing to share his experiences and help influence future training methods for baseball in Italy.
“He thought he was a passionate player who really worked hard,” Barry Butera said. “Now he knows what working hard really is and what being a passionate baseball player is. He’s been exposed to something that now shows him that, if you really want to be a baseball player, this is what it’s all about.”
Expanding the program at Lake Castle serves as the next step for FIBS. Butera is on the hunt for members of the Madisonville community willing to host the next round of overseas participants, while Faraone has heard from many Italian families eager to be considered for future trips.
As for Mathieu, he remains fully focused on setting the bar for a project that could end up having a monumental impact on baseball’s growth in his home country.
“There’s a lot of pride going into how he’s doing things, making sure he’s doing things the right way,” Christian said. “He’s going to be that example for the next class of kids for August 2024. He needs to make sure he’s doing everything he possibly can to not only set the standard of excellence, but also be the ambassador of this program.”