Federico Castagnini learned at a young age that his sporting interest was a little different from the other boys in his neighborhood.
They all wanted to play that sport where you kicked the ball. Castagnini wanted to play the one in which you hit it and caught it.
Having baseball fever growing up in Italy can make a young man feel a bit like an odd duck.
“My family was all baseball freaks,” Castagnini said. “I didn't know anything but baseball. I just loved the game.”
His passion led Castagnini, at age 17, to move from his home in Verona to Colorado. Two years later, he found himself chasing his dream to central Kansas. Now, he's in Omaha, playing third base for Creighton and loving every minute of it.
“Sometimes I look back on all this and think, 'This is weird,'” Castagnini said. “I know Italy is my home but this is, too. I've been here for so long. It's been five very important years in my life.”
Rest assured, Castagnini's coaches and teammates at Creighton are glad he embarked on a baseball odyssey that led him halfway around the world. In his first season as a Bluejay, Castagnini has become a key part on a team that is bidding to get back to the NCAA tournament for the third straight season.
Castagnini is hitting .340, has scored 23 runs and knocked in 17 more. Hitting in the second spot in the lineup, he leads the team with 12 sacrifices.
“He really fits in right there,” teammate Mike Gerber said. “He knows how to get the bunt down and move runners around, and he can drive the ball when he's asked to do that.
“He's consistently put good at-bats together and gets on base. He's really had an impact on our lineup.”
Castagnini's offensive contributions are a bonus for Creighton coach Ed Servais. One of Servais' main concerns coming into this season was how the Bluejays were going to replace Chance Ross, a two-year starter at third base.
Castagnini's ability to handle a position that he had never played before no longer worries Servais.
“It sometimes takes junior-college players a little longer to adjust to our system, but Freddy stepped right in,” Servais said. “From what we saw in the fall, we felt he could give us a little offense. He's given us more than we anticipated.
“And from what we had been told, we felt that he could be a pretty good defensive player for us.”
Mike Warren, the coach at Barton County (Kan.) Community College the past 29 seasons, had called Servais last spring to talk up Castagnini.
“He said Freddy was the best shortstop he's ever had,” Servais said. “You tend to listen when you hear that from a guy that has been around as long as he has. That sparked my interest.
“We followed up and brought him on for a visit. When we had him on campus for his visit, it was fun to be around him. He's experienced a lot, and he's very mature. You could talk to him a lot differently than a lot of recruits we bring in for visits.”
That's probably to be expected given that Castagnini's life experiences are vastly different than most of his teammates. When he was 12, Castagnini said, he decided he wanted to come to the United States to play baseball.
His dream became reality at 17. A team from Colorado was touring Italy. Castagnini approached the team's coach after he had played against the Coloradans and asked if there was any chance of moving to the United States.
Two months later, Castagnini was living with a family in Longmont, Colo., and attending high school.
“My whole life changed in a matter of weeks,” he said.
After two years of high school, Castagnini headed to Barton County, where he was a two-year starter, earning All-America honorable mention after his sophomore season.
Servais said Castagnini's background has helped make for a smooth transition to Creighton. The coach compares Castagnini's makeup to that of two other foreign players who have been a part of his program. Brad Dutton of Australia and Vicente Cafaro of Venezuela enjoyed productive two-year careers at Creighton after transferring from junior colleges.
“Our international players have brought a lot of personality to our program,” Servais said. “All three of the guys had character and personalities that set them apart from a lot of the rest of the guys. They were easy-going guys, but they enjoyed playing the game and weren't afraid to show it.”
As a youngster, Castagnini refused to let peer pressure steer him away from pursuing his dream. Baseball, he said, was in his blood.
“My dad played baseball and so did my brother,” he said. “My mom played softball. My whole family are baseball freaks.”
Castagnini returns home each year over the Christmas break to visit his family and friends. He said his family has visited him and seen him play in high school and junior college. His parents, Paolo Castagnini and Giovanna Armani, have yet to make the trip to Omaha.
“But they've said if we make the World Series, they'll be here,” Castagnini said. “That gives me a goal. I'd love to see them make it here for that.”
NOTES: For the second time this season, the Missouri Valley named Castagnini its player of the week. He hit .500 last week and drove in seven runs in helping the Bluejays go 4-0. ... CU is scheduled to play Iowa in a 6:05 p.m. game Tuesday in Iowa City. The game, which was rescheduled after being postponed March 27, is questionable with an 80 percent chance of rain.
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