The Royals organization has made history by signing 16-year-old Marten Gasparini of Alture, Italy, for a reported record-breaking $1.3 million -- the largest bonus ever for a European baseball prospect. That figure smashes the previous high of $800,000, paid to Max Kepler-Rozycki of Berlin by the Twins in 2009.
Both the Kepler-Rozycki and Gasparini signings, along with several other European players, provide a glimpse into the growing stature of baseball as an international sport beyond the historic hotbeds of North America, Latin America and a few countries in the Far East.
Like many professional and Major League players born in Europe over the years, Kepler-Rozycki has a family tie to the United States. His mother, Kathy, is the daughter of a United States Army officer and grew up in various locations, including Alaska, California, France, Washington, D.C., and Texas. His father, Marek, was born in Poland but defected to Germany in 1982. Kepler-Rozycki's athletic talent has a distinct genetic component, as both his parents are professional ballet dancers.
Gasparini's development as a baseball player is a little different. The son of a native Italian father and a Jamaican mother, Gasparini grew up in London. His interest in baseball can be traced to the presence of a local baseball club in Cervignano, Italy, not far from his hometown of Alture in the northeastern part of the country near the Slovenia border. His skills have since been honed at the Italian Baseball Academy in Tirrenia, Italy.
Gasparini has played for several Italian national youth clubs in international competition, including the 2012 15U World Championship in Chihuahua, Mexico, and the 18U World Championship in Seoul, South Korea.
Major League Baseball has had many European-born players over the years, but nearly all of them were either born to American parents overseas or were members of immigrant families that made their way to the United States. Kepler-Rozycki and Gasparini perhaps represent a new wave of European-born-and-raised players that could spur even greater interest in the game throughout the region.
In fact, should Gasparini reach Kansas City, he would not be the first Italian-born-and-raised player to make the big leagues. That honor goes to Alex Liddi of Sanremo, Italy, who debuted with the Seattle Mariners in 2011.
An additional interesting note regarding the Royals and players born outside the United States: Although he never played in Kansas City, the Royals selected the only Major League player born in the Soviet Union. There have been eight Major League players born in Russia, but the first seven pre-dated the Soviet Union (1922-1991). The only Major League player born in the USSR was right-handed pitcher Victor Cole, the Royals' 14th-round selection in the 1988 First-Year Player Draft.
Cole was born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Russia, on Jan. 23, 1968. His parents later moved to the United States. The Royals traded Cole to the Pirates in exchange for outfielder Carmelo Martinez on May 3, 1991. He made eight pitching appearances for the 1992 Pirates.
Baseball remains America's pastime, but it has a growing international flavor, and we are all the better for it. Welcome to the Royals organization, Marten. Viva Italia!
Curt Nelson is the director of the Royals Hall of Fame and has worked for the Royals since the 1999 season. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.