Lexington Legends

Legends shortstop found baseball through Kevin Costner

Marten Gasparini slid into second base during a game this season at Asheville, N.C. Gasparini was scouted by more than 20 major league teams and eventually signed with the Kansas City Royals organization. At age 18, he is the youngest player on the Legends roster.
Marten Gasparini slid into second base during a game this season at Asheville, N.C. Gasparini was scouted by more than 20 major league teams and eventually signed with the Kansas City Royals organization. At age 18, he is the youngest player on the Legends roster. AP

You’ve heard of professional athletes enjoying “Hollywood endings” to their playing careers? Lexington Legends shortstop Marten Gasparini had a “Hollywood beginning” to his.

Gasparini’s unlikely path from growing up in Ruda, Italy, to receiving a $1.3 million signing bonus from the Kansas City Royals was, in a way, inspired by Kevin Costner.

When Gasparini was little, his mom, Wendy, was teaching English in Italy. To help her students master the second language, she would show a subtitled version of the Costner baseball movie, For Love of the Game.

In the 1999 film, Costner plays an aging Detroit Tigers pitching star who, in his final start in the big leagues, is throwing a perfect game against the New York Yankees while reflecting between innings on how his relationship with the love of his life (played by actress Kelly Preston) went astray.

Whatever its effectiveness in teaching English to Italians, the movie had a profound impact on one Italian boy.

By making him curious about baseball.

“That movie, that’s definitely one of the first times I ever saw baseball in action,” Gasparini said Thursday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. “I thought (baseball) was real interesting, something I could get into.”

Lacking even rudimentary baseball equipment, Gasparini “picked up a tennis ball and a stick” and drafted his older sister, Kristen, into improvised backyard baseball games.

“My sister and my buddies, we used to play, like if the (batted tennis ball) goes to this tree branch, it’s a single,” Gasparini said. “If it goes higher, it’s a double. And, if it goes over the tree, it’s a home run. I thought it was really fun. And, after that, I looked for a (youth baseball) team to join. And that’s how I started.”

From that unlikely beginning, Gasparini would rise through the Italian Baseball Academy to become the most highly touted baseball prospect yet produced in Europe. When Gasparini turned 16 in 2013, MLB.com ranked him the fourth best international prospect eligible to be signed.

His parents — Gasparini’s father, Federico, is Italian; his mom is English of Jamaican descent — found themselves deluged with representatives of American professional baseball teams proposing big-money contracts for their teenaged son.

“They had a lot of scouts for guests at their home,” Gasparini said of his parents. “The first time was probably a little too much for them to handle, but as time went on, they got a little bit more experienced and had better ideas of what to ask. If you asked them right now, they would tell you it’s been a crazy time in their life, life-changing to have all that attention toward our family all of a sudden. But I think they enjoyed that time. We got to meet a lot of good people from the (pro baseball) teams.”

Eventually, more than 20 Major League Baseball organizations scouted Gasparini, including the deep-pocketed Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees.

He chose the Royals.

“Kansas City won out at a personal level more than as a franchise,” Gasparini said. “I’m a firm believer, I should play for the people, not the logo. … If I have some people I truly believe are going to help me get through my career in the best possible way, I am going to put my trust in them. I felt like that kind of relationship was strongest with the Kansas City Royals at that point.”

At the ripe old age of 16, Gasparini came to America. His transition into American baseball was smoothed by the fact that, thanks to his mom, he speaks English fluently. “Everybody in Italy wants to come to the United States,” Gasparini said. “It was exciting. It was new. It was surprising to see all these things.”

The 6-foot, 195-pound shortstop spent most of 2014 in Burlington, N.C., playing in the rookie-level Appalachian League. Last year, he was in Idaho Falls, Idaho, in the short-season Class A Pioneer League.

Riding buses around the back roads in the minor leagues has given Gasparini a unique look into the differences between America and Europe.

“Everything is huge,” Gasparini said of the United States. “Roads are huge. There’s huge distances between cities. The United States, it’s just a huge country. Italy, instead, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. And the rhythm of the life is different. I’d say we take it a little bit more easy over there in Europe as a general rule, kind of slow down a little bit more. We eat later. We kind of take our time with breakfast. Everything is a bit more of a rush here.”

A year ago, the switch-hitting Gasparini led the Pioneer League in triples (10), stole 26 bases and hit .259. Baseball America ranked him the seventh best prospect in the Royals system entering 2016.

At 18 (he will turn 19 on May 24), the shortstop is the youngest player on the Legends roster. Not surprisingly, the transition to the full-season Class A South Atlantic League — where former college players in their early 20s dot rosters — has been challenging for Gasparini.

Through his first 21 games, Gasparini has more errors (16) than hits (14). He is batting .182 with 32 strikeouts in 77 at-bats. He has hit two home runs (both from the left side), driven in 10 runs and swiped five bases.

“Sometimes you can tell he’s getting down,” Legends Manager Omar Ramirez said. “That’s our job, to stay positive with him. ‘Hey, you are going to get it, just chill, just relax, it takes time.’ We’re just going to stay positive with him, especially because he’s the youngest on the team.”

Patience with Gasparini could yield a big payoff.

“My goodness, he’s an athlete,” Ramirez said. “I think he’s one of the fastest players we have in the whole organization. He’s fast. And he’s getting bigger. He’s built, and he’s only going to get stronger. It will be nice to see him two years from now, to see how big he is going to be and, with all the ability he has, to see him put it into play.”

New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius (Netherlands) was the only European-born player in the big leagues on Opening Day, 2016.

If Gasparini someday gives Italy a presence in the Show, you might say it will be For Love of the Game.

“I’ve seen that movie, probably, dozens of times now,” Gasparini said. “I skip the romance every time. For me, it was always about the baseball.”